Let your family culture set the tone for Advent

My husband and I recently celebrated our fourth anniversary of being received into the Catholic Church.  Our conversion is still somewhat of a beautiful mystery to me—how did we, of all people, manage to stumble upon the fullness of the faith?—and the more time that passes, the more I realize that our Catholic faith is far deeper and richer than I ever could have imagined.


Relatively new to us as converts has been the rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons.  Advent in particular has been an incredible thing to enter into, I suspect because the season holds so much for those of us who feel as if we’re deep in the trenches of life.  As a  mother to eight children, I know what it is to worry over a little one’s future, to suffer through a miscarriage (or three), to sit in a hospital waiting room while a child undergoes open heart surgery.  As a mother with adopted children, I know what it is to answer hard questions, to continually point broken hearts towards God, and to long for the day when Jesus will set everything right once again.  In the meantime we wait, and we hope.


And Advent, to me, is precisely that: hope.  Mysterious and profound hope, found in the waiting and quiet of a world anticipating the birth of a desperately needed Savior.  So while we admittedly haven’t been at this whole Catholic thing very long, I wanted to share some of the ways we observe Advent in our home.  Clumsy and humble as our efforts may be, I want to encourage you in your own journey towards Jesus this upcoming season.  If we can do it, you can, too!


Planning ahead.  Maybe this is kind of obvious, but I think it’s a good idea to at least partially think out what you hope to do well ahead of time.  It makes a huge difference, for example, when you actually purchase your Advent wreath for the dining room table prior to the start of Advent!  And don’t forget the candles, either–I am fairly certain we’ve failed at both in the past.  Have your Advent items stored for the year in labelled bins, and make a list of things you’ll need to purchase.  Once the season gets underway, you’ll want to be able to focus on your traditions (along with all of your other daily tasks).  Speaking of the Advent wreath, we really do own one, and try to light the appropriate candle(s) around the dinner table while singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, either nightly or, at the very least, weekly.  And make sure you set aside at least one time to get to Confession!


Keeping things small.  When we first became Catholic, I felt like we had to know and do All of the Catholic Things.  If I accidentally missed a feast day or an opportunity to celebrate in some particular way, I beat myself up because I felt like my kids were missing out.  Nowadays though I’m much more realistic about how we observe the liturgical seasons in our home, which of course don’t stop for the stomach flu or a toddler’s meltdown.  Each year our goal is simply to set up our Advent wreath, set out our assorted Nativity sets that we’ve collected on our travels around the world, and use some sort of book of daily readings to be done as a family during or after dinner.  Simple things, but things my kids really love.  Even my oldest children are still thrilled over the shepherd and Holy Family figurines arranged around the manger, and even the littlest appreciate the Advent hymns. I like to choose a few good traditions to shoot for, and that way if for some reason we aren’t able to make it to the Spanish Mass for the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it’s okay.


Maintaining perspective.  Sometimes we see so many possibilities, so many good things to potentially incorporate into our family celebrations, that Advent ceases to be a time to be still before the Lord, and becomes yet another box to check or obligation to fulfill.  But the truth is, of course, that what we really need to be doing during this season is looking inward, preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus.  And if you are like me, and in a phase of life where the laundry, mopping, and shuttling kids around never seems to stop, you have a limited amount of time, period.  So don’t get down on yourself if it feels like you’re the only dad or mom in your parish that doesn’t put coins in your kids’ shoes on December 6th.  Remember instead that it’s not a contest, and that while there is no shortage of lovely traditions to adopt, you have the rest of your life to do so.  Keep the basics the basics, and remember that God has you in your particular life phase for a reason.  Don’t forget to embrace that in embracing the season of Advent.


Honoring your own unique family culture.  Every family is different.  This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but sometimes we forget, and then we have a harder time maintaining the aforementioned perspective.  Some families wait until Christmas Eve to decorate their Christmas trees, which is very much in keeping with the heart of Advent, a season of penance and waiting.  We however, for as long as I can remember, have always jumped the proverbial gun and gotten our tree up by the end of Thanksgiving weekend.  Eventually I’d love to try doing it the other way, but so far it’s just what we’ve always done.  Earlier I mentioned our Nativity scenes spread all throughout our home, but I know for some that would be begging for broken Nativity scenes.  There is also always extended family, and the continuing or incorporating of their traditions.  So in planning for your Advent, make sure you’re choosing activities that will work for you and your particular family.  It may look different from the family down the street, and that’s okay.  The ultimate goal is to ready our hearts for the coming of Jesus, and that is something we can all do, no matter who we are.

COMING UP: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

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The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”