By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
A couple of years ago,
Robert Waller published a book that became a runaway bestseller and an
immensely popular movie. Entitled The Bridges of Madison County, it
stirred the romantic imagination in a way that few other stories have in
recent times, especially as it was played out in its film version by
Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
The story runs this way:
photographer for National Geographic magazine is sent to photograph a
series of old bridges in Madison County. Lost, he stops at a farmhouse
to ask for directions. As chance would have it, the man of the house has
just left for a cattle show. His wife is home alone and she and the
photographer instantly sense a deep connection and fall violently in
Karma, soulmates, mysticism, whatever, they
experience a rare and powerful affinity. Within hours they are in bed
with each other, triggering a love affair that leaves them both
sacramentally scarred for the rest of their lives.
viewer of the movie or reader of this book is asked to believe something
truly sublime has taken place, a masterpiece of love has been painted,
and a noble thing worth more than life itself has just occurred. But can
this be so? Can anyone paint a masterpiece in a couple of hours? Can
sex with someone you met just two hours before be sublime?
answer those questions, I suggest you watch another film which,
ironically, was playing in theatres at nearly the same time. It's a
version of Jane Austin's Sense and Sensibility and tells the story of a
young woman who has to carry painful tension (one that includes the same
feelings found in Bridges of Madison County) for a long time.
unlike the characters in Bridges of Madison County, she doesn't quickly
resolve it. Nobody is in bed with each other within a couple of hours.
She carries the tension for a long time, years, and then finally when it
is resolved there is true sublimity.
Why? Because something can only be sublime if first there has been some sublimation.
essence, this expresses the meaning of Advent: For something to be
sublime there must first be sublimation; fasting is the necessary
prelude to feasting; greatness of soul is contingent on first nobly
carrying tension; and what's truly divine can only appear after a
certain kind of gestation.
Advent is about proper waiting.
should therefore not be confused with Lent. The crimson-purple of
Advent is not the black-purple of Lent. The former symbolizes yearning
and longing, the latter repentance. The spirituality of Advent is not
about repentance, but about carrying tension without prematurely
resolving it so that what's born in us and in our world does not
short-circuit love's rhythms.
What is the connection here? How
does carrying tension help lead to the sublime? It does it by helping to
produce the heat required for generativity.
might be helpful here. John of the Cross, in his book, The Living Flame
of Love, compares our pre-Advent selves to green logs that have been
thrown into a fire, the fire of love. Green logs, as we know, do not
immediately burst into flame. Rather, being young and full of moisture,
they sizzle for a long time before they reach kindling temperature and
can take into themselves the fire that is around them so as to
participate in it.
So too the rhythm of love: Only the
really mature can truly burst into flame within community. The rest of
us are still too self-contained, too green, too damp. We don't burst
into flame when love surrounds us. Rather our dampness helps extinguish
the communal flame.
What helps change this is precisely
the tension in our lives. In carrying properly our unfulfilled desires
we sizzle and slowly let go of the dampness of selfishness. In carrying
tension we come to kindling temperature and are made ready for love.
Teilhard de Chardin, as a scientist, noticed that sometimes when you
put two chemicals into a test-tube they do not automatically unite. They
only merge at a higher temperature. They must first be heated to bring
There's an entire anthropology and
psychology of love in that image. In order to love we must first be
brought to a higher psychic temperature.
What brings us
there? Sizzling in tension, not resolving things prematurely, not
sleeping with the bride before the wedding, not trying to have the
complete symphony within two hours.
The sublime has to
be waited for. Only when there is first enough heat will there be unity.
To give birth to what's divine requires the slow patience of gestation.
That's the algebra of Advent.