Advent Vespers

I crack open the blinds in the kitchen. It is still dark outside, streetlamps glowing like spaceship landing lights in the fog of a December morning. I shamble around trying to secure a cup of coffee. I plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and sit down at the kitchen table, bleary eyed, restless. The house is quiet, the rest of my family still asleep upstairs. I cautiously take a sip of my still too hot coffee. This is me at home in the world, as much as I ever am. It is Advent, the season of waiting and watching, and so I sit and wait.

Advent is a way of finding my place in the world. It situates me in a story – one of a returning king, of hopeful expectation. It’s a season that’s both linear and cyclical, a spiral through the timeline of my life since childhood, coming around each year with its rituals and repetitions as I grow older, my hair starting to go gray at the temples, the frown lines on my forehead deepening. I will, as I do every year, give disappointing gifts (I am a terrible gift giver), I will eat too many gingerbread chocolate cookies, and a blood toxicology test will reveal an unhealthy volume of mandarin oranges in my diet. I will look back over the year and try and figure out where exactly I am in my story so far.

There are many ways of finding one’s place in the world. Here is Helen Macdonald, in her lovely essay, “Vesper Flights” (found in her essay collection here – one of my favorite books of the year):

Often, during stressful times when I was small – while changing schools, when bullied, or after my parents had argued – I’d lie in bed before I fell asleep and count in my head all the different layers between me and the centre of the Earth: crust, upper mantle, lower mantle, outer core, inner core. Then I’d think upwards in expanding rings of thinning air: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, exosphere. A few miles beneath me was molten rock, a few miles above limitless dust and vacancy, and there I’d lie with the warm blanket of the troposphere over me and a red cotton duvet cover too, and the smell of tonight’s dinner lingering upstairs, and downstairs the sound of my mother busy at her typewriter. This evening ritual wasn’t a test of how much I could keep in my mind at once, or of how far I could send my imagination. It had something of the power of incantation, but it did not seem a compulsion, and it was not a prayer. No matter how tightly the day’s bad things had gripped me, there was so much up there above me, so much below, so many places and states that were implacable, unreachable, entirely uninterested in human affairs. Listing them one by one built imaginative sanctuary between walls of unknowing knowns.

Despite her protest that “it was not a prayer” Macdonald describes her girlhood ritual a few lines later as her “own private vespers … a little like counting the steps up a flight of steep stairs. I needed to know where I was. It was a way of bringing me home.” Her image, the child imagining the different layers of the earth that surround her as she drifts off to sleep, reminds me of medieval models of the universe with their nested spheres and luminous heavenly bodies. The girl’s nighttime ritual and the medieval cosmology say the same thing: here is the world we live in, here is home.

I love Macdonald’s writing. I have read and re-read H is for Hawk, her braided memoir of grief and self-discovery. She is not a religious believer (as she discusses in another essay in the Vesper Flights collection, “The Numinous Ordinary”) but she is a sort of contemporary literary patron saint of waiting and watching. I think of her as a poet of patient attention, of the just-barely-glimpsed, the ungraspable, the fast vanishing beauty of the moment. Her “Vesper Flights” essay is about swifts, birds that are “magical in the manner of all things that exist just a little beyond understanding.” The “vesper flights” Macdonald describes in the essay are when swifts, in the evening, “as if summoned by a call or a bell … rise higher and higher until they disappear from view. These ascents are called …. vesper flights, after the Latin vesper for evening. Vespers are evening devotional prayers, the last and most solemn of the day, and I have always thought ‘vesper flights’ the most beautiful phrase, an ever-falling blue. For years I’ve tried to see them do it. But always the dark got too deep, or the birds skated too wide and far across the sky for me to follow.”

I love that “ever-falling blue.” And, while I describe Macdonald as a poet of the “just-barely-glimpsed” (a description that stumbles along so clumsily beside her own prose) she is also excellent at placing us firmly within the world, the ephemeral resolving into a definite solidity through careful description. Macdonald’s world is not one where nature is seen as “a fabric of stuff that gleams with revelation of a singular creator god” (“The Numinous Ordinary”), but it is a home she describes with loving care, in all its otherness and intimacy. For those who want to find their place in the world, Macdonald’s careful attention, her willingness to watch and wait, is an essential practice.

In “Vesper Flights” Macdonald provides a summary of some of the different theories for why swifts do what they do in their evening flights up into the “convective boundary layer … the humid, hazy part of the atmosphere where the ground’s heating by the sun produces rising and falling convective currents … it’s the zone of fairweather cumulus clouds and everyday life for swifts.” In flying to such tremendous heights the swifts are likely forecasting the weather as well as orienting themselves, so “they can work out exactly where they are, to know what they should do next.” The world of swifts is one of shifting air currents and developing storm systems, a sharp contrast to my own world of recalcitrant spreadsheets and slow morning traffic. My world feels so heavy and slow, so earthbound, in comparison to the soaring birds’ – what does it feel like, floating up there? – but we both need to try and orient ourselves from time to time.

In Being Disciples, Rowan Williams says, “I’ve always loved [the] image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening. I suspect that, for most of us, a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that.” Sometimes Advent is like that too, a watching and waiting in the rain (or snow, depending on your local climate – although I suppose Australians would also like a word). The season of Advent repeats year after year because forgetful animal that I am I need the reminder to watch and wait in the midst of the stresses and distractions of my everyday life. There is a discipline to the season. But there is a joy to it too. Of course there is. See above, regarding overdoses of oranges and cookies. The lights on the Christmas tree. The sleeping family. The coffee that has now cooled to a drinkable temperature. In Advent there is an enjoyment of the goodness of this moment, this year, even as I watch and wait.

And, here in my early morning waiting (the wrong time of day for vespers, I realize), I like to think that there is some sort of discipline and joy in the swifts’ evening flights, that the name, “vespers flights,” might be more than a beautiful metaphor. Is it so wrong to imagine that these flights are a form of worship? That I, sitting at my kitchen table and the swifts soaring through the air are participating in the same sort of activity? After all, what would a swift’s true worship look like? Would it not be a soaring through the air to impossible heights? This is not necessarily my natural perspective – human and animal praising God in mystical harmony. I spend more time “sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening” spiritually than not. It takes some effort and imagination to get here, with the swifts in their swooping and climbing worship. But, it is Advent after all, and I have the time.

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