Wendell Berry, novelist and poet, is among the fellowship of gentle prophets who look on the life of the world with reverence for its mystery and the miracle of its ordinariness.
I read him when I sense I’m looking at the world through eyes colored by cynicism. And he never fails to rebuke the moral despair and spiritual accidie (restlessness) that are the eventual fruits of habitual cynicism.
His poem, “Traveling at Home,” is about everyday sameness redeemed by alertness to newness. It says:
Even in a country you know by heart
it’s hard to go the same way twice.
The life of the going changes.
The chances change and make a new way.
Any tree or stone or bird
can be the bud of a new direction. The
natural correction is to make intent
of accident. To get back before dark
is the art of going.
What I gain from reading a poem like this is a fresh call to pay attention to my life and to see the minute changes that alter the landscape, whether within or outside.
Indeed, it is one of Berry’s gifts to show the connectedness between our inner climate and our intentional attentiveness to the outer climate of succeeding seasons, and the rhythm of changes in a world awash with wonder – if we have the time and inclination to notice it.
Advent is coming. It’s the season of anticipation, watchfulness, alertness for the signs of coming change.
Advent is the liturgical contradiction of that attitude that wearily iterates the cliche, “same old, same old.”
The great Advent adventure is that God is coming. Prophets’ promises are coming to fulfilment.
Notice is served on the status quo. Same old, same old is being rendered obsolete, contradicted by a much more urgent, immediate and durable reality.
“For unto us a child is born.” “Emmanuel, God with us.” “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
Advent is an annual reminder that nothing is forever, except God and all to which God gives life and sustenance.
So, when Berry’s poem is read the week leading to Advent, I’m reading into it deeper meanings than perhaps he intended.
Though he is not averse to a sense of the transcendent, he is open to those possibilities that expand human potential, to that which comes from outside our own limited scheme of things, that which enlarges our own constrained visions, that which creatively disrupts the sameness of our routines, those interventions which interrupt all those plans and goals of ours, that are simply too tired and self-serving.
Advent ensures we don’t go the same way twice, unless we choose to. Advent offers the possibility that the life of our going changes, and new ways open up.
Advent is when we celebrate the God who in humility and utter love creates a “natural connection to make intent of accident.”
And because Advent is about light, lots and lots of light, that final sentence in his poem is, well, pure Advent: “To get back before dark is the art of going.”
“The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.