December 10 is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton who died in 1968 in Bangkok in Thailand 47 years ago, and yet for many of us his wisdom remains vibrantly alive and he can still act as a spiritual guide through his writing and life experience.
The great thing about Merton is that there is so much – perhaps sometimes too much – to read and I was pleased to turn this week to his Meditations on Liturgy which includes a chapter on, ‘Advent: Hope or Delusion?’ One of the reasons that Merton can speak still to so many is that he is an authentic voice, and a voice that offers up an acknowledgement of the complexity of what it might mean to believe in God. He writes about the anguished seriousness of Advent, and contrasts this with what he calls ‘the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture.’ He attacks the inauthenticity of Christmas as it is currently celebrated, and urges a more reflective stance during Advent when we accept our problems and our tragedies in the world rather than covering them with slogans and unsatisfactory comforts.
Merton was writing this in 1963 and he comments on the existential position that involves a ‘frank acceptance of hopelessness in the face of life.’ Here he is thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre who queried why Christians always gave themselves a cosy answer to a desperate question that they lacked the courage to ask. Merton’s response is rather to accept the fact that the world is other than it might be, and indeed that we would want it to be, but that this does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that his will can still be done.
In that sense Advent is a celebration of that hope, even in the midst of the collapse of meaning. For Advent is the coming of the new, rather than the renewal of the old, and where the past is transformed into the present. Advent demands, Merton writes nothing more or less than a return to what he calls the ’emptiness’ of faith, and it may mean the destruction of the false image which we may have set up of God through our projections and wish fulfilments. Christ can only live in us if we are empty of our own fullness. This is why the mystery of Advent is a time of austerity and of poverty and of limitation. Merton ends his meditation in this way:
‘Advent, in the sombre years of “wars and rumours of wars” reminds us that though our work may be judged, and found wanting, even totally consumed by fire, it is in the very fire that destroys our imperfect works that we ourselves can be saved.’