Advent awakening. Finally.

I felt a sense of panic last night as I realized we were already a few days into Advent and I had not been to this space to offer any words of encourage- ment or any observations or even any recipes.

The days leading up to Advent were packed to overflowing. Between the Thanksgiving holiday and my four-day trip with Noah to the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indiana (not to mention visits from family and friends and our first 5K race) things just felt totally out of hand. There was none of the quiet slowness that should herald the onset of this beautiful season.

Then this morning, as I felt the panic heighten due to a mounting number of work deadlines, I just stopped in my tracks. I closed the laptop, dumped the newspapers into recycling, cleared the table, made my oatmeal, and lit a candle. I sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” all by myself at my kitchen table as the steam from my breakfast cereal rose to the sky like incense. And suddenly Advent had begun.

I’d like to think that those few minutes of total silence and stillness are going to be more the norm than the rarity this Advent season, but I’m not that naive. December usually moves at full tilt, with shopping and planning and concerts and parties. I have no illusions of what’s to come, especially since I am currently working on two books on tight deadlines. And yet, still, I feel a settling now where a few days ago I felt only unrest.

I think we often forget that the peace and calm that prayer brings to our lives doesn’t come without some effort on our part. We can’t move through life at breakneck speed, sending a shout out to God along the way, and expect to become centered and balanced and serene. That only comes from the occasional silence we actively create in our lives.

As I told a group of teens earlier this month during a talk on prayer, if we give God just five minutes of silence a day (which will feel like five hours the first few times you do it), we will begin to see subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in our lives in short order. Five minutes a day of total silence. That means turning off everything — phones, computer speakers, Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts, TVs and stereos. Tune out every sound you possibly can. And then just sit and wait for God.

I experienced that kind of silent waiting, believe it or not, in a stadium of 23,000 teenagers a couple of weeks ago. One of the MCs at NCYC had the audacity to lead that giant, noisy group of excitable kids in lectio divina. When she started out, I thought she was nuts. By the time we were sitting in absolute silence, I was in awe. Imagine that many teenagers just sitting in silence, longing for a connection with God. If that don’t get you some religion, I don’t know what will. (I plan to write more about the NCYC experience in days to come. Sorry for the delay.)

Yesterday day, during Morning Prayer, this verse from the Book of Tobit jumped out at me:

“When you turn back to him with all your heart,
to do what is right before him,
then he will turn back to you,
and no longer hide his face from you.”

So this Advent I plan to try to turn back to God with all my heart, not an easy task by any means. I know how quickly and easily I get thrown off course, but try I will. I’ll have the added benefit of some intense spiritual time this weekend, when I head to Kripalu yoga center for a workshop with Paulist Father Tom Ryan, a certified yoga teacher, called “Pray All Ways.”

In addition to the workshop, Father Tom will celebrate Mass late Saturday evening for those who want a Sunday Eucharistic celebration. He told me we would sit in a circle, chant, and have an interactive homily. I am beyond excited to experience all that is in store for me. (And my friend Michelle D., who bravely decided to join me for the workshop and share a room with me. Thank you, Michelle!)

I’ll be back with tales from the journey. In the meantime, slow down, breathe, be silent, if only for five short minutes.

Embracing life, with death in sight

My latest ‘Life Lines’ column, which is running in the current issue of Catholic New York.

By Mary DeTurris Poust

Some people know how to live, even as they’re dying. I have a friend who is just that kind of person, and I am continually awed by her strength, her faith, and her grace as she journeys through each day knowing full well that what’s left of her life on this earth is coming to an end. Quickly.

When I saw Maureen this week, she told me the last thing on her Bucket List – now that she’s checked off a trip to the Cape with her husband– is to live long enough to see her newborn twin grandchildren when they visit in December. “I think I can make it,” she told me, and I believe her.

It was not that long ago that I sat in her living room and she told me her daughter-in-law was pregnant but she didn’t know if she’d be alive for the birth in September. Now September has come and gone and she has her sights set on a new goal, all the while managing her life and her pain from home, thanks to Hospice care and a devoted husband.

Maureen has been battling ovarian cancer for years. Long before she became ill, however, I saw her as an inspiration and a role model. Hers is a peaceful, prayerful presence. She’s quick with a smile and an offer to help in whatever way she can. Cancer has only increased those wonderful qualities, it seems.

When someone needs prayers, I email Maureen. I know without question she will remember my friends and loved ones in prayer, even as I often forget. Just this past week, she asked me about a little girl I had asked her to add to her prayer list. To be honest, I haven’t remembered that little girl in prayer in quite some time, but Maureen prays for her every morning, along with a laundry list of other people and problems I’ve asked her to remember. I have come to believe that her prayers – coming from a place of such deep faith amid such incredible suffering – are especially powerful.

Although she no longer receives any treatment, she mentioned that when she did have to sit through those difficult appointments, she’d pray for all those people who had much worse things to bear. And I found myself wondering, even as she spoke to me, who could have much worse things to bear than a woman dying of cancer before her time? But Maureen doesn’t seem to see it that way. As I sit with her, spinning tales of my kids’ latest escapades or my own spiritual struggles, I get the sense that I am in the presence of someone who is at an advanced and somewhat rare spot on the spiritual journey.

So often it’s not until someone is gone that we realize the impact they’ve had on our lives. I feel blessed to recognize right now the impact Maureen is having, and will continue to have, on my life even after she’s gone. Her example of courage and determination and faith will not fade, nor will her peaceful acceptance – when it was clear there were no more treatment options — of what life had handed her.

None of us know the day or the hour. Logically I realize I could die before Maureen, but I still can’t seem to wrap my brain – or my everyday attitude – around that reality. Life doesn’t always go according to plan, at least not according to our plan. Life goes according to His plan, and we can either embrace the journey or be dragged along kicking and screaming. Too often I choose the latter, but Maureen is teaching me another way, the only Way.

Life isn’t always pretty or easy, and sometimes the lessons are learned the hard way. We can either stay stuck in regret or move forward with grace. Choose grace.

My Dinner With Chiara

Chiara and I ended up home alone this evening, sort of unexpectedly. Dennis and Noah are in New York City for a class trip (eating at Carmine’s as I write this), and Olivia was invited to dinner and a sleepover at a friend’s house. Although she was a little disappointed not to have anywhere special to go, Chiara was happy to have me to herself for a little while.

And so over a quiet, candlelight dinner of soup and salad (her choice), we had a chance to talk. She raised a couple of pretty insightful questions over the course of 30 minutes or so, things that make me sure she’ll go far in this life, or at least in the world of entertainment.

Question #1: If Goofy is a dog, and Goofy can talk, why can’t Pluto talk? Ah, this is an age old question, one that has confounded Disney fans for generations. It is, as we say in Catholic lingo, a mystery.

Question #2: If the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz knows she can be melted by water, why would she keep a big bucket of water out where anyone can grab it? And her follow-up question: I wonder if she can drink the water? Excellent question. I wonder…

Now it’s time to play a board game. Then it’s popcorn and a movie. I believe her pick is Peter Pan. It’s certainly not how I intended tonight to work out, but in the end it turned out to be exactly what I wanted.

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