Mourning and Melancholy
In the title essay of her collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, the author, Marilynne Robinson, recounts her days growing up accompanied by the inherent loneliness of Idaho landscape and the enduring positive benefit of this kind of loneliness. She notes that for Americans of a certain era such emotions as mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were “high sentiments, as they were for the psalmist and for Sophocles, for the Anglo-Saxon poets and for Shakespeare.” Being a child of the Midwest with family still scattered across her hills and hollows along with a son who with his family live in Montana, Robinson’s essay was resonant.
All of this was brought to mind with the advent of Advent and having recently returned from a week in South Dakota where I was struck again by the beautiful loneliness of the post-harvest landscape – with winter settling in – and the long wait ‘til spring.
These high sentiments of mourning and melancholy and loneliness are often my companions. I experience them in the solitude of life. Sometimes in the poetry of a Herbert or Whitman or Donne, other times listening to the “who cooks for you?” of the owls and howls of the coyotes while walking through the chilly black woods under a full November moon.
Season of Advent
This week we, the church universal, mark the beginning of our church year with the season of Advent. The season of Advent is a season of preparation as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. Our seasonal collects and hymns have as their backdrop the prophetic witness to the people of Israel waiting in their “lonely exile” for their Messiah. They mark as well our waiting in a lonely exile as a peculiar people for the Messiah’s second advent. The church calendar is meant to help us navigate the seasons of our lives. They can, at their best, give shape and rhythm to our spiritual life. They can, at their best, provide the opportunity to recognize and embrace aspects of our life we might wish to ignore – all within the context of the faith and our community of faith.
The season of Advent is a season of preparation as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth. We live as some have said, “in between the times.” Meaning that we live between the incarnation and the final consummation of Christ’s return And in this waiting, I experience the high sentiments of which Robinson wrote. I find myself saying often with the biblical writers, “Maranatha” – “come, Lord.” I find myself waiting and wondering with the Psalmist who asks, ‘how long?’ How long until our Lord’s triumphant Advent?
Navigating the Landscape of Our Soul
So, how can Advent help us navigate the landscape of our soul?
Well, we do know something of Christ as we await the final consummation. We are not left as orphans. He has come. He has given us His Spirit. And so, our waiting is a patient waiting (we heard quite a bit of this in our study of 1 & 2 Peter). Patient because we have confidence in Christ and His promise to return. Patient because of His promise that He will set all things right. Patient because of His promise that there will be a day and a place where there will be no more tears, a day and a place where we will see Him face-to-face. This confident patient waiting can give us – if and as we cooperate with the Spirit’s work in our lives – the opportunity to examine and address those hindrances and obstacles in our lives: our crooked paths, our rough places.
This waiting though is suffused with inherent loneliness and longing. A loneliness and a longing that allows one to, in Robinson’s words, “experience . . . radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege.” That allows one to navigate the landscape of the heart and soul and to discover again that our high sentiments and deepest desires are pointers that point to One thing – the One man, Christ Jesus – who alone is able to satiate our longing and desire.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Bishop, Diocese of the Carolinas