Be on your guard, stay awake!


 Kissing the face of God Oil on canvas, by Morgan Weistling

“Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come.”

Do you believe in love at first sight?
When I was at college I had a friend called Mark. And, one evening, we went out to dinner with a group of other students. At the dinner he met a young lady called Laura and they seemed to get on very well together. And, as we walked home, he told me that he had fallen in love with her. This was the woman for him, there would be no other. They would get married, live together, have children together and live happily ever after.

At that stage I wasn’t too worried. There was something about  the way he was swaying down the street apologising to lamp-posts, that made me think it reasonable to conclude that he’d probably had a little more wine than was strictly good for him and he’d be all-right, if not exactly by tomorrow morning, then certainly by tomorrow afternoon. So I took no notice.

Next morning I tried to ring him up, but he wasn't answering the phone. I thought I could probably imagine why. But that evening, he came round to see me. He was elated. He had spent the day with her, pouring out his heart, telling her how much he loved her, how she was the only woman for him and she had agreed to go out with him.

Initially, things went smoothly; he was absolutely besotted with her and she was happy enough for him to be absolutely besotted with her. But, after about 3 months, she was tired of him. She decided that she couldn’t love him and wanted no more to do with him. He, of course, was shattered. For the rest of the three years in college, he besieged her – chocolates, flowers, gifts, perfume – you name it. And most of it, she gave straight back.  We, as his friends, of course thought he was mad and spent ages trying to talk him out of it and trying to get him to meet other girls and find someone else who would return his affections. But he was adamant – this was the girl for him; there would be no other. Eventually, towards the end of our final year in college, she relented and agreed to give him another chance. It lasted just three weeks before she sent him away again.

When we left college, I went to work in a hospital in Cornwall and he went to work in the oil industry on an oil rig nearly a thousand miles away in the North of the country. And, I’m sorry to say we lost touch.

Five years later, we met up again. And I found out that he was still chasing her. He had to work very hard, but he had every second weekend free. So, that weekend, he would get a helicopter from his oil-rig to Inverness, then another helicopter to Aberdeen; then he would fly 800 miles south to Heathrow; and then he would get into the car he kept at the airport and drive another hundred miles so that he could stay in the house he had bought so as to be near her. In all that time he had never gone out with anyone else and had never for a moment given up on the hope that she would one day return his love. So far, she had given not the slightest indication of this, but he still wasn’t quitting.

Presuming on an old friendship, I asked him if he didn’t think it was time that he sought some professional help with an obsession that was clearly getting out of hand. In reply, he said this:
“Look, Paul – I really love her. I’m a one woman man and she is that woman. There will be no-one else for me. So, I have no alternative but to hope that she will one day love me in return. There’s nothing else in my life that’s worth waiting for. So, if necessary I’ll spend it waiting for her.”

That, I think, is the authentic spirit of Advent – a time of waiting – for the only thing in the life of a Christian that is genuinely worth waiting for – that time every year when we celebrate the presence of Emanuel – God’s Presence among us – the incarnation of God in our lives and in our hearts. That waiting can be difficult, slow and frankly boring. So often we want to say – like Isaiah in today’s reading “Rend the heavens and come down!” And even if we can wait, it is hard to wait faithfully – to keep constant in the early hours of the morning when it’s hard to stay awake and it’s easy to give up on the hope that what we are waiting for is ever going to happen. And the temptation is to take what we can now - settle for what we can get. That, I think is why some people have already begun the celebration – especially the shops which already have their Christmas decorations up. But for us and for Mark, there are some things in life that are genuinely  worth waiting for and we refuse to take second best.

Oh! I should tell you the end of the story, shouldn’t I? Well, about ten years after they first met, Mark and Laura finally got married. I heard from them recently – they’re very happy together; they have three beautiful children.  Every Christmas they send me a photograph of their growing family. And they are a lasting reminder to me that some things in life are genuinely worth waiting for. Let’s not take second best.

Paul O'Reilly SJ

Image: Kissing the Face of God 2001, Oil on canvas by Morgan Weistling