Happy Advent! Though it doesn’t quite roll of the tongue as well as other greetings, we are indeed joyful as we enter this final week of preparation for Christ’s Nativity. We’ve now entered into the octave before Christmas, with special prayers as well as antiphons (the “Oh antiphons” to Mary), as we get ready.
One of the joys of priestly and religious life is the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, a set of daily prayers offered at different hours of the day (thus the name) every day. One of the hours, the Office of Readings, not only includes the psalms and other selections from Sacred Scripture but also selections from the Church fathers. Last Thursday’s text was from Saint Augustine and I’d like to share it in it’s entirety:
From a discourse on the Psalms by Saint Augustine, Bishop
The desire of your heart constitutes your prayer
In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men. Yet when a man’s heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such had happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues.
Who then knows the cause of man’s groaning? All my desire is before you. No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; but before you is all my desire. If your desire lies open to him who is your Father and who sees in secret, he will answer you.
For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.
Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.
The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.
The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.
And all my desire is before you. What if the desire of our heart is before him, but not our groaning? But how is that possible, since the groaning is the voice of our desire? And therefore it is said: My groaning is not concealed from you. It may be concealed from men, but it is not concealed from you. Sometimes God’s servant seems to be saying in his humility: My anguish is not concealed from you. At other times he seems to be laughing. Does that mean that the desire of his heart has died within him? If the desire is there, then the groaning is there as well. Even if men fail to hear it. it never ceases to sound in the hearing of God.
I don’t know how that strikes you, but I imagine I’m not alone in finding Advent to be a mixed blessing. Oh it’s wonderful, to be sure – I delight in the Christmas music (year-round, in fact!), the festive decorations, and the little traditions that our family has for the season.
But Advent is also a pressure cooker, pretty much starting from Thanksgiving and running through Christmas. We’re making preparations, setting up those festive decorations, hosting other people, cooking, preparing rooms, buying presents (and there’s always that one hard-to-please relative!), and…. the list goes.
Dear God, please let it be done!
Of course it’s all blessing, and we are joyful & grateful for both the Advent season and Christ’s Nativity. But I know that for myself, this extra tension allows to surface the problems that during the rest of the year, I can convince myself are under control. Worries, anxieties, frustrations, sins – they’re suddenly much harder to deal with. “Pray always”? How am I supposed to do that in the middle of all of this?!?
And then along comes St. Augustine with this assertion – that our desires are prayers.
As if to confirm this, the reading given to us for today from Isaiah has this amazing conversation between Ahaz and God. The Lord says “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!”. And Ahaz answers in a way that resonates deeply with me:
‘Yeah….I’m not gonna trust that. No way – not doing it.’
Even God’s response is relateable, as exasperated, He basically throws His grace and gift not only to Ahaz, but to all of mankind:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
How much the Lord wants to hear and answer the desires of our hearts, the longings that we hold within! And while we struggle to keep them hidden, to avoid putting them to words, we meanwhile wonder how to pray, what is the ‘right’ way to present ourselves to God, and question if we’re worthily presenting ourselves to Him.
And this is what the prophet Isaiah and Saint Augustine are addressing – and what the Nativity of the Lord is all about: that God wants to speak to the desires of our heart.
The word ‘desire’ has been twisted in modern times, given the a salacious tenor, and associated with sin – most often tied to sex and commercialism. But every desire, every longing, is rooted in God, starts with the knowledge that I am lacking something and need to be filled from the Source of goodness.
How has Advent been for you? Maybe it’s been good, maybe it’s been a struggle – perhaps you find yourself echoing the doubt of Ahaz amid the invitations of the season: ‘I’m not so sure….this feels selfish, unworthy, unacceptable to God.’
Again and again, the Lord gently offers the invitation to trust Him, to place ourselves unabashedly in His presence, to open our hearts to Him – and to receive the wonders He has prepared for us, wonders beyond our imagining.
This Sunday marks the second day of the octave before Christmas. What are your longings, your desires? How can the Lord answer your prayers? Maybe they’re specific, maybe inarticulate – but that unsettledness is the very prayer the Lord hopes to hear.
Come, let rest in God. Let us we ask Him to speak to our desires, to give us the confidence to present them without fear trusting that even if they are imperfect He will transform them and make them fruitful, and that we may receive Christ, Emmanuel, the answer to prayerful desires.