I ordered Enuma Okoro’s book, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, sight unseen on the internet several years ago. It has become a treasured yearly companion, giving me space to process waiting, worry, doubt, and what it means when God answers prayer. It has given me permission to be slow and silent during Advent (and beyond). Whether you’ve been celebrating Advent for a long time, or are interested in a time of preparation before Christmas gets underway, consider bringing this book along with you. Advent begins this year on Sunday, November 27th.
I had the privilege of talking with Enuma about her book. You can listen or read along here.
Cara Strickland: Thank you so much for making the time to talk with me about your book. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about it?
Enuma Okoro: Well it’s an advent book and is especially dear to my heart because I feel as though I wrote it under the spell of the Holy Spirit, for lack of a better way to say it. After writing this book I was spiritually exhausted. I remember telling a girlfriend that I actually didn’t want to pick up a Bible for a good while. I just felt wiped out. It’s sort of a close reading, I guess, of Luke 1, and it’s about Zechariah and Elizabeth and their faith journey. It was a new way for me to think of the Advent season. I happen to be someone who’s very much in love with the liturgical calendar and Advent especially and I think outside of the Catholic and Anglican Church we don’t pay enough attention to Advent, so this was just a novel way for me to sort of highlight it for myself and for the faith community.
CS: What are some of the differences that you see between Christmas and Advent?
EO: Well, Christmas to me is a time of celebration, a time of rejoicing in the fact that God has taken on flesh. So it’s a season of joy. Advent is more a season of repentance, a season of reflection, a season of waiting, anticipation, and a season of confession, actually. So they’re very different to me.
CS: What are some of your personal experiences with Advent? You said that you’re interested in the liturgical calendar and I’d love to know a little of your journey in that regard.
EO: The liturgical calendar, for me, has always been just another way to order my life in a way that reminds me my primary allegiance is to God, regardless of the geographical location or cultural environment I find myself in. I’ve always had an on-and-off relationship with the church. My first book, Reluctant Pilgrim, was about that. And I still struggle with that several years later. I have a deep love of the Triune God but deeply struggle with the idea of Christian community, belonging, and being claimed. The liturgical season is one way, as an introvert, I’m able to stake a claim in the Christian tradition, both personally and collectively with others.
Order and discipline, I think, are essential to following any faith prescription, at least for me. Whenever I’m out of order, I feel it in my spirit and I feel off kilter in daily living. I was born and raised Catholic, baptized into the Catholic tradition, and the sacraments are extremely important to me. I love all the bells and whistles of the Catholic faith. So Advent and the liturgical calendar are other ways in which I can sort of take on, Christ becoming incarnate, it’s another way that I also can put on the flesh of my faith tradition.
As far as experiences with Advent, I would probably point back to the writing of this book. I did not write it during the Advent season, but while writing I was following the Advent calendar, and it was so deeply powerful to immerse myself. I wrote it in the space of two weeks, actually. So for two full weeks, I’d say about 20 hours out of the day, I was fully immersed in the Advent scripture, and thinking through the lives of these biblical characters, specifically Elizabeth and Zechariah. I was reminded that there are so many ways God chooses to encounter us. I think it’s always about God encountering us, or at least taking the initiative, and we are the ones who are called to respond.
CS: Your title refers to silence as one of several surprising invitations of Advent. What all surprised you as you wrote this book?
EO: I think silence is a gift in itself. I think Zechariah’s forced silence is often read as punishment, because he didn’t believe the angel. But I think it enabled both of them, it gave them both time to dwell and to prepare on what God was about to do in their lives. Zechariah had time to dwell on his own internal thoughts, and Elizabeth had 9 months to contemplate what God was doing in her life and to contemplate what was happening in her body.
In a way this story gives me permission to retreat as well, or has given me permission in the past, to seek God in the silent spaces and to give God a chance to speak. I think so often we don’t know what to do with silence. We think nothing happens in the silent spaces but so much I think goes on beneath the surface. We see that in nature, I mean one of the most clichéd phrases or analogies is thinking about what happens to seeds in wintertime. You don’t see the bloom, but you know that they’re being nourished under the soil, and then a few months later they blossom in the springtime. I think it’s very similar with our faith lives, that during those seasons when things seem dead and we feel like we can’t access God, or God has left us, or it’s just silent, I think it really helps to remember stories like Elizabeth and Zechariah’s and to know that God is still at work. All those years before the prayer was answered, God was at work. Those nine months when they couldn’t speak to one another, God was at work. Those nine months when I’m sure Zechariah was frustrated that he couldn’t verbally share his experience, God was at work. So that’s the biggest gift of all, to me, is that oftentimes what may seem to us, or to others, as punishment, can often be a blessing in disguise.
CS: How do you hope people will use and interact with your book?
EO: That’s a really good question. I think first and foremost I hope it will give them permission to be honest, with themselves and with God, in their own particular faith journeys. Faith is messy. Faith is not easy and anyone who tells you it is, well, don’t listen to them. Faith is not easy. I hope it will give people permission to be honest in their journey, to be accepting of wherever they find themselves and to not give up hope wherever they find themselves. I also hope that it will encourage them to be more patient with others who may be at different stages of the faith journey than they are. Even if somebody reads this at a season of life where their faith is easy, my hope is that reading this will also add an additional perspective on how other people might experience the faith journey and that it would be a reminder to readers that we are all at different stages of it. So I hope it would inspire grace, I guess, that we would show grace to one another, that we would be patient with one another, and that we would learn how to wait alongside one another.
CS: On a practical level, talk a little about how you intended the structure to be used throughout the Advent season.
EO: I intended it to be a daily reflection or meditation. The daily readings are so short, some of them are just three verses, and I did that intentionally because this is supposed to be a close reading and I think so often we don’t realize just how much there is in scripture and how much there is in fragments of scripture. You know, we say the Bible is a living book and the way I think of it as being alive is that it’s as though it grows with you and every time I come back to the scriptures at different seasons of my life, different things speak to me and I gain new perspective or I see something I had never noticed before.