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: Pilgrimage: A journey through Church history

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“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Paul proclaims these words the end of the book of Acts, capping off the biblical narrative of the work of the Apostles. The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the death of the Apostles, however, but continues in the life of the Church, fulfilling the words of Paul. The Gentiles have accepted the Gospel and have built up the Kingdom of God on earth. This is our story and we continue it.

If you want to know how the story continues after Acts, I’ll be teaching a class through the Denver Catholic Catechetical School this year, called “Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History.” It begins with the early Church and follows the story to today. The class explores the Church Fathers, the fall of Rome, the building of Christendom, the High Middles ages, the Reformation (perfect for the 500th anniversary this year), the expansion of the missions around the globe, the modern revolutions, and the Second Vatican Council. We’ll be looking at and discussing the most important historical sources and exploring the art of the various time periods. We’ll be entering into the Church’s story by allowing the key figures and events to guide us.

We see one turning point in the story in the year 430. St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo as the Vandals prepared to sack and conquer the city. Augustine lived at the end of an age as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, but also at the beginning of a new Christian one, an age he helped forge. The great doctor of the Church thought through the implications of the rise of Christianity in an age of political decline and saw right into the heart of history. History, unlike the focus of our textbooks, finds its true course not in politics or economics, but through love.

Augustine posited that all mankind belonged to one of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. One city took its shape by loving God before all else and the other in a love turned inward on oneself. Augustine taught us that we live as citizens of our true homeland above even within the midst of this passing world: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work. . . . I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city—a city surpassingly glorious.” Augustine’s teaching laid the foundation for a new Christian civilization, Christendom, which sprang up amidst the ruins of Rome in Europe.

One young man unexpectedly began building the foundations for this new civilization. He was studying within the ruins of the decadent city of Rome in about the year 500 and fled the temptations of town to live as a hermit in the wilderness. Eventually, others flocked to him and he laid the foundations for monasticism throughout Western Europe. The monasteries provided the foundation upon which a new society was built. St. Benedict, for this work, has been recognized as a patron of Europe and a true father of Christendom. His Rule does not seek to build up the earthly city, but looking to the City of God to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.” And this is the key to Catholic culture and history: seeking the lasting the city helps us to live better in this life, with wisdom, courage, and hope.

We are all pilgrims, living in exile in the city of this world, and journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). And yet we have to build a city on earth and looking to the past provides inspiration for this great project. This is why we should study Church history, especially as our culture goes through a period of upheaval, not unlike St. Augustine’s time. We need the witness and the legacy of the saints and doctors to guide our pilgrimage as we continue the story of the Church. Looking to the past helps us to plot out our own path on our journey to eternal life.

Class details

“Pilgrimage: A Journey Through Church History,” John Paul II Center, Denver. Tuesdays, 9:00 AM. Information Sessions: Aug 1 and Sept 5, 9:00 AM. Classes begin Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Register at: https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1968327