December 2013


I recently finished rereading Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman (1966), a book I had kept in storage for a number of years. In the novel, Percy introduces his character Will Barrett, a confused, searching 25 year-old from the Mississippi Delta.

Barrett has bouts of amnesia and all sorts of adventures, ending up finally in New Mexico at a dude ranch, where he has gone in search of his fiancee’s brother Sutter Vaught. Upon reaching the ranch, Barrett sits down at mid-afternoon and sniffs the soil, comparing the place to his home. Percy describes the scene:

The silence was disjunct. It ran concurrently with one and did not flow from the past. Each passing second was packaged in cottony silence. It had no antecedents…. Even in the Southern wilderness there is ever the sense of someone close by, watching…. Here one was not watched. There was no one. The silence hushed everything up, the small trees were separated by a geometry of silence.

“A geometry of silence.” I have pondered that phrase for days now. I like the sound of the words together, but what could Percy mean? I even looked up “geometry” in the dictionary, seeking some definition beyond the field of mathematics.

I decided that the author intended to describe an arrangement of objects, ideas and/or events placed in such a way as to create awe and a radical sense of the present in which one is utterly alone, but also filled with possibility. The silence of the New Mexico desert was qualitatively different from that encountered elsewhere. Because of it, in it, Barrett became disconnected from all that had gone before and could entertain new possibilities, accountable only to himself.  Such silence was both delight and terror, gift and demand. All the young man’s doubts and fears and muddled musings were “hushed…up.”

Advent also envelops us in a geometry of silence. It invites us to entertain new possibilities for life as we repent. The flow from the past—the guilt, the regret, the missed opportunities—need not and will not overwhelm us. And in our weariness, we can once again know hushed wonder as we nestle in the “cottony silence” of the good news brought by angels.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

In northern and western Europe in the 4th century AD, in the month of December, Christian missionaries emphasized repentance for new converts and spiritual disciplines for believers in preparation for the baptismal festival of Epiphany on January 6. Advent in those regions was not a time of joyful preparation for Christmas, but of solemn reflection as people looked toward a day of renewal and redemption on Epiphany and the Day of Judgment when Jesus came again.

In northern Mississippi in the 21st century AD, on December 8, the second Sunday of Advent, I attended a production of The Nutcracker put on by a local dance center. The show took place in a deconsecrated Protestant church that has been turned into an arts venue. The particular congregation that used to occupy the building practiced baptism by immersion, in keeping with their tradition.

The chancel was now the stage, but the baptistery remained (drained and dry, of course). The dance company used it creatively for certain scenes. The most striking were the ones in which, behind a mist from the baptistery, the shelf-sized nutcracker becomes life-size, and then later, becomes a real boy prince for Clara. In other words, these were times of transformation.

I not only found the director’s use of the baptistery space imaginative, I found it theologically profound, given the original connection of Advent with baptism. In that sacrament, we too are transformed, I dare say, into princes and princesses or even more, into full-fledged monarchs. “[He has] made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father….” the seer of Revelation says (1:6). We are given a new status, a fresh identity, a different purpose in baptism.

And like Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s son, we will have many adventures of discovery on our amazing journeys into wonder.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.