From her multiple roles as writer, artist, mother, and grandmother, Gertrud Mueller Nelson, 70, has learned the true meaning of patience — a valuable virtue during the Advent season. Today, 20 years after the publication of her classic book about family ritual, To Dance With God (Paulist Press), Nelson speaks with Catholic Digest about the value of waiting, Advent, and the art of holy play.
Q. How has taking a closer look at Advent themes changed your faith life?
A. I love Advent, but I don’t know a lot of people who love Advent. Do we love waiting? I think we don’t mind waiting if we have learned that there is a reward for that wait. And I think that a big chunk of one’s spiritual life is learning to have confidence in the darkness of winter, in the times when things look bleak, to know that, in fact, there is something out of our sight that is coming into being. And that isn’t always just Christmas, but it’s all those new births in our spiritual life that require a period of waiting. Advent is just that one time in the year when the Church says, “Waiting is tough, but we all have to wait, so let’s wait together.”
Q. What’s the value of this waiting process?
A. Well, how many children say, “I can’t wait until Christmas!”? It’s a common thing with kids — at least I hope it still is. That’s a beautiful pleasure that they’re deprived of if they don’t have something to prepare for, wonder about, to worry just a little bit about whether it’s going to happen. There isn’t anything of value that we don’t have a certain period of waiting for: a good wine, for bread to rise, for our compost to work. This kind of waiting is about transformation. It’s about going from this state of heart and mind to that state of heart and mind. If your children smell a cake in the oven and say, “I want a piece right now,” would you pull it out and give them each a soup spoon? It wouldn’t be the same thing. All those things are about a period of waiting where something turns from one thing, which is kind of raw and not useful, into something quite marvelous and worth the wait.
Q. How do we keep our children from seeing the waiting process as a kind of punishment?
A. Our adult attitude toward waiting has everything to say about what we impart to our children. Do we gun it when we see a traffic light turning yellow, or do we slow down and say, This is a tiny chance to wait, and I’m going to use this moment to pray about all the places in my life where I need to wait? What was typical while I was growing up was: “No, you can’t go out to play until you’ve practiced the piano. Now you have to do your homework. Now it’s time to eat dinner, and then you can’t go out to play because it’s dark.” So we taught children that waiting isn’t worth it, because nothing ever comes of it. We have to practice periods of waiting to say, This is a wonderful wait. That’s one of the reasons why I think we have the feast of St. Nicholas during Advent. It’s a way of saying, You can have a little taste of what we’re waiting for. Because as the Father gives us the Son, so the bishop saint gives us a gift that says, Waiting is worth it.
St. Nicholas comes to us in amazing ways. He comes in a great idea: how you can surprise someone and not let him or her know how you did it. That is St. Nicholas working through you. The world has become very large, and just as God needs humankind to effect the plan of salvation, so often St. Nicholas needs us to get that work done. That’s the kind of St. Nicholas you never outgrow. That’s the other really important thing that we do when we teach Advent and waiting and gift-giving to our children: We never give them anything to outgrow. How are you going to say, “No, you don’t have to believe in St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, but I want you to believe in Christ and the living Bread — that you have to believe.” You need to find out that there is truth in myth that is just as true as historical truth, it just so happens that it takes place on a different level.
Q. How do we explain that kind of truth to our children?
A. Well, one of my kids explained it to me. When she was 4½, she said, “A myth is a story that’s not true on the outside, but it is true on the inside.” And that’s the best definition of the mythic truth that I know.
Q. Can adults also benefit from these Advent rituals?
A. I’ve never done a St. Nicholas ritual that hasn’t fed me back, because somehow or another you enter into that place of holy play. You prepare something, you bake some cookies, you emboss them with an image of a holy man, and you sneak around, in my case, here at the church where I work, you put one in everybody’s box, and you say nothing. And everybody’s going around grinning and munching on their cookie knowing very well that they must not ask where it came from. There’s a child in us all, and if that childlike thing isn’t nourished and taken care of, we won’t become as little children, we won’t enter the kingdom of heaven.
Q. How can other tangible signs of Advent, like an Advent calendar or wreath, benefit us during this time of waiting?
There are many customs for Advent, and lots of parents get overwhelmed. I say, choose one and do it all the way through. The easiest one is to have the Advent wreath. It’s something so old it just reaches back to the oldest parts of us. The ancients in the north were losing their white summer nights, and darkness came and it would last so long that they would worry, Would the sun ever return? And the snows came, and the wagons had nowhere to go, and they took the wheels off the wagons and they brought them in and they festooned them with that peculiar plant that stayed green, and they put torches on them, and they hung these in their great halls and they spun them around and they wooed the sun back. What if we had to make our Advent wreath out of one wheel from our car? We would stop, wouldn’t we? And that’s really what it means: This is time out of time. This is God’s time. This is hunkering down to be, in these four weeks, as you would be in the last day of your own pregnancies. The process of making things and counting diapers and painting the room and hanging the mobile — all of those odd little gestures we do — prepare us on the deepest level for what’s coming. That’s what those customs are about. The addition of lit candles, the opening of little windows on an Advent house. Make an Advent house with Advent windows. Instead of just getting ones where they have a chocolate for every day, go and make it as a family. Put it back into the context of what we really are waiting for. CD