While I am quite happy to work from home and, in fact, have enjoyed the global connections that Zoom makes possible, I have not been thrilled with the thumps, thuds and vibrations that constantly resound through my ceiling from the apartment above mine. At first, I was patient. Never having heard any such noises before, I assumed that a new condo owner or tenant had moved into the high rise where I am presently living. Perhaps s/he was dragging boxes and furniture, or walking back and forth to unpack, I told myself. As the days went on, however, I began to notice a pattern to the thumps. In the morning, I would awaken to what sounded like someone pacing back and forth in combat boots; around the middle of the day, I could hear the regular bounce of some enormous ball -- perhaps a weighted exercise ball or else a yoga ball; then, late evening, there would be more irregular thumps and thuds. Who was up there? I asked myself. A fitness guru? A dance addict? A cheer leader for the NBA? Or just an ordinary person trying to maintain his or her sanity, despite COVID-19?
My new neighbor is most likely using exercise to reduce stress and cope with "the new normal." Moreover, I'm sure that s/he is completely oblivious to the noise filtering one floor down. Whatever the case, it has been useful to imagine my neighbor's workout routine, while reflecting on the difficult times in which we're living. Advent, the season of emerging Light, is especially hard this year and, for some, even bleak. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will admit to having good days and bad days, moments of hope and moments of claustrophobia, experiences of Light and experiences of darkness, times of being "up" and times of being "down"... Each of us is doing exactly what we need to do to maintain balance, keep off the "Zoom pounds," and cling to hope -- and this thought, perhaps, is enough to help us become more tolerant and understanding, even though we might wish our neighbors meditated more and exercised less!
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
For many of us, preparing for Christmas usually involves an endless check-list of tasks: writing Christmas cards, buying and wrapping gifts, planning menus, decorating our homes, and connecting with distant friends and family members; in addition, some of us have responsibilities related to liturgy planning, toy drives for needy children, or meal delivery to those who are shut-in... While the pandemic will most likely force us to scale back our activities, this time of stillness and reflection is all too often a whirlwind of stress. Instead of savoring the sights, sounds and meaning of the season, we tend to become overwhelmed both by preparations and, this year, by online shopping and by all our "Zoom" commitments. "Scrooge" quickly appears, grumbling, uncooperative, resentful, ungrateful, and irritable. Try as we might, we can neither conjure up "the Christmas spirit," nor savor the contemplative rhythms of Advent.
Distracted by our schedules and all that the "new normal" represents, we make little room for quiet or for solitude, if we can help it. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, quiet and stillness are the complete opposite of what we want at this time of social distancing; rather, we join multiple Zoom groups, eat mindlessly, shop online without restraint and engage in other strategies for numbing sadness and anxiety. Our need for comfort is so intense that we rush towards Christmas, desperate for the good cheer that comes from holiday lights, decorated trees and endless Amazon deliveries.
Spiritually speaking, self-indulgence and frenetic activity are the antithesis of what Advent demands of us. The very strategies we use to distract ourselves block God's path towards us. Instead of straightening God's path, we create an obstacle course littered with good intentions, seasonal excess, and suppressed emotions. We cannot behold God's glory because the mountains are too high and the valleys too deep. Now is the time to prepare the way of the Lord; now is the time to level those mountains and fill in those valleys so that the One who desires our attention will find us waiting in readiness.