Combat emptiness with Advent

  • November 28, 2013

Do you ever get that empty feeling? For me, it often happens in grocery stores — nowadays so big you could easily get your day’s exercise there — crammed with foods, tastes, colours.

Some people go into grocery stores just to be in a “clean, well-lighted place.” Then why do I get that empty feeling when I’m there?

Once, a friend and I spent a month with abandoned children in a remote village in another country. No cars, no Internet, no running water. Hearing the sheep munching the cornstalks was an event.

One day we walked over to a neighbouring village to see what was exciting there. We found a seven-by-five foot booth, with a woman leaning through the open window. Seeing a few stocked shelves behind her, we purchased a dusty packet of tea. Only after walking around the village did we realize we’d been to the grocery store when we visited the booth. Sometimes I amuse myself trying to calculate how many dozen booths would fit into one Canadian grocery store.

So why, in full-to-bursting palatial stores, do I feel bleak and empty? Why is the woman in the village booth a comforting image?

Different things trigger that emptiness. I don’t know anyone who never feels it. Many of us feel it at Christmas. Many don’t, because they make sure they don’t: by entertaining, getting and spending, working and partying, dressing and visiting. Obliterating the darkness with artificial light is understandable when bleakness lurks. If the ancients who invented mid-winter solstice festivals could have blotted out the darkness with neon, undoubtedly they would have.

The season called Christmas, or “the holidays” — let’s call these weeks “Xmas” — generally begins Nov. 1, finishing by noon Dec. 25. Like the overflowing giant grocery stores, this cluttered, light-flooded, noisy Xmas can be soul-destroying.

For those of us looking to cancel Xmas, I offer four options.

First, courtesy of the Grinch: steal all the material things and dump them down Mount Crumpet. This simple method, unfortunately, is increasingly difficult, as we have no sleighs big enough to hold the contents of even one big-box store.

Second, courtesy of Ebenezer Scrooge: stay at work all day and all night, and keep your employees from smiling. This one is still feasible, and many do it — including those who sell us Xmas-spice lattes all through December.

Third, get out of it. It’s getting tough to travel far enough, however, and may be unfair to leave others all alone with Xmas.

Fourth: schedule Advent. (Nota bene: this method is not to be confused with scheduling December Xmas concerts, sales and parties in churches.)
How can scheduling Advent help us cancel Xmas? By giving us something: our own inner selves. Empty though they may feel. Full of pain though they probably are. Yet, paradoxically, rich and mysterious, infinitely more than we can imagine.

Christmas only begins as darkness arrives on Dec. 24, and continues for an octave of days and more. But we aren’t expected to bungee-jump head-first into its depths. We’re led into it, little by little, up to 28 days in advance. That’s Advent.

It’s a gentle invitation to stop, look and listen to the inner emptiness — instead of escaping or cluttering it. Fear can keep us from ever looking up and seeing sunshine or starlight, can keep us chained to our addictions and violence. Advent encourages us to face our fears, together, and discover their hidden gift.

The Christmas reading (Luke 2:1-21) is a brief little story. It carries clues on how to face our fears and stop, look and listen to the emptiness. Here are three.

Silence. Stop running. Let it embrace you. Luke 2 is full of silence: in Joseph’s acceptance of Mary’s pregnancy, their long journey to fulfill government requirements, Mary’s pondering heart.

Suffering and Glory. Let each highlight the other. The labouring shepherds saw the night sky lit up and heard the song of angels, and beheld salvation in a homeless child. Trust that the emptiness, like the Bethlehem hillside, is a field of glory, which we can learn to see and hear.

Faces. The woman in the booth comforts my bleak, faceless grocery-store moments. With her, I encountered not an endless multiplicity of things but a person who handed me something I needed. The Gospel is full of faces, reminding us that we too have a face, though we can’t see it except in one another.

May these three clues, and many more strewn throughout Advent, be our guides, our little candles leading us into the darkness of our true selves.

(Marrocco can be reached at