Mt. Angel Abbey is a Benedictine monastery located about four miles from my house. The abbey was built by 19th-century Swiss monks on a butte in Marion County, Oregon. On a relatively clear day, it’s possible to sit on a bench next to the retreat house and look out over hundreds of square miles of Willamette Valley farmland growing hops for beer and grapes for wine, as well as berries and Christmas trees. Mt. Angel has become for me what the Swiss monks must have intended it to be, a hilltop refuge, imbued with the spirit of those two great Benedictine watchwords – peace and hospitality.
In an essay I wrote yesterday about Advent Conspiracy – published this morning on RELEVANT’s website – I described the monastery as a lighthouse that has been pulsing over this fog-bound corner of the world for the last 130 years. There is a beautiful Spanish word querencia, which is sometimes translated as the “haunt of wild hearts.” The American writer Barry Lopez describes la querencia as a place on the ground from which one draws strength of character. In Spain, Lopez writes, querencia refers to the spot in a bullring where a wounded bull goes to gather himself before the next charge. Mt. Angel Abbey, where I am an oblate novice, is my querencia. It’s the place I go to gather myself, to sing and pray and read, to catch my breath, soak in silence, and sometimes just sit on of the abbey benches and look out over the valley I have come to love. I always seem to leave the monastery a little bit stronger, ready to charge (or at least limp) back down the hill into my normal life.
Writing the RELEVANT article I came to see that Advent is also a kind of querencia. Advent derives from a Latin word meaning “arrival.” In a conversation last Saturday, Greg Holder, the pastor of The Crossing in St. Louis and one of the founders of Advent Conspiracy, talked several times about the importance of slowing down as we give and receive gifts that reconnect us to the Christmas story. He talked about replacing consumption with compassion, and preferring relational presence to mere material presents. Joan Chittister echoes this when she writes:
Advent is about learning to wait. It is about not having to know exactly what is coming tomorrow, only whatever it is, it is of the essence of sanctification for us. Every piece of it, some hard, some uplifting is sign of the work of God alive in us. We are becoming as we go. We learn in Advent to stay in the present, knowing that only the present well lived can possibly lead us to the fullness of life.
“God draws near” is the scandalous story of Christmas. It’s the story on which all of our other stories is built. So it can’t be an accident that, though Advent falls at the end of our calendar year, it is actually marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar. We draw strength from it before we head back into the fray of Lent, Easter, and what the liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time.” Does it go without saying that the way Christmas is often celebrated – as the “high holy day” of the empire of consumerism (to borrow a phrase or two from Advent Conspiracy) – can’t possibly prepare us for the rest of the year?