Q: Dear Father John, Advent is coming! Even from a distance I feel my shoulders tightening up from the stress of all the noise of the season that has nothing to do with Christ. Do you have any recommendations for how I might better prepare this year? Are you aware of any good books that I can use for spiritual reading through this season to help me to keep my eyes on Christ?
A: Thank you for asking this question BEFORE Advent arrives! I am sure you are not the only one with the tightening-shoulder-syndrome. I am also sure that the tightening of your shoulders does not come from the Holy Spirit. So, what to do? You may want to read over some of our Advent posts from the past (like this three-part post on Advent Anxiety). But in the meantime, I would like to offer five suggestions.
First, decide what you are going to say “no” to. The Advent and Christmas Seasons get filled up with a lot of stuff. We end up rushing around so much – parties, visits with relatives and friends, family reunions, kids back from college, shopping, school concerts, vacation, service projects, parish activities… To stay spiritually grounded during these weeks of intense activity requires planning ahead. It didn’t used to require as much as it does now, by the way. In past ages, local customs defined how families and communities spent their time. Nowadays, however, we have so many options that we end up over-committing ourselves and going 100 mph. It’s hard to pray in that scenario. It’s hard to reflect and enjoy God’s gifts. It’s hard to avoid becoming self-absorbed and superficial.
The remedy? Well, as mundane as it may sound, we have to apply basic time/energy management techniques. Sit down with your spouse (maybe with the whole family) sometime this month, before Thanksgiving, and look at the calendar. Go through it. Identify the commitments that you must fulfill and the ones that you really want to commit to. Consciously, intentionally decide to make those truly meaningful. (In going over your calendar, think about including some of the items mentioned below.) Then consciously, intentionally decide to say “no” to other things that come up on the spur of the moment – well, at least don’t say “yes” to them right away; wait until you can talk it over with your spouse. This will give you a measure of interior peace right from the start – you won’t be at the mercy of the apparently urgent tugs that are sure to come. And you won’t end up at the last minute trying to squeeze all the important things into three or four days of hectic activity. You will have planned ahead. Remember, peace is the tranquility that comes from order (that’s St. Augustine).
Second, change your meditation material. I am assuming that you have a daily God-time in which you engage in personal prayer, in Christian meditation. If you don’t – start! If you do, think about changing the source you are using for your meditation. If you have been meditating on the daily liturgy, for example, think about switching to a devotional book of some sort (for example, you could simply meditate on the Gospel of St. Luke, start to finish, using the commentaries in The Better Part, one unit per day). If you have been using a favorite devotional, switch to the liturgy, or to another devotional (like Alban Goodier’s classic The Prince of Peace – if you can find a copy). The liturgical seasons are given to us precisely because we need to change things up. We are creatures with one foot in time and another in eternity. This means we need rhythms in our lives, and rhythm means some things stay the same (Advent comes every year), but some things change (Advent doesn’t last all year). This needs to be reflected in our spiritual disciplines. I would like to invite ALL our readers to share ideas for this by commenting on Advent/Christmas books and devotionals that have helped them in the past!
Third, plug into your parish. Every parish has Advent and Christmas liturgies (like the daily Mass liturgies and the Advent penitential services), and they also have other seasonal activities (like Christian service projects). Engaging in them as a family (if possible) will help you keep Christ in the center, and it will also help you help others to keep Christ in the center. Building up your parish by participating in these liturgies and activities is a specific, nitty-gritty way to build up the Kingdom of Christ on earth. Personally, I would love to see as many parishioners going to daily Mass during Advent as we see during Lent.
Fourth, do an Advent retreat. This could be a weekend retreat, a retreat organized in your diocese or offered by a local retreat center, or just a simple personal retreat that you do during a full day or half day in a quiet place away from the ordinary hustle and bustle (like a convent or a monastery). We need silence and reflection in our lives – this has been a constant motif in the Holy Father’s series of catecheses on prayer. Even a daily God-time, lived with devotion and dedication, needs to be bolstered once in a while with extended periods of silence and prayer. Bring some good spiritual reading on your retreat, and maybe work in some extra time for more-than-usual spiritual reading throughout Advent. A worthy spiritual reading project would be to download from the Vatican website the Midnight Mass homilies of Pope Benedict (he has given five of them now) and those of Pope John Paul II (he gave 26 of them!). Make a booklet out of them and work through them little by little…
Fifth, choose your entertainment strategically. We all benefit from the inspiration and relaxation that entertainment affords us. We actually need to make healthy recreation a part of our lives – we are not robots, after all. But too often we aren’t strategic about this; we just kind of do whatever everyone else does, or whatever we have always done. Take some time to reflect, individually and as a family, on what entertainment activities you will enjoy during Advent and Christmas. Maybe you will want to fast from a particular activity during Advent (it is a penitential season, after all). Maybe you will want to schedule some sledding adventures (with lots of hot cocoa when you come home!). Or maybe you will simply want to watch your four favorite Christmas movies, together as a family (maybe even inviting friends over), on the Saturdays before each of the four Sundays of Advent. With a lot of fresh popcorn. It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, is a powerful film that can provide necessary relaxation and also spiritual inspiration. I would invite our readers to share their favorite Christmas movies to get some ideas flowing (I just mentioned mine)!
These are suggested actions you can take to make sure you don’t miss Advent (although the first item, I would say, is a little bit more than a suggestion – I think it is a necessity!). But it’s important to remember that the primary agent in making for a spiritually fruitful Advent is God. We can make adjustments and do our best to have our activities reflect our true priorities, but in the end, God is the one most interested in using this liturgical season to draw us closer to himself, to fill us with more of his wisdom, and to give us new tastes of supernatural joy. We need to follow his lead. He will draw us and guide us and inspire us – if we let him.