One practice I’m always trying (and failing) to cultivate is meditation. I love the idea of stopping everything and simply being for a few minutes each day, in a way that is completely devoid of goal or expectation. And yet, it’s a struggle. That simple act of putting down the book, turning off whatever screen is grabbing my attention, or directing my mind away from whatever thoughts are running amok at any given moment is so hard to do. And when I do get my butt onto the proverbial mat, it’s hard not to go chasing after those thoughts — it’s hard to trust that if they are truly important, they will return when the time is right. It is so hard simply to stop. And I say this as someone with a very simple life; how much more difficult is it for those with small children needing attention, or who spend their days hurrying from one side of the city to the other for appointments and errands!
One of Advent’s great gifts is its call for us to stop. It demands our attention: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” “Read the signs of the times!” Recently, when I’ve thought about repentance, the old instructions for crossing railway tracks has come to mind: Stop. Look. Listen. The second and third of these aren’t truly possible without the first. Before anything else, we need to stop. And stop means stop. It doesn’t mean “slow down.” It doesn’t mean “absentmindedly roll through, trusting that there isn’t anyone in the crosswalk.” It means stop. Too often we assume everything is fine and barely notice what’s happening around us. We need to feel that jarring inertia from coming to a full and complete stop in order to have enough attention to do the rest of the work before us.
Our world moves too fast for the kind of deep and honest reflection true repentance and discernment require. Repentance does not move at the pace of the twenty-four-hour news cycle; discernment does not work in chunks of 240 characters. We would do very well to do something about this. It’s not “Stop the world, I want to get off!” but “Stop the world — I need a minute.”
If we commit to really living it, Advent offers us just such an opportunity. Stop. Look. Listen. But we can’t do the last two without the first.