Advent, the UN, and the Void

Photo by Blair Nelsen. Fresco by Bo Beskow.

by: Blair Nelsen, Executive Director, Waterspirit

The small, V-shaped room could only fit about a dozen people on small wicker benches. The din of the outer lobby was muffled nearly entirely; this was a space set apart. This was the Meditation Room at the United Nations. A huge iron block fairly pulsed in the room’s center, but back in the corner of the V, it was the abstract painting that held my fascinated eye. Specifically, it was the small, dark half-circle — a black void, it seemed, in the dim light — that drew me in over and over, sucked into the inky vastness of its abyss. I had never seen any place quite like it.

That was during my first tour of the UN. It was the year 2000, and I was sixteen years old. I was there for a Model United Nations trip, writing mock resolutions to solve the world’s great issues. I remember that I was playing the role of a delegate from South Africa working on a UNDP resolution to confront the spread of AIDS in Africa. For the grand finale — the final plenary session — we high school overachievers got to vote on our resolutions in the General Assembly room. I nearly shook with excitement.

Yet, interrupting the buzz and drive was this unusual little room that we stopped into while on a tour of the grounds. That void stayed with me. I was upset by it — wasn’t meditation supposed to be something nice and pretty? What did meditation have to do with the UN, anyhow? It wasn’t part of the behaviors we were being taught to model in Model UN club.

I returned for the first time last Wednesday. The Meditation Room wasn’t included in the tour, so I had to make a special stop. Once again, I was drawn in by the insistent, eye-catching void. This time, I found it welcoming.

I had just come from a meeting of the Religious at the UN, a group of representatives from Catholic ministries of which Waterspirit’s founder, Suzanne Golas, CSJP, had participated since its founding. That day’s prayers had revolved around the meaning of Advent, which surely primed me for that contact with the void.

In the northern hemisphere, Advent is the time of growing darkness and hopeful waiting for the return of the light. This waiting, however, is not passive. As Joan Chittester writes, “Advent… teaches (one) to wait without complacency, to wait without compliance.” There was certainly little compliant waiting among the heart-centered social justice workers in that meeting. Indeed, as our prayer sheet boldly voiced on our behalf, “This time that has normalized crisis is our holy ground.” Yet, how are we to hold room for the stillness of the void — the stillness of the not-yet-known — when the room is full of activity and noise? How dare we allow ourselves patience where there is so much that needs doing right now?

I suppose that within that question lies the mystery. The active waiting, the opening of space for the new to emerge, is part of the mystery Advent season teaches. The void is a part of the whole just as Bo Beskow’s little dark half-circle is part of the fresco. Within that active waiting “far beyond how things appear,” (this is Paula D’arcy now), “something vast waits to be known.”

Even in the building where the world comes together, world-building through words structured with utmost care and procedure — even there, or perhaps especially there, we must allow space for the vastness of unknown possibility to emerge.

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