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: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.