“Christianity starts not with us looking for God but with God looking for us.” ~Bishop Donald Hying
This Advent I treated myself to an afternoon retreat of Reflections on the Advent Gospels with Bishop Hying at St. Joseph’s Parish in Wauwatosa. It was a bittersweet occasion in which I had an opportunity to learn from a spiritual giant and a beautiful friend, in person, one more time, before he leaves Milwaukee to become the Bishop of Gary, Indiana on January 6th. I felt compelled to take notes so I wouldn’t miss one bit of his wisdom. I've certainly learned an awful lot from him in the past seven years that I've been blessed with his friendship and I'm hopeful that I'll continue to reap many spiritual benefits from all that he has taught me over the years. What I’ve gleaned from his Advent talk follows.
Being Present to Now
Bishop Hying often speaks of St. Bernard’s Three Advents: the Advent when we prepare for Christ’s birth, the Advent when we prepare for the final coming of Christ and the Advent of the Present Moment. He said that it’s easy to always be somewhere else in our mind and not to be fully engaged with where we are. But it’s essential that we try to focus on the present because this moment will never come again. We’ll never be in this same particular place with these same particular people again. The greatest enemy of the spiritual life is the intensity of the stimulation around us. The secret of the saints is that they were profoundly engaged in the present moment. It’s in the present moment that God speaks to us. On Mount Horeb God doesn’t tell Moses, “I was” or “I will be”. He says “I AM.”
Bishop Hying spoke about the difference between Kairos time and Kronos time. Kronos time, he said, is like when we go to work and the day drags because we’re not enjoying what we’re doing. Kairos time is like being on vacation or spending time with someone we love. Six hours of Kairos time can feel like only one. The Mass is Kairos time where we are united with all of heaven. We are never alone at Mass. All of the angels and saints are right there with us. When we step into the Eucharist, we step into the vast eternity of Christ. The mystery of the Christian life is to see the unfolding of our lives as Kairos time. We live in a culture that is spiritually asleep. If we can abide in the present moment then life unfolds as it is meant to be for us.
“How do we live in the world but as a monastic at heart?” he asked. John the Baptist reminds us that our faith must be public and inculturated. Our faith is personal but it can’t be private. If the apostles kept their faith private we would never have come to know Jesus. The generations that follow us are dependent upon our public testimony. In the New Evangelization we look at people who are already in our lives and give witness to them. We need to cultivate the soil of another person’s life and bring them into a community of faith. We are to lay the groundwork for Jesus to begin His work like John the Baptist did for Jesus.
Humility as a Way of Life
Bishop Hying went on to speak about humility. He said that virtues are like a salad buffet and humility is the plate you put everything else on. If you don’t have humility, nothing else will stick. Humility is knowing who we are and knowing both our greatness and our littleness. How do we respond when we’re not noticed or recognized or when someone else gets thanked for something we did?
Humility sets us free. We don’t have to try to be anything more than we are. God is more humble than we are. If I can’t let God be God in my life, then I always have to be strong and right and in control. How freeing it is to acknowledge my weakness and my need for God and to let the Lord carry me! It’s freeing to say “I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m a sinner, and I’m weak and needy and uncertain.”
St. Paul spoke of the thorn in his side and how, when he asked God to remove it, God told him he had to keep it so that he’ll know that power is made perfect in weakness. Allowing God to be God allows us to be us. Humility is a gift. It’s a gift to be hidden, unknown and misunderstood. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what others think of us, it only matters what God thinks of us.
Bishop Hying compared the Annunciation and the Agony in the Garden as examples of humility and openness to God’s life-changing plan. Both Mary and Jesus are asked to accept something impossible. Mary said yes to the Incarnation and Jesus said yes to our salvation. They both occur while they are radically alone and they are both asked to embrace the impossible and say yes to it. It’s tempting to think that everything was easy for them because of their holiness and who they are, but their humanity had to tempt them to say no, and yet, they both said yes.
For this reason we honor Mary because in her we see perfect discipleship. In her maternity, which is predicated on her faith and attentiveness to God’s impulses and initiatives, she gives herself to that plan. In the Immaculate Conception she is a stainless piece of glass, immaculate with no stain. The light shines through her. Because of her clarity, we don’t see the glass but are overwhelmed by the light of Christ that shines through her.
The bishop asks, “In what ways am I still striving to be God, to be at the center of attention, more important than I am? How can this Advent take that desire away from me? Like John the Baptist, we need to say, “I am not the Christ.” What is it in my life now that God is inviting me to embrace, that seems difficult, and that I should say yes to? We need to ponder this question all our lives because God is always asking something new of us. The saints were so free of self that they allowed God to use them however He saw fit.
Advent is realizing that in the Incarnation of Christ everything has changed for us. If we can understand this and accept it, if we can be truly present in the now, and live our lives with humility, then Christmas becomes more fully what it was meant to be.