Observing Advent in London's Lambeth Palace



Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts from Miranda Harrison-Quillin. Miranda was specially invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to work and pray in the monastic community of St. Anselm, at Lambeth Palace in London for 10 months. In her most recent submission, she delves into her personal experiences of celebrating Advent and the holiday season from England.

Big Ben tolls and notifies all of central London when each new hour of the day or night begins. ‘Twas not one second after the towering clock tolled midnight on Oct. 31 that Christmas decorations sprung up all across the city.

The self-proclaimed "Team America" includes American students attending the 10-month period of work and prayer at Lambeth Palace. Together, they hosted and served a Thanksgiving dinner for their international brothers and sisters.

Just on the north bank of the Thames, I walked past Somerset House on a typically rainy Sunday afternoon. I passed its masonry archway that leads to a courtyard with galleries, shops and cafés. But something in my peripheral vision stopped me in my tracks. I took a few steps in reverse until it came into focus. It was an enormous, gorgeous, meticulously embellished Christmas tree.

I quickly looked at the people and shops around me but saw nothing. There was only the tree to indicate Christmas season. It was appropriately chilly for early November in London. It was good weather for a jacket, but there was certainly no need for a full coat.

Without the speed bump of Thanksgiving on the calendar, the United Kingdom (UK) hops directly from Halloween to Christmas with speed and enthusiasm. It challenges my Methodist sensibility and love of the liturgical rhythm of the church year. We have Advent on the church calendar so that we might observe it, not to gloss over it or conflate it with Christmastide.

Here at St. Anselm, we do a few things differently to mark the season and to help us wait out the four dark weeks leading up to the light of Christmas. Dark weeks they are, as the sun sets in London at about 3:50 p.m. We light candles on the Advent wreath in worship three times daily. We pray as a community at 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

At each of those prayer times, in addition to lighting the candles, we have Advent specific responses. For example, during our morning prayer, the refrain we say before and after we chant the Benedictus becomes: “Look toward to east, O’ Jerusalem, and see the glory that is coming from God.” The conclusion of that service becomes: “May the Lord when he comes, find us watching and waiting.”

Another practice that worked to help us stem the tide of Christmas from arriving too quickly was celebrating Thanksgiving. Even here in London, St. Anselm’s self-proclaimed “Team America” brought the American tradition to our international brothers and sisters. I can now include on my resume that I planned, prepared, cooked and supervised a Thanksgiving feast for 22 people.

We had turkey, sweet potato and green bean casseroles—even my grand lolly's recipe for cornbread dressing. “Team America” attended a special Thanksgiving Day worship service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the U.S. Ambassador gave an address and the Marine color guard carried the flag.

American representatives of the St. Anselm monastic community also attended a special Thanksgiving Day worship service at London's St. Paul's Cathedral. Designed by Christopher Wren, the cathedral was built following the great fire of London in 1666.

In addition to our daily discipline of close to four hours of silence, seven hours on Wednesdays, we will be spending seven full days in silence for a week. This retreat is an opportunity to reflect on Advent and spend time in quiet anticipation of the incarnation of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

It’s also an opportunity to use one of the most treasured formation tools in the church’s history, otherwise known as the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. The challenge of keeping a week of silence does not mean for us to try very hard not to talk, but rather to try very hard to listen.  

Keeping silence is for the sake of offering God time and space to speak without having to compete with all the noise that fills most of our daily lives, yes, even daily life in the Community of St. Anselm. Hopefully, God’s voice will be in dialogue and not competition with our own voices when we clear out other distractions.

And don’t worry about us at St. Anselm. We will have plenty of opportunities to celebrate the joys of Christmas. I am nearly as stalwart a defender of the tradition of decorating cookies as I am of the liturgical calendar. I have a hunch that welcoming the light of Christ born into our lives and our world, while gathered together with my brothers and sisters from every corner of the globe and several denominations, will be a Christmas to remember and cherish.

You don’t have to spend a week on a silent monastic retreat. You can make this Advent in your home and your place of work and your local church. It’s a time of holy anticipation and eager expectation.

How will you observe a Holy Advent this year? In what ways can you, even though you see the Christmas train leaving the station early, choose to wait? How will you acknowledge the darkness, both personal and collective, that we are so desperately longing for the light of Christ to illumine?

While you ponder these and other questions, know that there is a group of young disciples in white albs praying and pondering alongside you. May the Lord when he comes, find us watching and waiting together.

In her next post, Miranda describes John and Charles Wesley’s methods for living faith while also visiting Wesley’s chapel. She visits the site where John Wesley was laid to rest.

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