“Because you have to prepare the hearts of others for the coming of Jesus Christ, you must first of all dispose your own hearts to be entirely filled with zeal, in order to render your words effective in those whom you instruct.” 
– St. John Baptist de La Salle –
This has been a good training year for the season of Advent, for waiting and waiting and waiting a little longer. A vaccine? An upcoming election? A change in systemic racism? Reform of Church clericalism, among other things? A visit to friends, relatives, neighbors, even strangers? A county COVID-19 status to a better color? An in-person, three-dimensional, messily immersive Mass?
But Advent is not about the “let’s get back to some kind of normal” sort of waiting. It is a more appealing and optimistic kind of waiting because it is “a season to get in touch with our deepest yearnings. Like Mary, we wait patiently, preparing a womb within which Christ can be born.” It’s more like waiting for spring, for the re-emergent flowering of deep, rich, wonderful things, bringing their glorious fragrances, complexities, colors, and sheer beauty. It is a springtime for our souls.
For each of us, we remember different life-moments of such springtime experiences, dotting the landscape of our lives like a field of daffodils. The conversation with a professor in college, who took your stumbling attempt at a question about his presentation, articulated the question better than you ever could, and then kindly explained why your assumptions were wrong. The visit to a museum where you turned a corner and a single El Greco painting, isolated in its own space, stunned you with its quiet intensity and drama, elevating the power of art to a whole new level. An encounter with a small group of students on retreat, for whom you were able to be the attentive listener they craved for, an experience that deepened your appreciation of accompaniment — by you, by others, by God — as graced opportunities. The sermon or reading that answered a burning question or shaped a difficult decision. The reluctant response to a request to do, to go, or to be available for something, which led to unexpected shores and brand-new horizons. All these are manifestations of the deeper yearnings, harbingers of what this year’s Advent spring may yet bring.
Advent essentially means staying awake “to the truth that God is with us even when most everything in our lives and in the world seems to belie that.” For those in Lasallian education, staying awake invites us to “dispose our own hearts to be entirely filled with zeal, in order to render our words effective in those whom we instruct.” Recall teachers who were not effective and put us to sleep, not because they lacked knowledge, but because they lacked zeal, which is not found in loud gestures and shouting, but in an intensity of purpose and attention that burns into hearts.
For most of us, it is a zeal awakened and fostered through conversations that we regularly have. David Brooks has tips for deepening conversations, such as open-ended or elevated questions. But genuine attention and approaching others “with awe” make the real difference: “It’s best to act as if attention had an on/off switch with no dimmer. Total focus.” Why? Because “deeper conversation builds trust, the oxygen of society, exactly what we’re missing right now.”
Perhaps it is the recently deceased Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who said it best: “Conversation is a kind of prayer. Because in conversation, by reaching out to the human other, we begin the journey of reaching out to the divine other.” Some twenty years earlier, his description of a conversation that he had when he was much younger, traveling 3,000 miles to visit a quiet, rather non-charismatic international Jewish rabbinic leader makes the same point from the listening side. “As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. Perhaps that is what listening is, considered as a religious act. I knew then that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards. There was no grandeur in his manner; neither was there any false modesty. He was serene, dignified, majestic; a man of transcending humility who gathered you into his embrace and taught you to look up.” What a fine way of talking about the graced teaching encounter, animated by what De La Salle calls the Spirit of Faith & Zeal.
During this Advent season, perhaps we can – in our conversations, reading choices, online habits, prayer practices, and perceived deeper yearnings – look up a little more and look down a little less. Because then, the daffodils buried deep within the soil of our lives will have a chance to grow, emerge, and bloom once more, soaking up the sun’s bounty and enhancing the inherent beauty of our local vistas.
That is indeed something worth waiting (and working) for.