In the back pew of the adoration chapel, I folded my arms and slouched before the God who wouldn’t talk to me. It was Advent, and I was wrenching in the throes of undergraduate existentialist angst. Prayer had once suffused my days with joy and meaning; the time I spent in the chapel had gone by quickly and pleasantly, and when I left I felt full to bursting with quiet elation. Now prayer was a process I dreaded: grueling, tedious, utterly devoid of consolation. I was in agony. I resented God’s silence and inactivity, and I told Him so. Repeatedly.
I glanced back at the clock on the wall. I’d been sitting in that chapel for three unproductive, spiritually arid quarters of an hour. I shifted in my seat, worried a hangnail, failed to suppress a sigh. Maybe I should just leave.
Straight ahead of me was the host in its monstrance. Oh, Jesus, I prayed, my tone full of gentle despair, not unlike some exhausted person pleading with a puppy or a small child who simply will not behave. It’s Advent, I prayed. It’s almost Christmas. Can’t I at least feel Your presence now, of all times in the year?
I thought again about leaving. Instead, I reached for some rosary beads.
The Jesuits do this thing called imaginative prayer. First, you pick a Scripture passage. Then you imagine the scene in vivid detail: see the sun glinting off the Sea of Galilee, hear the waves lapping on the shore and the call of gulls, feel the breeze from off the water and the sand beneath your feet. The idea is that God can use your imagination to communicate with you. I didn’t feel particularly optimistic, but I figured an exercise in futility never hurt anyone. If and when this method of prayer failed to produce any emotion in me, I would shrug into my jacket and go home. Meanwhile, I started with the first joyful mystery, the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). I imagined the scene.
Mary stands in the kitchen at Nazareth, cheerfully busy and dreadfully young. She hums to herself as she kneads bread and sorts lentils. She washes a bowl and turns to set it back on the shelf. Before she can finish turning, the bowl crashes to the floor and shatters, and Mary’s hands fly to her face with an intake of breath, because suddenly there’s an angel in front of her. He is preternaturally tall, even if you don’t factor into his height the blood orange wings that tower above his gnarled curls. He is handsome in a grim sort of way, his brows heavy and the lines of his face fiercely drawn.
The angel delivers his strange greeting and his even stranger news. Mary listens with wonder free of incredulity. She shakes a little. When the angel has said what he has to say, she opens her hands and nods her consent that it should be done unto her according to God’s will, even though fear has not quite left her eyes. A swift flash of light, and the angel is gone. Mary looks around the home she was so happy in just a minute ago. Now the air seems to pulse with a threatening unfamiliarity. She stands like that for a long time. At last she kneels and gathers up the fragments of the broken dish.
I was kneeling, too — back in the adoration chapel, before the Blessed Sacrament, fingering those plastic beads. I wasn’t quite what you would call consoled, but the charged feeling that ran through my veins was the closest thing to consolation I’d experienced in a long while. At long last God was talking to me, and what God was saying was: wait. Trust. Faith isn’t easy for anyone.
We may call the Annunciation a “joyful” mystery, but surely the experience was a mixed one for Mary herself. I believe that saying “yes” to God did indeed bring joy to Mary, but that “yes” was also the beginning of terrible responsibility and heartache for her, heartache that would extend all the way to Calvary. In the meantime, she had all of the usual anxieties of the unexpectedly pregnant (and then some). Through all the uncertainty, in the face of every overwhelming obstacle, she was able to trust that God loved and guided her, whether she sensed God’s presence or not.
Certainly this isn’t the only or the best way to interpret the Annunciation. Nevertheless, it was the version I needed that day. While praying imaginatively upon that first chapter of Luke didn’t clear my confusion, it kept me from feeling alone in my confusion. I still didn’t know what God was up to, but at least there was some comfort in the thought that she who was closest to God could also be startled and perplexed by Him.
I walked out of that chapel into a very gray December. In former days, prayer-bliss would have lightened my step and brought out the sparkle in my surroundings. More recently my tread had been heavier, my eyes downcast. Now, shoving my hands into my pockets as I turned onto my street, I walked with steady determination. I wasn’t rapturous, but I wasn’t despairing either. I had been given the assurance I craved at a time and in a form I never expected. I knew what I had to do: to wait — patiently, lovingly, trustingly — for God.
Happy Advent. I wish you peaceful waiting.