Monday, December 06, 2010

The pilgrimage of Advent

Celebrating Advent makes no sense to the modern Western mind. With Christmas approaching, with all the arrangements to be made and things to be done, it seems the last thing that one should do is take time to be quiet, to retire, to be still and wait. How unproductive is that? It makes no sense to our mechanistic mentality, with its focus on the bottom line and the return on investment. What's the tangible benefit of this squandering of resources, of this apparent idleness, when there's so much that could be done? Is this the most productive use of our time?

In a few days the film production of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will hit the theaters. This is a film of one of my favorite stories from the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis' classic set of tales for children of all ages. In Dawn Treader, the young King Caspian sets forth from Narnia on a voyage through the Eastern sea. His stated goal is to learn what happened to seven Narnian lords, partisans of his father's, who had been sent on a voyage by his usurping uncle Miraz to get them out of the way. But one of his crew, the valiant talking mouse Reepicheep, hopes for even more. It is his dream to travel as far east as possible, even coming to Aslan's Country beyond the edge of the world (one can do this sort of thing in Narnia.)

The voyage of the Dawn Treader is a classic pilgrimage - a journey of struggle and difficulty toward an altruistic or spiritual goal. Pilgrimages have fallen greatly out of favor these days, primarily due to their low return on investment. Pilgrims carry no cargo, nor do they do business along the way. The usefulness of pilgrimages is opaque to the economic thinker because the reason for pilgrimage is that the pilgrim be changed by the journey. To the economic thinker, the participant is always the subject, the economic agent; that upon which he acts is the object of production. The pilgrim understands himself as the object, to be changed by what he encounters along the way. While the economic agent seeks to do profitable work, the pilgrim seeks to be worked upon.

And so it proves for the voyagers aboard the Dawn Treader: they encounter many things, some of them beautiful and some quite difficult. They learn things about themselves and each other, and grow in the process. The further they travel, the more they see the hidden hand of Aslan behind their travels, and have to submit to His sometimes painful ministrations as they go. It is not a journey of conquest, or exploration for economic advantage, but of discovery for discovery's sake - which in turn implies trusting Someone greater than themselves. Terrible and tragic things could (and almost do) happen to them, yet they continue onward, trusting that they will be rewarded. And their trust proves firm, for the One in whom they trust is faithful. They end their voyage as different people than they were.

Advent can be a pilgrimage, for even if we don't travel anywhere, we can surrender our time to Him, and "travel" in prayer and solitude toward Bethlehem. We can be downright profligate with our precious time, and squander our attention and our effort, to bring ourselves to the side of the Manger. We can be still, and give the Infant permission to change us to be like Him in humility and trust. We have to be ready to accept that change, to permit ourselves to be made into different people.

For in the end, Advent is about trust. We humans with our economic outlook geared toward optimizing the use of scarce resources have to entrust ourselves to Someone whose resources are infinite. We have to give our time to Him, to sacrifice our urgings to Do Something while we wait for Him to do what He will in us. We probably won't see the resources He brings to bear. We aren't comfortable the idea that He's as likely to do something to us as through us, for while we may acknowledge at the intellectual level our need to change, we don't like those great Hands descending to reshape us. It hurts our pride at least, and probably much more. We resist being changed. If there is reinventing to be done, we want to be the ones do to it to ourselves - with all angles examined and all ramifications considered. But with the most critical changes we need, we have no more power to change ourselves than we have to lift ourselves by our own hair - or the boy Eustace had to remove his own dragon skin in Dawn Treader.

For those familiar with the story, that is an excellent image for Advent. We need to be un-dragoned, to have our sinful dragonish nature ripped off us by Aslan's claws. We may try a few times on our own, but the result will always be futility. We may be able to scrape off a few externals, but we'll still be dragons beneath. We can't rip ourselves as deeply as we need for the surgery to succeed. We need to stop trying, lie down, and let Him do what He wishes.

The question is: will we have the courage to do that? Or will we find something else to distract us? After all, Christmas is coming...

6 comments:

Christina said...

Yes, yes and yes. The transformative journey is so out of vogue, it even extends out beyond Christmas and into other areas. In education the idea that it is pointless to teach the arts and to teach writing other than business writing. It is the trial of education that changes my students not just the skills I teach them. Same in life. As it is above so it is below. Thanks you for posting this

Tim Arlen said...

Roger, this is brilliant. Thanks for this. It pretty much hits the nail right on the head not only for the average person, but for me as well. To constantly fight the urge to "do something" and rather wait upon God is far too scarce a thing for me!

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