Selections from “Advent: Hope or Delusion?” by Thomas Merton

The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge.  Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance.  Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist.  We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities.  Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.

It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendencey to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy.  Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family jours of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.

But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Saviour and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer.  The advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being.  In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world.  We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies.  Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.

In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer…  We may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message.  But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be.  The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will.  Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.

On Christianity

One common mistake made by some Christians is to turn physical icons into idols.  Another common mistake made by some Christians is to turn abstract ideas into idols.  In both instances, limited, human-made objects are held to be more sacred than they actually are.  Yet neither physical icons or abstract ideas can fully contain God, for God is infinite and incommensurable.  Both can still serve as helpful means to God—as signs that symbolically point towards a greater reality that exists beyond themselves.  Hence, both can have a meaningful purpose and place in the spiritual life when they are recognized as means and not ends.  But whenever we make icons or ideas an end, they inevitably stunt spiritual growth due to their inherent limitations.

Letting go of limited childhood images and concepts as we mature is a very healthy and normal thing to do in life, including the spiritual life.  Meister Eckhart wisely noted that the “highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God for the sake of God.”  One of the greatest ironies of the spiritual life is that often it is our inadequate ideas about God that prevent us from encountering the real God.  Indeed, Eckhart’s paradoxical remark brings many important truths to the surface: Our theological concepts are not God.  Our religious traditions are not God.  Our sacred icons are not God.  Our holy Bibles are not God.  Good and helpful as all of these things may be, none of them are God.

Some people reject God altogether when what they’re really rejecting is some false god that should be let go of.  Indeed, some individuals become atheists because they rightly see the inadequacy of certain idols that have been peddled as God.  Atheists sometimes even offer perceptive theological critiques that deserve serious attention from Christians.  If only Christians would have the courage to honestly listen to such prophetic voices, they may learn that there are some unsettling but valuable truths contained in their criticisms.

Keeping the ever-present risk of idolatry in perspective is crucial.  Often we think we are defending God when what we are actually defending are our own little images and ideas of God.  When we do this, we have over-identified such objects with God to the point that they become indistinguishable from God in our hearts and minds.  A common consequence that often accompanies this unfortunate confusion is we end up thinking we are defending God against the criticisms of others when we are actually just defending ourselves.