In one of her early books, Annie Dillard shares how she once learned a lesson, the hard way, about the importance of waiting. She had been watching a butterfly slowly emerge from its cocoon. The oh-so-slow process of transformation was fascinating, but, at a point, she grew impatient. She took a candle and heated the cocoon, though only slightly, in order to speed up things. It worked. The butterfly emerged a bit more quickly, but, because the process had been unnaturally rushed, it was born with wings that were not properly formed and it was not able to fly.
The lesson wasn’t lost on Dillard. She understood immediately what was wrong, a certain chastity had been violated. She had short-circuited advent. How so?
One of the motifs we celebrate in advent is the idea that the messiah must be born of a virgin. Why? Is sexuality somehow dirty? Is it beneath Jesus to be conceived and born in the normal way? Sometimes those, false, understandings have been put forth. The real reason however for connecting advent and virginity is quite different: First, it underscores that Jesus, being the incarnate son of God, does not have a human father. Second, and key in terms of the spirituality of advent, is the idea that the messiah could only come forth from a virgin’s womb because for something “divine” to be born a proper time of waiting, a proper chastity, must first take place. But why? What has chastity to do with Jesus’ birth?
The answer lies in a proper understanding of chastity. What is it? Chastity is not, first of all, something specific to sex. It’s about how we experience all of reality in general. To be chaste is to live in such a way so as to be fully and properly respectful of others, nature, and God. Chastity, properly defined, means living in such a way that our own needs, desires, agendas, and impatience do not get in the way of letting gift be gift, other be other, and God be God. Obviously this depends upon proper respect and proper waiting.
We can learn this by looking at its antithesis. We lack chastity when, for whatever reason (lack of respect, lack of reverence, impatience, selfishness, callousness, immaturity, undisciplined desire, lack of aesthetics) we relate to others, nature, or God in such a way that they cannot be fully who and what they are, according to their own unique rhythms and preciousness. We do this when we short-circuit patience and respect.
If this is true, then it is no accident that, so often, the prime analogate for lack of chastity is seen precisely as irresponsible sex. Sex, because it so deeply affects the soul, speaks most loudly about chastity or lack of it. Sex, like all other experience, is only chaste when it does not short-circuit full respect. But it often does so in a variety of ways. Prematurity, unfair pressure, subtle or crass force, taking without giving, posturing an intimacy that one isn’t ready to enter, lack of respect for previous commitments, an unwillingness to include the whole person, disregard for the wider relationships of family and community, failure to respect long-range health and happiness, ignoring proper aesthetics, all of these make for a lack of proper respect within a sexual relationship. In essence, Annie Dillard’s metaphor says it all: There’s a fault in our chastity when we put a candle to the cocoon to unnaturally pressure the process.
And, as is obvious, the key element in all this is WAITING. Chastity is 90% about proper waiting. It’s for this reason that one of the rich metaphors of advent is that of preparing a virgin’s womb so that the divine can be born in a proper way. Advent calls us to patience, patience in carrying the frustration that we suffer when we have to wait for what we desire.
In Jewish apocalyptic literature there are a number of wonderful refrains that try to teach us this. They give us the idea that, before the Messiah can be conceived, gestated, and born, there must first be a proper time of waiting. In short-hand, these aphorisms express the theology and spirituality of advent: “People are always in a hurry; God is never in a hurry.” “Every tear brings the messiah closer!” “It is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of the spirit is brought forth.”
Carlo Carretto, one of the great spiritual writers of recent times, spent many years alone, a hermit in the Sahara desert. During these long, quiet years, he tried to hear what God was saying to us. In one of his books, written from this desert solitude, he suggests that perhaps the most important thing that God is trying to tell us today, especially in Western culture, is this: Be patient! Learn to wait – for everything: each other, love, happiness, God. The message of the great advent figures (Mary, John the Baptist, Isaiah) is the same.