Hopeful Waiting: Advent and Vocation

Advent points to a specific conclusion, but it is also a season of caring about the process—the process of renewing our hope that we can ready ourselves for what is to come.

Year after year, the academic calendar brings the gift of a rhythmic return to the same moments. If it’s mid-December, then I’m invariably scraping through exam week while ignoring the Christmas cards that should have been in the mail two days ago. As much as this month is about wanting to wind up the current semester, however, it also involves looking ahead. Just this week, I finalized—belatedly and guiltily—the book order for one of my spring classes. Doing so brought a familiar surge of excitement and anticipation. I have taught this class several times, but each new section offers the opportunity to tinker, improve, and of course meet new students. As I clicked “submit” on that book order, I was struck by the similarity between the renewal promised by the academic calendar and that embedded in the liturgical calendar. At this time of year, both calendars ask us to look ahead with hope. And that regular return of hopeful expectation, founded in students’ academic experience, can be a powerful vocational resource.

Process is not my students’ model for vocation, which instead works on a “one and done” model. Get all A’s this semester, land an internship, choose the right career, write a killer personal statement for graduate school: they have goals, and they’ve taken notes at the workshop where they were told to make their goals achievable by making them “SMART”—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. They see their lives as having a trajectory; their job is to get somewhere, and the academic calendar can seem to support this outlook. In late August, the freshly distributed syllabus promises a delightful intellectual journey. Its list of assignments has been designed to nurture students’ development; its policies have been written in a tone calculated to set high expectations but also to assure students that they can meet those expectations, especially if they use office hours or the campus writing center.

By this time in the semester, however, the rosy dreams of August have blurred in the rear-view mirror. Another term has frayed into pragmatic reality, both for the students and for me. I have recycled a lesson plan that I should have updated and have forgotten to click “return” in the right place on the course management system, leaving graded papers unreturned for an extra week. During some class periods, I talked when I should have listened. Students have had sprained ankles, playoffs, deaths in the family, anxiety, and “a lot going on.” They are emailing me at 2 a.m. to ask if they can revise a paper from four weeks ago, and I am squinting at my grading spreadsheet, trying to temper justice with mercy. But we will all do it all over again in just a few weeks’ time, and, given that I teach at a fairly small college, some of us are going to do it all over again with each other.

Henri J. M. Nouwen

It is more than facile optimism that can make this work: it is hope, which I recently heard defined, delightfully, as a belief that there is good work still to be done. This phrasing resonates at my college, where students are regularly exhorted to “Do great work.” It also resonates with a virtue that Henri Nouwen notes is embedded in the Advent season in “A Spirituality of Waiting”: “the practice of waiting,” which is not passive but active. “The secret of waiting,” Nouwen writes, “is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun. Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.” What if we saw academic life less as a series of hurdles and more as a process of watchful waiting for all that has been planted to bear fruit? What if, more importantly, we experienced it as such?

Although my students will probably not end up bound forever by the rhythms of academic life like I am, their experience of the academic calendar can teach them hopeful expectation. Two or three times a year, no matter what happened previously, the slate is wiped clean, and they can try again. The clean new syllabi, the stacks of books waiting for them in the cavernous ballroom, each neatly labelled with the names and home departments of their new courses—all breathe freshness, a renewed prospect of success, a new road forward.

It is more than facile optimism that can make this work: it is hope, which I recently heard defined, delightfully, as a belief that there is good work still to be done.

As I rummage in the dining-room cupboard for last year’s Advent candles after grading has prevented me from shopping for a fresh set, I think about the conundrum that something as singular as the incarnation gets celebrated yearly. My advice to my students to see their assignments as opportunities, not mere tasks, rings in my ears as I slip into seeing the Christmas season as an obstacle course of concerts, errands, and late-night wrapping. It’s true that familiarity can breed contempt—and here is Christmas again—but the fact that Christ comes to us over and over, asking us to try again, to do it a little differently this time, is itself a profound gift. Advent points to a specific conclusion, but it is also a season of caring about the process—the process of renewing our hope that we can ready ourselves for what is to come.

From my mid-career vantage point, I can see this renewal of hope as a powerful way to nourish our vocational thinking. My students may know that their lives will involve, on average, 12 jobs, and that what they major in may relate only tangentially to the work that they will do, but those facts are difficult for them to internalize. Paradoxically, it falls to me—someone who’s had really one job, reproducing and reinventing my own undergraduate studies—to counsel them to think of vocation as a process, something that must be renewed and refashioned over time and that involves waiting for one’s end to become clearer. Our vocations are ever-evolving, adjusting themselves to changing personal, institutional, and social conditions. As I have moved further into my career, I have recognized one particular gift that working with students offers: to be engaged always with people who are looking to the future and contemplating their places in it, and who are eager if sometimes apprehensive about what comes next. That forward-looking perspective—that hope for the future—helps me keep my own sense of vocation fresh, as I strive to meet students’ emerging needs and to connect with them in new ways. Each semester is as exciting for me as for them, for I, too, need the promise of a do-over and a renewal of hope that it will be better next time.

When I submitted this semester’s grades a few days ago, I felt a satisfying closure but also an incompleteness. There was still more to be done, as the students’ grades and my own reflections both showed. I am fortunate that I can, as Nouwen suggests, wait with hope—in the new year and in the new semester as well. I am also fortunate that, in this moment, the liturgical calendar offers its own renewal, a hopeful new birth that points its own way towards good work to be done.

For further reading: On Advent, see ‘Tis the Season: Advent, Justice, and Calling. On attentiveness, see Attention, Please: Attentiveness and Vocation.

Joanne E. Myers is an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College, where she teaches courses on 18th-century British literature and book history. Her recent publications include articles on the penal laws in 18th-century Britain and the role of conversion in Jane Barker’s fiction. From 2005-2007, she was a Lilly Fellow in the Humanities at Valparaiso University. For other posts by Joanne, click here.

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