Preparing the spirit

Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. From a physical standpoint, we prepare for Christmas with decorating, baking, purchasing and wrapping gifts. But how do we spiritually prepare for Christmas? Do we just pray more? Do we pray different prayers?

As with any preparation, the first thing we need to do is make an account of what we have and what we need. Translating that into spiritual terms becomes more than just an examination of conscience, which typically focuses on where we fall short of God’s will for us. However, examining our conscience and going to confession is a great way to clear the clutter and the spiritual baggage we have, so that we can proceed with our preparations. 

It is fortunate for us that Advent begins the new liturgical year at the end of our calendar year. This juxtaposition encourages us to review the calendar year that has past so that we can ask ourselves:

  • What have we learned about Jesus this year?
  • How has our relationship with Him changed?
  • Has it grown colder, warmer, or stayed the same? 
  • What is the quality of the time we spend with Jesus?

Like any relationship, we need to spend time with God and practice doing His will. We will not always succeed, but reflecting on a calendar year of moments and activities can help us see the direction in which our relationship with Him is going. Often it’s in reflection of events over a period of time that we can see the hand of God in our lives, and how He is actively working with us daily! 

Advent is almost four weeks of reflection, not a once and done thing to check off the list. It’s an opportunity to look at our daily tasks, both spiritually and physically, and determine how we can better praise God with what we are doing, asking Him to show us areas where we can grow closer to Him. As we reflect, we may also see areas of where God is calling us closer and where we’ve resisted that call. It’s these challenges to our faith that identify where we need to focus in the new calendar year. 

With clean souls, acknowledgement of God’s work in the calendar year coming to completion, and riding the wave of openness to the direction of growth in our relationship with Him in the new year, we will soar rejoicing in the Christ Child’s coming on Christmas day. 

Expecting Jesus

The first Sunday of Advent occurs this weekend. That means Christmas is coming really soon. Have you started your gift shopping? How about the decorations? Planning the parties? There’s so much to do and so little time!

The season of Advent is a time to prepare, but what exactly what are we to prepare for? It’s not the parties, gift giving, or how many lights you can string together before blowing a fuse. Advent is calling us to prepare for Jesus’ coming, not only as an infant thousands of years ago, but also His coming in glory at the end of time. The feast of Christmas marks Jesus’ first coming, when He was born of Mary and lived as a man. His mission was to bring salvation of the Kingdom of God to all the earth through His Passion, Death and Resurrection. After completing this mission, He ascended into heaven, setting the expectation of His return, or His second coming. While Jesus is always with us through the Church, His Mystical Body, and He remains with us in a remarkable and intimate way in the Eucharist, both His humanity and His glory are hidden from us. Advent invites us to prepare our hearts for Jesus. We look at Jesus’ first coming to remind ourselves that God became one of us in order that we might become His adopted children. True to His promise, Jesus is with us always, but we look forward to His return at the end of time  when we will see Him in His glory. 

When preparing to decorate for Christmas, we have to take stock of  the everyday items that make up our home decor. Chances are a good number of those items need to be packed up and stored away while the Christmas items are out. And in the midst of the transition, we probably do a cleaning of those spaces, otherwise everyone will see just how much dust can collect. Similarly, we need to take stock of our spiritual life and see what needs to be cleaned up. We look at our prayer life to see if it’s really central in our lives, or if it has been packed away like the Christmas decorations. To purchase a gift for someone, we examine how well we know the person and from what we know, we attempt to pick something they will like or that is meaningful to them. Suppose the gift were for Jesus, how well do we know Him? 

But this season is so hectic, how can you spend more time in prayer and on your spiritual life? Maybe it’s a few less decorations or one less party. Maybe it’s donating to a mission or charity in honor of those with whom you normally exchange gifts. The decor, gifts, and parties are meant to be a sharing of our joy in the season, not the goal themselves. Perhaps Advent is all about considering that if Jesus’ second coming was December 25th, 2019, would you be ready? 

The praying community

The Church has three distinct praying communities: the Church militant, the Church suffering, and the Church triumphant. Prayer is the common language and bond between us all. 

The Church militant is us: those still on earth. The “military”portion of it is the daily battles we face to avoid temptation and to endeavor to follow God’s will. There are many battlefields, not just one. Our soul is spirit, so one battle is in the spiritual realm. Another is in the realm of thoughts and actions. Having a mind that can think and ponder is both a blessing and a challenge. Good thoughts are just as easy to think as negative ones, but because we are human, we are often swayed by our emotions and attitudes. Those are yet another challenge.  We might be compassionate towards others or we might want to take justice into our own hands. By far the most difficult battlefield for most of us is our body, we can choose to use it to help others or to indulge in our own pursuits and escapes. It is upon all these battlefields — soul, mind, emotions, and body, that we apply the language of prayer. We pray for one another and for those who have gone before us. We ask the intercession of the saints to help us in all our battles.

The Church suffering sounds rather miserable, but the root of the word suffer, is to submit or endure. It also means to feel keenly. These are the souls in purgatory. They are often referred to as the holy souls in purgatory because they are on their way to heaven, but need the opportunity to purge the last vestige of impurity before they see God. After being divested of our bodies in death, purgatory gives us the opportunity to let go of the spiritual baggage. Time, space, and the physical realm can affect our souls; in purgatory, we can concentrate on what is holding us back from a full relationship with God. The souls in purgatory are destined for heaven, but our prayers can aid them on their way. And their prayers for us, can aid us in our earthly struggles to follow God’s will. 

The Church triumphant consists of the souls in heaven. They have completed their earthly battles, purged the residual taints of sin, and are now experiencing the beatific vision in heaven. While they no longer need prayers for themselves, they want to pray on our behalf. Their prayers are intercessory; they ask God for the graces we need in our various battles. While God alone is the one who makes miracles, we often attribute the good deed to the fervent prayer of a particular saint. 

Prayer is the language of God. It spans across life and death. It is a language that we share across the realms, praying for one another and praying with one another. It is a unity we participate in whenever we think, feel, say, or do good. We are not on the journey alone, and it only takes a prayer to be spiritually linked to a vast community seeking to do God’s will.

Word power

A response to a LinkedIn survey about using cuss words in the workplace made me frown. The effect of the message was: it’s just words, get over it. 

I’ve noticed in the workplace that it is now commonplace to use profanity, even during meetings. At first I thought it was being used for shock value, to make people pay attention. In some cases it may be used to illustrate the extent of frustration at a policies or roadblocks in a project. But there are some that use that type of language in their everyday speaking. In these cases too, there is that sense of, “This is the way I talk. You’re not going to change me, so don’t even try.” But when you hear these words over and over again, they seem to come to mind more readily than the words you want to say. Words have an impact.

While no words we say are as mighty as God’s who spoke creation into being, they are the basic building blocks of communication. The first thing Adam did in the garden of Eden was to identify each animal, basically giving each a name or a label. This allowed him and his descendants the ability to have order and reference points in their communications. When later in the Bible we see man trying to grasp at divinity by building the tower of Babel, God stayed true to His promise to Noah and didn’t destroy man, but rather confused his language.  Because they were unable to communicate effectively with others, the tower project was abandoned. And when Jesus stood before Pilate, it was the crowd, stirred up by those plotting against him, who called for the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate, fearing an uprising gave into the demands of the crowd. Words have power. 

The words we say, even those that may be sugar-coated, convey to others who we are and what we believe. We can use them to build up others and the Kingdom of God, or we can use them to cause hurt, strife, doubt, and destruction. Those that subscribe to the belief that they can use whatever words they want and it’s up to others to “deal with it,” demonstrate a prideful sense of self and a complete lack of compassion towards others. For those of us who have to live and work alongside these individuals, we must take up the battle daily to not let that language invade our minds, our tongues, or our peace in Christ. Let us strive to convey words that build up rather than devastate and destroy.  

Attributes of the saints

On the eve of All Saints Day, I was reminded again of Saint Peter and some of the qualities that transformed him into a saint.

My favorite story about Saint Peter was when he walked on the storm-swept water with Jesus. As the wind blew around my home and the rain pelted it, I watched the local meteorologist for an hour and a half, without commercial break, talk about the progression of a nasty storm through the central Virginia region. We were under a tornado watch. Since I’ve only been in my home about 6 months, it was a bit frightening. Hearing the powerful wind, I was reminded that Peter not only asked to walk on the water to Jesus during a storm such as this, but he actually got out of the boat and started to do so! It would have to be a rather catastrophic situation for me to step outside on a night like that. I was anxious just being inside the house. 

You can say I was fearful, but I don’t think you would call Peter fearless. Saints don’t lack fear, rather they have an abundance of confidence in God. Simply put, they trust Him completely. If Jesus could walk on the water, Peter thought that he could do the same with Jesus’ permission. And he did! It was only when his focus was distracted from Jesus that he realized what a precarious position he was in, and that slip of faith caused him to stumble and sink. To be a saint means that we need to put all our trust in God, not just for a moment or for the initial decision, but for all our lives and in every situation. To be a saint also means that we may stumble at times, but Jesus is never too far away to help, as long as we reach out to Him and trust in His actions.

Another quality of sainthood is to be holy, that is to be set aside from the everyday for a sacred purpose. When we give our lives to God, and trust Him completely, we are separating ourselves so that we are in the world but not of the world — not being consumed with what is popular. Peter set aside his fishing business to be an apostle of Christ, and then to lead the fledgling church through the first years after Jesus’ Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. The call to sainthood is  not just for the apostles, it’s for all of us to mirror the love Jesus displayed to every person we meet. To love without conditions, just as Jesus was equally kind to rich and poor. To be generous, just as Jesus was generous in laying down his life for us. Everyone in heaven is a saint.  They come from all walks of life and their actions spoke louder and more eloquently than words of how much they love Jesus.

The celebration of all the saints may have come and gone, but taking time during the month of November to think about the saints and the qualities they displayed is a good preparation for Advent. May we follow in their footsteps, through this life and into the heavenly paradise.   

Faith Response

Faith is a gift from God. How we respond to it is a measure of our relationship with God and illustrates the quality of the relationship. In a recent gospel from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Lk 12:48) I don’t know about you, but that sounds like responsibility to me.

Looking at the surface of that teaching, the literal translation would be that the more we have the more we need to share with others. In our material-obsessed culture, that’s as far as many people go  in trying to understand it. But we are more than just possessions. We also have the gifts of time and talent to share. With how much technology we have, there should be loads of free time, right? Yet everyone seems to be “so busy.” But what are we “so busy” doing? Remember the story of Martha and Mary? Martha was upset that she was “so busy” and demanded that Jesus tell her sister Mary to help her. 

When we start to apply the idea of time to the passage, it starts to take on a different dimension. Time is finite. We only have 24 hours in a day. Even if we use all the time wisely, it may feel that  God demands more from us. Perhaps we need to look not at quantity, but the quality of our time. Sure, we can carve out the time for saying morning and evening prayers, attending daily Mass, praying numerous rosaries and chaplets, and volunteering in charitable organizations, but are we learning anything more about God in these activities? Or are we just reciting words to Him or fulfilling an obligation? 

God calls us to go deeper. Thankfully, He does not ask us to perform 200 ft high-dives into the deep end of the faith pool. Rather He allows us to get comfortable in the shallow end, with those beginning replies of faith, like morning and evening prayer or saying a daily rosary or chaplet. The more we begin to open up and trust Him, the more we will be carried on the waves of His grace. 

Included in the definition of responsibility is trust as well as to be responsible which is defined as  being called on to answer, or being accountable. Responsibility, responsible and respond all share a common origin from Latin meaning “reply.” Our reply to God needs to be one of trust. As we trust in God with our time, talents, and treasures, we reply or return back to Him what He has given us in blessing. When more of it is demanded, it will be because God is blessing us with more. As He gives freely to us, so we learn to be like Him, giving freely of ourselves. 

In His hands

The hand of God is often referred to, both in Scripture as well as spiritual commentary. It evokes God’s personal attention in our lives. It can also expand our horizons to the majesty and awesomeness of God.

In Daniel (5:5), God’s finger wrote on the wall of the palace. In the Sistine Chapel, the finger of God touching Adam’s finger, brings him to life. “With his mighty hand and outstretched arm, God’s love endures forever;” sings Psalm 136 (verse 12). “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.” (Isaiah 64:7). There is a sense of comfort that we can get meditating on the different references to God’s hands and what they have accomplished. We know what He can do, and yet we hold tight to worries and anxieties as if we can fix them better than He can. We are called to surrender to Him and put all things into His hands. 

It’s easy enough to say, but can be hard to do. It takes both awareness of when we try to carry or solve our stressors, as well as practice. Part of my night prayer as I’m settling into bed is turning everything over to God so I can get a good night’s sleep. The other evening, I started with the usual list: myself, my household, and my family. Since friends, neighbors, and co-workers are ever changing, I try to include all by saying past, present, and future of each. I guess I must have watched a bit too much TV, as I felt the need to include the candidates running for the local elections. “But why stop there,” I thought, “the country definitely needs help from God.” So I included the US, then North America, and expanded it to the globe. But God’s creation is bigger than that, so I also included our galaxy and our universe. Whew! That’s quite a list! And it all started with little ol’ me. 

I seldom realize that I am part of something so grand and amazing. When looking up at the stars, I do thank God for His amazing work, but it took me expanding that surrender litany to realize that I am part of God’s handiwork. God created the universe. And God created me; how awesome is THAT?! 

O sweet Jesus, I surrender myself to you; take care of everything.