Embrace the waiting this Advent

Brianna Heldt is a Catholic writer, speaker and podcaster. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.

Five years ago, one of my daughters desperately needed open heart surgery. Newly adopted and four-years-old, her heart defects were the result of having been born with Down syndrome. The doctors all said that she should have had this surgery when she was much younger, but that was simply not an option in the country of her birth.

So there we sat in the hospital on a chilly December morning, my husband and me, praying and waiting. Waiting for an update from the nurse on how things were going, waiting to hear that my daughter had been placed on the bypass machine, and waiting for the surgeon to finally emerge with news that, miracle of all miracles, the surgery had been successful. After so very much waiting, my daughter’s heart was repaired.

As a mother to nine children, my waiting is of course not limited to dramatic situations in dimly-lit hospital rooms. I wait for sleepy kids to finish breakfast so we can rush off to school, I wait for them to put their pajamas on (and drink their hundredth glass of water) before I tuck them into bed at night, and I selfishly wait for them to reach milestones that promise to make my own life a little bit easier—although it turns out that each new stage brings its own unique challenges. Who knew?

I also spend a fair amount of time waiting at soccer games and swim meets, and in the car outside of our church each week until my eldest finally emerges, with her friends of course, from youth group.

But for as much as I do it, I really don’t like to wait. It feels stressful, and inefficient. Waiting necessitates not only a quieting of the heart and mind, but also the acknowledgment that there are (gasp!) things outside of my control.

And then there is the not knowing. How will things turn out, what will this look like, will there be suffering mixed with the joy? I sit and worry over challenges my children face (not least of which is the reality of growing up in an increasingly coarse and confused culture), or I fret about friends and family who are sick or struggling. I inadvertently take my eyes off of Jesus, and my heart fills with anxious thoughts about a future I cannot see.

More than ever, then, I desperately need Advent. It is a liturgical season entirely predicated upon this notion of expectation, and waiting, for Jesus. And not only that, but Advent calls us to penance, reflection, and silence, things that are hard to come by in our modern time. We must place our trust in the hope of what is to come, while we wait.

As difficult as it all is, this is actually one of the biggest blessings of Advent—being still and watching God’s plans unfold, with the expectation that no matter what, it will be good. Not necessarily easy, happy, or what I would choose, but certainly part of my journey toward holiness.

If I can continue to trust and to love, and to remember that I am (in the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta) merely a pencil in God’s hand, I open myself up to the astounding and perfect work of the Lord. When I accept my vocation and all of the accompanying joys and sorrows, I become like Mary when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation—not just giving my fiat or yes to the one specific thing being asked of me, but to whatever may lie ahead as a result. Unknowns and all. Without condition.

It is, however, hard to enter into Advent and tune out the voices of the world, especially during this frenzied time of year. I am prone to becoming distracted, overwhelmed by what the perfectionistic culture expects from super-moms (think elaborately crafted gingerbread houses, perfectly baked cookies, and getting all of your Christmas shopping done early). So it is all the more necessary to carve out time to simply love and to simply be, both individually and as a family.

This can be time spent at home reading good books or playing a game, saying (even just a decade) of a family rosary, or singing an Advent hymn. Your plans don’t have to be perfect or even particularly extensive to make for a good and holy Advent—remember that God asks for our hearts and for our best, and he knows we have seasons of life that are harder than others.

And unlike the world’s shallow, saccharine-sweet version of the holidays, Advent makes space for loneliness and suffering. Also, for tired moms. Advent gives us hope, as we prepare our hearts for the Savior who came into the world as a small and defenseless baby. Advent gives us courage to continue to give our yes, in the way of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our waiting, even in a hospital room, is suddenly redeemed by the love and mercy of Jesus in Advent.

COMING UP: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.