When I encounter gospel readings on “alertness” or “wakefulness,” the Jesuit author Fr. Tony De Mello comes to my mind. Tony famously said there are three non-negotiable keys to spiritual development: The first key is awareness. The second key is awareness. You guessed it, the third key is awareness! If you are like me, you might object saying: “C’mon Tony, shouldn’t the Ten Commandments crack the top three? What about the Golden Rule, what about social justice? You have to be exaggerating.”

Fr. Tony’s focus on awareness gets some support from today’s gospel, and many like it. Jesus often calls us to a posture of alertness, watchfulness and wakefulness. Tonight we begin the season of Advent which inspires us to be awake and watchful for the coming of Christ. We do well to ask ourselves tonight is Fr. Tony exaggerating or is he on to something? What does spiritual wakefulness looks like in our lives this season? I suggest to you that given the events surrounding Ferguson this week, the answer to this question has never been more critical.

Learning to Observe

To get at the heart of this gospel, I think we need to cross examine the very basic stories we were told about ourselves. Most of us were taught that our most fundamental problem is that we thought or did bad things and needed forgiveness. So we lined up for confession with a list of misdeeds and mistakes. We did not go to confession and say “Forgive me Father for I am asleep to God. Forgive me for not being alert to the spiritual pulse in all creation.” No we were so focused on the story that we a little sinners needing a rescue that we neglected the most fundamental story of all – we are asleep. Fr. Tony says “Life is something that happens to us while we are busy doing something else.”

So what do we do to wake up? Fr. De Mello is not a big proponent of methods, however, he does keep coming back to a practice of observation as a tool for awareness. He says we awaken when do what uniquely makes us human – rise above ourselves and compassionately observe the thoughts, beliefs, voices and feelings that flow by. It helps to imagine our thoughts, feelings, compulsive acts etc., actually happening to someone else. My favorite image of this is that we are the unfathomable sky looking down at various clouds of thoughts and feelings we are having. We, in our essence, are the limitless sky, not our thoughts and feeling. For example, I need to learn to observe, without judgment, George being delighted or depressed as the case may be that fleeting moment. If I identify with the delight or depression, I am asleep.

A modern counterpart to Fr. Tony is the writer Eckhart Tolle, and the story of his conversion to wakefulness illustrates the power of observation. Eckhart was a young student on a metro bus one day and he sat within earshot of a woman who was keeping up an ongoing conversation with herself out loud. Her pitch would rise and fall as she had pleasant or painful thoughts. She seemed completely unaware of her surroundings. He felt sorry and embarrassed for the women, but then it hit him like a tons of bricks that he behaved the same way most of the time, only silently in his head! He relived hurts, debated issues, argued with people etc., generally clueless of what was happening around him. As he observed himself doing this, a small, incremental quieting occurred right away and he was on his way to transformation.

A Quantum Leap

If we look at wisdom from the world of science, Fr. Tony’s call to awareness looks smarter and smarter. The study of the smallest of things this past century, referred to as quantum mechanics, revealed some things about consciousness that sent the theologians back to their books. In what is now referred to as “The Most Beautiful Experiment” concerning waves and particles, scientists discovered that matter at the quantum level was affected by observation. Endpoints were not predetermined based on laws. Matter and energy that was observed behaved differently than when it was not observed! Isn’t it interesting that mystics like Fr. Tony have taught for centuries that real change in the human person always starts with observation, with awareness?

If all this sounds a bit self-absorbed, it really isn’t. In fact we are not much use to the world asleep! To love another begins with really seeing them in wakefulness, not seeing them as I need them to be. The world needs us to be operating out of our limitless sky within, seeing clearly, following the pulse of Love. In a homily last month Frank asked us to do this work of observation with racism. He asked us to observe the clouds that float by when we encounter a person of another race. Do we observe fear? Do we observe some presumed entitlement over this person? He said not to judge these feelings and thoughts about race. Until we observe it, we cannot deal with it.

We have witnessed this week in our City what happens when unobserved fear of blackness erupts through the crack of profound stress. We have witnessed unobserved anger resulting in further damage and division. As a culture we need to put the work of observation and awareness regarding race on the front burner.

Astronauts who have been to space universally report on an experience that has come to be called the “The Overview Effect” – what happens to them as they look down on this blue/green oval of teeming life in the midst of dark space. They say their hearts are forever changed by this overview of our fragile, unified world. They report perceived boundaries and conflicts diminish within them. As we do our work of observation within, may it be so with us. May we be changed forever by our spiritual work this Advent.


George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the First Sunday of Advent

Saturday Evening, November 29, 2014

Focus Text: Mark 13:33-37 (Be alert!)

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