My experience of the Aelwie [Aillwee, Ailwee, etc.] Cave in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994 was the basis for my choice of that name for this blog. With tomorrow being the first Sunday of Advent, it seemed a good time to explain that choice for the title.
The Aelwie Cave is located in the Burren, an extensive region of over 100 square miles noted for its extraordinary rock formations. At first glance, the region appears barren and lifeless, a kind of lunar landscape. General Ludlow, who led the Cromwellian forces into Clare in 1651 said that the Burren “is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, or earth enough to bury him.” But below the carboniferous limestone surface lie many turloughs, seasonal lakes which appear and disappear, and the flowers and plants of the Burren have made it a favorite of botanists because of the cohabitation of Mediterranean and arctic-alpine plants. [Information from Fodor’s 90 Ireland]
We find ourselves eating supper earlier these days––by candlelight––and going to bed earlier. It’s that time of the year, the dark time, before the solstice on the 21st of next month, when the northern hemisphere of planet earth begins to incline toward the sun. Not uncoincidentally, the church begins its liturgical year tomorrow, the first Sunday of Advent, and also begins to incline toward the light, the light of the world whose birth we will hail and celebrate on Christmas.
A story I like to touch upon in every Advent season is my experience of what is called absolute darkness. I was in County Clare, Ireland, in 1994, making a pilgrimage of sorts to ancestral homesteads, when I happened upon the Aelwie Cave. At that time the cave had been cleared about a half mile into the earth, and visitors were invited to descend a decidedly rickety footbridge to view, among other things, the illuminated hibernation pit of a prehistoric bear, and an abyss-like cavern within the cave that featured dripping––one drop every five seconds––stalactites and the receptive opposed stalagmites. The relative unsteadiness of the footbridge, which was a mere one-person wide, discouraged any protracted meditation on the natural wonder.
The guide had told us at the beginning of the descent that when we reached the furthest-most accessible point of the cave, she would turn off the jerry-rigged strand of single light bulbs that stretched the length of the walkway. We arrived at the end, and, true to her word, she switched off the lights. Ireland is a country of extremes, viz., just as I thought I knew what the color green was before I saw the green of Ireland, just so had I thought I knew what darkness was before I was plunged into absolute darkness, which is a darkness without even a pin prick of light.
The guide had said that the human being can only bear absolute darkness for about 30 seconds before becoming agitated and anxious. We weren’t simply preconditioned, predisposed by her words; that’s the way it really was. The movement on the bridge as seconds passed was disquieting in itself, considering the seemingly haphazard nature of the construction. Added to that the aforementioned anxiety, and you have a nervous mix of people poised to turn and return to the entrance to the cave. But we needed the light, the turning on of which was welcomed with audible sighs of relief, small talk and the shifting of purses from one shoulder to the other.
That descent into the Aelwie Cave has become a metaphor for me for the season of Advent. We are a people in complete darkness waiting in fear of the unknown for the coming of the light, and, as we believe, that light being the Light of the World, Jesus, the Christ. No more than we can stand absolute darkness beyond 30 seconds can we stand or bear being without God for a protracted period of time, whether or not we know that as the name or label of what is missing, what is sustaining us moment by moment beyond our knowing. Our hope in these days of early sunsets, early suppers and early bedtimes is that there will be light at the end of Advent with the coming of Christ at Christmas. We let that hope build in us and give us the wherewithal to continue in the multiple responsibilities of our individual preparations, from Christmas cards, to decorations, to gift-buying. From cooking and baking, to wreath-making, to singing for our own entertainment and others.’
While all of these activities are part of the preparation for the 12-day holiday season, the most important preparation is of the individual heart. Once we get past our fear of the darkness associated with the season and the wider darkness that it connotes, which is actually what can frighten us, once we get past that we can focus on the four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas as being like the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, a time of penitential reflection.
This time of getting ready is a time to think about what rooms need cleaning up, cleaning out, before the coming of the Lord. If there’s a hidden room under your inner staircase that hasn’t been opened in years––unforgiveness, for example––and you know that the dust and grime has built up over the years, dare to open the door with the help of the Spirit of God and apply the cleaning tools of reflection and repentance. And tears. Nothing washes clean like tears. Clean up the mess before the baby comes.
Readiness is all. I want to be ready. Don’t you?