“I learn by going where I have to go.” — Theodore Roethke
When was it ever a perfect time to prepare for Advent?
The road to Bethlehem was long for Mary, looking for a place to birth her child in the most ungracious of surroundings.
The journey of the magi was long and arduous, with unscheduled interruptions, inclement weather, and even some doubts as to the final outcome of following the star.
This year the road to Advent for me is fraught with grief over the thousands who died in a killer storm that destroyed a region of the Philippines, which is my home. The magnitude of this disaster is hard to comprehend. Why the Philippines? Because, according to an MIT meteorologist, the country has the warmest deep ocean in the planet which spawns monster storms. But why the poor? Why were the impoverished families of fisherfolk who lived by the sea swept away by the storm surge?
Perhaps Mary also asked why she had to take on such a difficult role in the salvation story. “And a sword will pierce your soul.” (Luke 2:35 ) Perhaps the three kings, in search of the Christ child, sensed, with foreboding, Herod’s evil intent to slaughter innocent babies in his lust for power. Perhaps killer storms leave people like me reeling from the onslaught of nature “red in tooth and claw.” How does one find meaning in randomness?
This obviously is no Hallmark greeting card reflection. In a season when merriment is the norm, the Philippine disaster goes against the grain of fa-la-la-la-la. I did not plan on this interruption. My holiday calendar, until a week ago when the storm struck, was already starting to fill up with Christmas cheer.
Yet this catastrophic event is making me pay attention this year, more than any other time. I am paying attention to Simone Weil’s statement: “Two things break the human heart — beauty and affliction.” This week, I comforted a Filipino friend who had not heard from her family — located in the epicenter of the storm — and who did not know if they were still alive. As I held the phone to my ear, I happened to look out of my kitchen window and saw the most breath-taking sunset in the autumn sky. The tears came. How can such beauty coincide with such bad news? Is this “the irrational season“ that Madeleine L’Engle refers to?
In an inexplicable way, I feel more humbled this Advent season, perhaps because my heart has been broken. I will still wrap presents, sing carols, look at Christmas lights, but with a different heartbeat. Because halfway across the world, in a cluster of islands, a cyclone from hell has knocked me off my comfort zone, even threatened to unhinge my illusions of safety. But that’s not all bad. This Advent is teaching me to cling closer to God, to Jesus . . . the rock, the hiding place, the ultimate shelter in times of desolation and chaos.
In this Advent's difficult path towards God's blessing, like Mary and those who searched for the Christ child, "I learn by going where I have to go."
From one of the central islands in the Philippines to the academic world of Boston, Priscilla Lasmarias Kelso has worked with international education after years of teaching American literature in the U.S. and overseas. She did her graduate work on Nathaniel Hawthorne at Stanford University and has worked at the University of Pennsylvania, Northeastern University , Sonoma State University, and Silliman University, a Presbyterian school in the Philippines. Recently retired with her husband, Bart, she is committed to providing educational opportunities for young women in the developing world.
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