When I am depressed, threatened, overwhelmed, insecure, or facing failure and regret I feel tired. I find myself yearning to lose myself in the refuge of sleep. Sleep, both literal and metaphorical, is the escape we seek from a difficult and broken world. And for some of us sleep is a blessed mercy; a relief from trauma that is just too much for us to face or overcome. I do not judge—I have been there and I celebrate whatever helps a human being to get through the day and find some measure of peace and maybe even joy.
But sleep is not our natural state. Nor is it our preferred state. It is designed to support and empower life. It is the place of restoration that enables us to face another day and enter the world ready to receive the gifts it offers and to share whatever gifts we may.
Sleep is never a state that can be permanently sustained. Even the most asleep, the most traumatised, and those who most seek protection and safety in hiding, must eventually wake up—albeit involuntarily—to face waking life.
For all of us, whatever our relationship with sleep—or sleep-living—may be, Advent offers an invitation. We can choose how we will see and experience the world even when it is threatening and unsafe. And the key is to pay attention—the learning of which is one of the key gifts of this Advent season.
Jesus’ Call to Stay Alert
In Matthew 24, Jesus spoke about the chaos and trauma that awaited Israel because of the growing thirst for rebellion. Jewish society was deeply divided and that made them vulnerable. Some preferred to retreat from society in an attempt to escape their oppression. Some preferred to accommodate and cooperate with the Roman occupiers in an attempt to find security. And some sought to find freedom by overthrowing the Romans and reestablishing an independent Jewish state. All of these responses were, in their own way, a kind of sleepwalking—a way for the people to avoid the complexities of their reality and put a buffer between them and their struggles. And so Jesus called the people to stay alert.
The heart of authentic spirituality is this alertness. It is a willingness to see the reality of what’s happening in the world and then look deeper to see the larger spiritual realities at play within the world’s movements and events.
For Jesus, the significant event that he could see on the horizon was the Roman invasion. He could see that the destruction of the Temple was inevitable and he knew the suffering that always accompanies such things. But beneath this trauma was the reality that God’s presence was there in the midst of the chaos. God’s reign was still seeking to bring justice and love into the world even though the opposite seemed to be the case. The world’s power games were being exposed and the failure of political processes—whether defending the status quo or overthrowing it—to bring about a world of human flourishing was being revealed. As a result, people were being given a choice to opt out and follow a different way: the way of the Beatitudes, of the Sermon on the Mount, of love and justice, of kindness and peace. In the face of the turmoil to come, Jesus called his followers to refuse to play by the world’s rules of dominance, division, and destruction. And he showed them that to recognise God’s reign at work and to see the coming of the Christ (the eternal presence of love and justice that fills the universe) they would need to be alert.
In the reading from Matthew’s Gospel that is set for Advent Sunday, Jesus offers guidelines to help his disciples navigate the turbulent events that he knew were coming. His suggestions do not require some special skill in analysing the forces at work. They’re not about joining some revolutionary movement to change the world. Rather, they’re about paying attention where we are—to the grasshopper and the grass; to the sky and the birds and the rivers and trees; to the insects and flowers; to our own heartbeat and breathing and longings. Because there, in the paying of attention, is where we discover the divine presence. That’s where we catch God’s vision of a new world.
There, in the paying of attention, we can know that our pain, trauma, nightmares and demons are not forever. Even if we need to spend most of our lives asleep to escape their horrors, we can know that ultimately life and wholeness will win out. Or, if we’ve found a way to stay mostly awake and live with a deep awareness and alertness, in those times when we need to sleep for a moment, we can know that we rest in the divine presence. We can sleep in the knowledge that the universe is working on a different schedule from our short lives—a schedule of billions of years—to become more connected, creative, and compassionate.
How to Pay Attention
Jesus spoke his words of warning and invitation decades before the Roman invasion actually happened. He knew that we don’t easily learn to pay attention in those times when life makes us want to find refuge in sleep. We need to learn to live awake when it is easy to be awake and threats are still distant. But whether we are trying to find evidence of God’s presence in the midst of turmoil or simply doing the work of spiritual practice to learn to live our most sacred lives in a world at peace, the process of learning to pay attention is the same. Here are some suggestion to develop our spiritual alertness:
Begin with Yourself
The first step, as always in spiritual practice, is to know yourself as you are. We need to do the work to identify what keeps us from alertness and what puts us to sleep. We need to identify the things that dull our senses. We need to recognise the literal or metaphorical drugs that blur our vision and keep us from seeing the Spirit of beauty, truth, and goodness that cannot be destroyed by trauma, violence, or evil. And we need to identify and take hold of the things that enable us to be alert and see beyond the surface realities of our world to the deeper spiritual forces at work. We need to nurture our capacity to pay attention, even if only for a few moments at a time.
Find One Thing to Wonder At
One of the best ways to learn to open our eyes to the vision of God’s presence is to make a habit of looking for things to wonder about. In the moments when we are fully awake, even though we may feel pain, fear and the desperate need to return to sleep, we can find at least one awe-inspiring thing to notice. We can cultivate the habit of regularly identifying something to honour and give thanks for. Whether it is a blade of grass, a grasshopper’s jaws, a bird’s sweet song, or the curious shape of a cloud, doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we learn to notice these natural things and see the Divine presence in them.
Recognise That the Darkness Cannot Extinguish the Light
And then, when we have learned to see more deeply in the simple things around us, we can use that ability to see even in the ugliness, deception, and evil that love, life, and light remain and the darkness does not and cannot extinguish them. We can take note of the evidence of the Divine Spirit moving in the chaos and bringing forth life.
It’s not easy to learn to pay attention and stay alert in this turbulent world, but it is worth the effort. The season of Advent is the perfect school to train us to live awake a little more intentionally and consistently. It’s important to remember though, that we cannot live awake all the time, we cannot pay attention completely, and some of us need more sleep than others. Some of us will live in an almost constant state of awareness, only retreating into literal sleep when needed. Others among us will need to spend most of our lives in the safety of living asleep, only ‘waking up’ and becoming aware when it is absolutely necessary. But whichever it is for us, paying attention and seeing the divine presence even in the midst of the pain can help us to live a little easier and sleep a little more restoratively. Then slowly, over time, we may find that we are able to awaken a little more and pay attention just a little better. And the sharp edge of our trauma will grow just a little duller and the pain a little less piercing.
This article is the first chapter of a new resource for Advent created by John van de Laar titled Vision Quest – See more clearly. Check it out here on his website Sacredise!
Join Christine Sine for a time of quiet reflection on December 3rd, 2022. Slow down the busyness of the season and nourish your soul with contemplative focus and reflection. All the details can be found here: