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Our Advent begins with Jesus urging us, Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the Lord is coming. But why doesn’t Jesus just tell us the time of his coming? Why do we have to watch?
The benefit of watchfulness
There are three outstanding benefits for our life of faith that come from watchfulness. In keeping watch we realize that we are only watchful regarding what we care about. Watchfulness sorts out for us our priorities. Watching is a way of expressing that we are invested in someone or something … that we seek deeper union. “If we wish to reach Christ,” says St. Caesarius of Arles (+ 543), “let us endeavor to behold heaven with the ever watchful attention of our heart.”
Being watchful increases our desire. The more we watch, the more our anticipation for the appearance of the awaited one increases. And as our anticipation grows, so does our appreciation of the one we are on the watch for. St. Cyprian counsels, “May God see our desire, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently.”
And the fruit of watchfulness is overwhelming joy when our loved one appears. “Every lover rejoices at being united to the beloved” (St. Thomas Aquinas).
A great example of watchfulness is at the heart of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella The Little Prince. The little prince, who is from another planet, travels to earth, and there he meets a fox. But the fox is bored (this is a talking fox). He says: “My life is very monotonous. I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored.”
So the fox comes up with a novel idea: He asks the little prince to tame him! As the fox explains to the little prince, “But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life.”
The little prince at first is hesitant, but then he asks the fox what he must do to tame him. And the fox replies: “You must be very patient. First you will sit down at a little distance from me in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. But you will sit a little closer to me every day.”
So the little prince agrees to give it a try, and the next day he comes back. But the fox has a suggestion for him: “It would have been better to come back at the same hour. If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am. But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you.”
The fox looks forward to being watchful so that he can experience maximum happiness at the advent of the one for whom he longs. Being watchful tames us.
Watchfulness: the best realism
It is the watchful who refuse to give up hope, no matter how badly present circumstances may conspire against us. St. John Henry Newman gives us this profound guidance as we set off this Advent:
Jesus contemplated the neglect of him which would spread even among his professed followers; the daring disobedience and the loud words, which would be ventured against him and his Father by many whom he had regenerated: and the coldness, cowardice, and tolerance of error which would be displayed by others, who did not go so far as to speak against him. He foresaw the state of the world and the Church, as we see it this day, when his prolonged absence has made it practically thought that he never will come back in visible presence. And he mercifully whispers into our ears not to trust what we see, not to share in that general unbelief, not be carried away by the world, but to take heed, watch, pray, and look out for his coming.
Find his series of brief reflections on prayer here.
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