An Advent Wilderness Experience

My Advent has not been easy. My mother has severe dementia. I’m unexpectedly estranged from a beloved family member. Far too many of those I know dealing with a mental illness have had an episode. And my husband and I are ending an era as his retirement is just two workdays away.

My Advent has been deep. I’ve spent time in a silent retreat house and hours praying through Advent meditation programs. I have the time now to do what I wished: celebrating Advent as a time of waiting for the Lord.

I have had a common Christian experience: the wilderness experience. I didn’t recognize it for a while … so common is catastrophe in my life. But the Lord does allow wilderness experiences. And he even put Jesus through one. The wilderness, we are told, is the best place to help people learn faith and endurance. It is one way to move to the next level.

I see the next level approaching even as the Advent candles are burning down. It is to spend more time listening and following God. And less time charging ahead and begging for God’s help in the aftermath. God may keep me in the wilderness until this lesson is learned. But I know I will not be tested more than I can bear. Whatever happens, it is for the best for those who love the Lord. And I am one of them.

Emmanuel: God With Us in Our Broken World

This holy season trumpets God’s extravagant love for us, a love beyond reckoning. Into our beautiful yet wounded world comes Emmanuel, God-with-us, carrying the promise of fresh hope to enliven our hearts. No matter how broken or seemingly hopeless our world may sometimes seem, the Advent messages are rich with joyous expectation and longing, insisting that God can and does bring forth life where none seems possible.

Pope Francis

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we add the angel to the creche, watching for Joseph and Mary to arrive. Staying out of the stores, listening to meditations, and taking winter walks, it’s amazing how quiet the world becomes.

Listen to Your Words

Today’s Christian mindfulness practice is to listen to your own words. An easy first step is to listen for verbal tics, like “ummm” or “you know.” You can also listen for the number of times that you routinely misuse God’s name. I know I still do. This is a great step toward true intentionality around the words we speak.

As Ruth Haley Barton says, “Growing self-awareness enables us to choose more truly the words we say. Rather than speech that issues from subconscious needs to impress, to put others in their places, to compete, to control and manipulate, we now notice our inner dynamics and choose to speak from a different place, a place of love, trust and true wisdom that God is cultivating within us.”

As we listen to ourselves, we may be able to slow down the auto-talk process to have enough time to ask before we speak:

  • Is it kind?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?

Staying Centered on Frantic Days

Some wise counsel from Henri J.M. Nouwen in Here and Now:

One simple answer is to move from the mind to the heart by slowly saying a prayer with as much attentiveness as possible. A prayer, prayed from the heart, heals.

As you lie in bed, drive your car, wait for the bus, or walk your dog, you can slowly let the words of one of these prayers go through your mind simply trying to listen with your whole being to what they are saying.

You will be constantly distracted by your worries, but if you keep going back to the words of the prayer, you will gradually discover that your worries will become less obsessive and that you really start to enjoy praying.

He’s Depending on Us

By His own will, Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent. He was absolutely helpless. He could go nowhere but where she chose to take Him. He could not speak. Her breathing was His breath. His heart beat in the beating of her her.

Today Christ is dependent on us. This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent, we must carry Him in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him.

Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God

The Energy of Overflowing Grace

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 

Luke 1: 39-40

When Mary agreed to become the mother of Jesus, she learned that her elderly relative Elizabeth also was expecting a baby.  Her first major action was to walk to Elizabeth’s home in a different town.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary says a walk from Nazareth to the hill country took three to five days, depending on where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. Because bandits frequented the route, Mary may have joined others in a caravan for safety.  It’s hard to imagine her parents allowing her to go otherwise.

Once she was there, something extraordinary happened. God responded to Mary’s act of kindness by letting Elizabeth know that Mary was pregnant with the Messiah.  What conversations these two women must have had as they spent months together! 

Meditating on this, I was struck with the energy of Mary’s act.  Even when I was young, it’s hard to imagine that I would walk for three to five days to go help a relative.  I wondered how Mary did it. 

In meditation, I saw the Mary’s energy and kindness always came from an overflowing of the grace of God in her soul.  Too often, my kind acts come from a near-empty well. No wonder doing good can feel so exhausting to me.

The Lord suggested that I change my process from creating a to-do list and dragging myself along it. Instead, I should spend more time with the Lord in prayer, worship and communication. This will build up my supply of grace so the good that I can do is an overflow rather than a series of drips. Sounds like a plan. 

Advent Resource: Pray as You Go

One of my favorite resources for Advent, or any day, is Pray as You Go. I use the app, and you also can access the resources through this website.

This season, Pray as You Go is offering a “New Beginnings Advent Retreat,” with additional Advent material in the daily prayers on the home page and the “Living the Magnificat” imaginative prayer exercise found on the “Going Deeper” section.

As the website says, Jesuit Media Initiatives of the United Kingdom produces the web site with material written by a number of Jesuits and experts in the spirituality of St. Ignatius. Check it out!

What Can I Do?

As we move further into December, the noise of the secular Christmas can easily drown out the quiet of the second week of Advent. The only solution I know is to spend some time in deliberate quiet, listening and waiting for the Lord.

So what do you do with your mind while you are quiet? Composing a list of last-minute gifts and worrying about your credit card balance probably won’t work.

Instead, consider asking Jesus a question: What would you like me to do to improve our relationship, Jesus? Then listen and expect an answer.

Visio Divina: What Do You See?

Happy Second Sunday of Advent! On this day, we light two candles in the Advent wreath and place all the animals in the empty creche. (I’ve collected miniatures of animals over the years that remind us of beloved pets who are no longer with us. That’s why my creche has a calico cat, an orange tabby and several dogs.)

I’ve been using a new resource for Advent: “Meditations on the Birth of Jesus: A Renovare Advent Resource for Spiritual Renewal” by Miriam Dixon and Margaret Campbell. You can find it here.

This resource, so far at least, focuses on lectio divina and visio divina. All my life, I have been words, not pictures, so it’s interesting for me to try to develop the skill of studying an image to find insight from God.

The image for the first week of Advent is on the cover of the guide, above. It’s from the French painter Georges de La Tour in the 17th century. It has two names: “The Nativity” and “The Newborn.” The image is of Mary and her mother with the infant Jesus. The white on Jesus symbolizes purity. The image is lit by a single candle that’s not in the picture.

Dixon and Campbell encourage us to see the intimacy, the hopeful expectation and the yearning on the faces of Mary and her mother. The meditation closes by asking us to think of someone in our lives who needs kindness and figure out a specific way to bless them this week.

Sounds like a plan!