Thoroughly Alive

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Advent Companions: The Books and Music I Love in the Season of Waiting

Alleluia,  by Thomas Cooper Gotch

Alleluia, by Thomas Cooper Gotch

I almost didn’t go. The days die into rainy darkness about 4pm around here and I felt cold just thinking about walking out the door. My brain was listless and weary after three sleepless nights with my beloved baby and an essay on philosophy that I gritted out at 3am. My spirit was worn, and a little ill at ease after days without a single formal devotional or contemplative moment. I felt I barely knew what I needed or desired though if you pushed me to the wall I’m pretty sure I would have said I really didn’t have it in me to feel spiritual or contemplative or remotely prayerful. Yet that’s exactly what I set off to do as Thomas kindly (gently) shoved me out the door to take a little break while he put the baby to bed. And I found myself trudging down the wet, cobble-streeted dark, with a breathless mind and a weary body, to the Advent carol service at a church we love.

I felt on the way that it was a waste of time; I could barely focus let alone summon any worshipful attention. I was five minutes late. Someone handed me a candle as I slipped into the shadowy chapel, all long, dim aisles and vaulted, whispery cielings. I pulled my coat around me and tried to quiet my thoughts. The servers shuffled in, the choir rose, and in a blossoming of golden harmony began to sing the O Antiphons: O come o come Emmanuel… With each verse, each repeated, keening call for Emmanuel to visit his grieved and weary people, I, to my surprise, lost a little of my listless, guilty sense of needing to stand apart. I began to breathe more slowly. I began to watch the flames, to focus on the cross. I began to listen to cries of ancient longing that sounded strangely like my own. Second by second, note by note, word by word, I got woven back into the sphere of worship. And when the choir began to sing their anthem, ‘This is the Truth Sent From Above’, I was listening. And when they came to that verse -

Thus we were heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose
For so a promise soon did run
That He’d redeem us with a Son

Oh. In an instant my heart stirred into yearning. We, oh Lord, me, here in the shadowlands bearing the endless woes and toil of our good, hard, fallen, grieved days. Me, striving to be a gentle and good mother, working to learn and write, yearning to pray and forgetting to do it and losing my patience in the meantime… we here with all those small woes (and great ones too), we are the ones to whom this truth from above is sent: that He’d redeem us with a Son. I felt the yearning to be more than I am, to love more deeply, to know more fully, to return to worship rise up in me as my great sorrow and my real, returning health.

And this, I think, is a small image of what Advent does for all of us. From the clamour and work and grief and distraction of life in a fallen, modern, belligerent world, we are drawn aside into the chapel of Advent devotion. We are invited into a space where we can step away from the pained, frantic life that has become untethered from Love and come face to face with quiet. We’re invited into a moment of hush where we can learn to hear the music of God’s presence again. We often don’t know we even need it until we sojourn there a bit and find ourselves unravelled, and so achingly happy to be so.

Oh friends, the world is so loud and our hearts so harried and our minds so crammed. Step aside with me for a little, into the shadowed space of worship, of waiting, where the flames of love are lit like stars in the darkness and the voice of the Spirit himself sings our hearts back to wholeness. To that end, I offer you my best beloved books and music, companions for the Advent journey and the waiting season.

I’ve used many of these for years, and if you’ve followed me for awhile, you’re sure to recognise the old favourites! But I’ve added quite a few this year, and I think you will love these new discoveries as well. May your soul be hushed and your imagination enriched by these good gifts. Advent begins. Oh, I’m grateful…

My Advent Companions

Watch for the Light

I first found this years back when one of its most arresting passages was quoted in a daily Advent devotional I received by email. Having found these words - But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices - I hungered for more of the same. And my hunt led me back to this collection of stirring Advent contemplations, one a day through Epiphany. For a book that sets you in the strong, clear light of Advent as a season of preparation, even of penitence, this is the best. The readings here aren't meant to evoke nostalgia or even comfort (yet), but to help a reader come wide awake, to take account, to consider what it is she hopes and what the coming of that hope means to the here and now. For 'preparing a way for the Lord' in my heart in this season, this book has long been a brave and resourceful companion.

God with Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe

This book is a luminous companion, prepared by the faithful and creative minds behind the literary Image Journal. This book offers carefully selected pieces of art, daily Scripture readings and prayers, and daily Advent devotionals, each week written by a different Christian writer or pastor. This is an ideal Advent devotional book as it offers a compact but rich contemplation, short enough for a snatched quiet time, but rich enough in image and idea to shape one's thoughts for the whole day. It's a world of a book, a twilit, contemplative, Advent world.

The Art of Advent: A Painting a Day from Advent Through Epiphany by Jane Williams

This book is just out, and I ordered a copy the minute I found it. It’s little, which means it fit in my bag for an overnight weekend with ease, but it contains a collection of art to startle and hush, to demand attention and aid contemplation, with reflections by Jane Williams, an author and podcaster known here in England. I am so excited to savor this book and have already loved the first reading, themed on light and darkness, centred on Blake’s startling image of the Ancient of Days.

Waiting on the Word, by Malcolm Guite

Poetry, as Owen Barfield insightfully claimed, can bring about 'a felt change of consciousness', a process that I think is at the heart of Advent celebrations and one that is masterfully crafted for a reader in this collection of Advent poems by Malcolm Guite. Guite's Lent collection has been my companion for the past two years, and the Advent one is a new favourite. Guite doesn't just give you a poem to read, he guides you into the heart of the woven words, words that can truly shift your sight from boredom to wonder, from discontent to thanks, from discouragement to a newly-kindled hope. Combined with his own radiant sonnets, this book is a gift of lyrical beauty and devotional quiet.

Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morley

This is a similar collection to Guite's, one I have just discovered. It comes highly recommended by my tutor here at Oxford, and we are using some of the poems listed within for an Advent poetry discussion group. I love the way this book introduces me to poems I would never have discovered on my own. And, I mean, the title. Splendid thing.

Advent with Evelyn Underhill, compiled and edited by Christopher Webber

I make no secret of my love for Evelyn Underhill. Her confident, motherly voice in writing, not to mention her excellent scholarship on contemplative prayer and Christian mysticism, has shaped my devotional life in countless ways. This collection of daily Advent readings has been culled from her many devotional works. These are short, accessible, luminous and for me, powerfully formative readings you could peruse in a spare 5-minutes. I've taken this book along to the airport to read in the waiting area and the pithy, wondrous tone always startles my soul awake even in the midst airport craze.

The Glorious Impossible text by Madeleine L’Engle, OR The Nativitytext by Geraldine Eischner, art (in both) by Giotto

Every Christmas of my childhood, Giotto’s art arrested my eye in this book, brought out only for the Christmas season. The gentle or awed or anguished faces, the faded gold, the strange figures embodying a story I knew well, making it new and strange, and yet closer again… I have encountered few pieces of art that so capture the ache and wonder, the pain and passion of Christ's coming into this world. I think that art arrests the mind in a different way than words, allowing our eyes a fixed contemplation in which our imaginations 'see' the story of Christ afresh. In the book I grew up with, Madeleine L’Engle’s lovely prose accompanied the pictures and if you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it. The contemporary (and in print) version by Geraldine Eischner is good too.

The Nativity by Julie Vivas

Lilian received this as a christening gift (I think) and I have been absolutely enchanted with it. Just the simple, Bible text recounting the story of the annuncation and of Jesus’ birth, yet with illustrations so magical I find myself smiling as I read. The sweeping, earthy, humorous images in their gangly contours, the lively, joyous faces, the delight of seeing the annunciation depicted as Mary and the angel sitting at a table over coffee, I just love the humanity and humor of this story and the true, pure wonder it conveys at the same time.

I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge

I only grow in my love of good short stories. This one, in a simple, tightly woven little tale manages to tug hard at every hopestring in your heart, combine childhood Christmas delight with grown-up yearning, and bring it all to an end that, I must admit, brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it. It's a gem of a story, an emerald gem, bright with all the life of Christmas if you ask me.

A Christmas Book also by Elizabeth Goudge

A collection of Christmas short stories, some excerpted from her longer novels, some written purposefully for the book. I love that I can sit down for half an hour with a cup of tea and finish a whole, small tale that yet makes me feel I’ve sojourned in a good, spiritually nourishing place. The lively and eccentric characters, the humour, the spice of mystery, the presence of the sacramental in the lovely, all the usual goodness of Goudge comes as a gift in these small stories.

Christmas in my Heart by Joe Wheeler

Joe Wheeler is one of the best and oh so dearly beloved anthologists we have in the States and I was deeply privileged to have him for a mentor. I love these Christmas books, collections he has culled from the reading of thousands of old books. My family used to read these aloud in the evenings during Advent season… and we might have had bets on how quickly mom would tear up. Now I’m the one tearing up… they are sweet, funny, good, family-affirming, old-fashioned tales to enrich the season.

The Silent Bells by William MacKellar

A lovely friend sent me this book last year and it has joined my stack of favorite Advent short stories. Set in the Swiss Alps, named for a set of cathedral bells that have never been heard but are prohesied to ring with the coming of a certain gift at the Christmas Eve service, the book is the tale of little girl's generous heart. It's a dear story, one that stirred my heart. I look forward to reading this to Lilian. 

Midwinter Carols v. 2 by Joel Clarkson

My wondrous brother Joel just released an album of tender, lively, oh so richly woven but oh so quietly rendered carols for Advent and Christmas. I’ve had this album on repeat in the last days with Lilian and it brings such a subtle, rich beauty to our moments.

Celtic Christmas Spirit by Caroline Peyton
While this isn't strictly 'Advent' music, I find the haunting quality and some of the more ancient carols in this collection help me stand aside from commercial, contemporary Christmas and engage with Advent. I haven't found anything quite like this collection of Celtic Christmas music. Granted, my taste for the lilting and haunting runs strong, but there is a wonder and glory in this that I savour.

Behold the Lamb of Godby Andrew Peterson

Ah, this is an excellent journey of music, one that draws you into the high drama of angels and the sweet, low folksy drama of the stable in songs you will find yourself singing under your breath throughout the season. Andrew Peterson's storytelling in song, his grasp of the storied nature of faith, has made his music among my favourite for many years, but this album, inviting you to 'behold the Lamb of God' is one that has enriched my Advent journey in countless ways.

The Promise: A Celebration of Christ's Birthby Michael Card

I grew up on these sweet, sweeping, and to me, rather haunting contemplations on the coming of the Christ child. Michael Card's music has companioned me lifelong, and I love it for its scriptural depth, its engagement with the whole of the Bible's narrative, combined with its richly imaginative lyrics. From the prophetic and dramatic tones of the opening song The Promise, this album progresses through the Christmas story through the eyes of the different people caught up in its glory. Whether in Mary's lullaby-like tune and aching wonder, or Joseph's awed contemplation (how can it be?), I find this album touches my heart with a quieted sense of worship.

Midwinter Night's Dream by Loreena McKennit.

Loreena's music has been beloved of my heart since I was a small child and heard her haunting setting to tune of a Yeats poem. The lilting quality of her voice, her love for the Celtic, her re-rendering of the old folk tunes I always wished I could discover make her a musical companion for all seasons. But I especially savor this collection and play it often in the Advent season, a gathering of more traditional hymns, carols, and yuletide songs whose lyric and melody evoke a feeling of wonder for me. 

Handel's Messiahby, well Handel.

I have listened to this masterpiece on repeat for the past few weeks (I need it!), but this marvelous creation is always an accompaniment to my Advent season. This is a world of a work, an epic of storied music recounting the whole history of Christ's coming, leading us prophecy by prophecy by promise, in some of the most glorious choral music the world has known, into the hallelujah heart of what Christmas truly means. Listen to this repeatedly, let the story of Scripture soak into your memory and heart and tell me if your mind isn't formed a little more to wonder each day.

Also, there are several books of projects I’ve just discovered this year that I am downright determined to explore and very excited to experience. I haven’t read them yet, but I’m pretty sure they’ll deserve a place on the list of my Advent beloveds:

One Night: An Illustrated Advent Calendar by Adam Farbiarz

I stumbled upon this as a kickstarter project and it absolutely enchants me. An illustrated Advent calendar with each door opening to a different narration of the nativity story.

Come Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting by Kris Camealy

Scripture, reflection, prayers, questions carefully composed, powerfully applied. I love the sample I’ve read; Kris speaks with clarity and gentle grace to the burdens and desires of our faulty and yearning hearts.

Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations by David Bannon

With my fascination by the way art and story accompany us in our suffering, I just cannot wait to get a copy of this book, a collection of art and contemplation crafted as a companion for those who grieve or suffer. One of these days, I’ve got to figure out the whole request a review copy thing…

The Advent of the Lamb of God by Russ Ramsey

A vivid and creative retelling of the story of Christ’s coming, woven by a pastor with a heart to make the real, true advent of Jesus a story we can encounter as our own reality.

And friends, there you have it for now. Oh my goodness. Let the Advent journey begin and may it, oh may it please, be blessed. Here’s a spare poem to excavate your heart as Advent begins tomorrow:

Advent Calendar
by Rowan Williams

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.