‘Tis the season to start thinking about our grand self-improvement plans for 2023, right? It’s right around this time of year, when we’re eating too many Christmas cookies, spending too much money, and just generally feeling overstressed and under-rested, that we begin to craft the resolutions that we vow to begin on January 1 and continue through the coming year. But, as we all know, that’s a fool’s errand. If we’re being honest, we often make the EXACT SAME RESOLUTION every single year. Because resolutions aren’t effective. They don’t work, and, more often than not, they usually just make us feel bad about ourselves and our ability to stick with our promise to . (Name your poison: eat healthier, exercise more, drink less, put down our phone, etc.)
Does that mean we should just give up the whole idea of transformation? No. But it does mean we have to rethink what we’re really looking for when we make a resolution that goes only skin deep and doesn’t get to the stuff underneath that usually creates the need for a resolution in the first place. Enter my annual rallying cry: ReVolution Not Resolution! You do not need to make resolutions. In fact, I challenge you to go against the grain and refuse to make any resolution whatsoever. Instead, promise yourself that you’re going to do something more meaningful and more lasting, something that helps you blossom into the Self you were created to be. The journey of inner transformation is the only real way to make the “progress” we seek in our spiritual lives and in our lives in general.
To that end, I’ll be offering an evening retreat — both in-person and online — for those who would like to take up this exciting and fulfilling challenge. We will talk about all the ways we block our own path when it comes to making our daily lives more peaceful and joyful and learn some practical exercises for clearing away the obstacles and moving forward. You can’t fail at this plan. If you don’t do what you set out to do, you just begin again right where you are. No resolution broken, no plan to abandon until another New Year’s Eve rolls around.
Hosted by Christ the King Retreat House in Syracuse and available to anyone in any region via Zoom, this workshop will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 4, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Two weeks after the event, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 6:30 p.m., we will hold an hourlong Zoom follow-up session for all participants so we can check in, share progress or challenges, and just generally support each other in our efforts to keep on keeping on.
If you’d like to read more about this approach to starting the new year off right, you can head over HERE to read a previous post on this favorite topic of mine. If you’d like more info on the retreat or the registration link, click HERE to go to the CTK website.
Click HERE to read a recent story on my upcoming retreat in the latest issue of The Catholic Sun.
Photo by SOULSANA on Unsplash.
We are approaching the mid-point of Advent, which, of course, includes the lighting of the rose-colored candle in our Advent wreath. It’s not just a pretty color or a seasonal aesthetic. For all of us on the Advent path, the color has deeper meaning: Gaudete, Rejoice! In a world focused on pre-Christmas chaos, the rose-tinged theme of this week is a little wake-up call, providing a sudden bright spot that makes us snap to attention and simultaneously draws us back to our center. The secular version of the season insists we hurry, shop, bake, wrap, but the Advent readings remind us to recalibrate, pause and ponder the story that is unfolding slowly before us rather than jumping ahead to the ending.
If we surrender to what is offered to us during Advent and give ourselves permission to slow down, we suddenly find life set to a new rhythm, a sacred rhythm that urges us to savor the preparations for the feast rather than just the feast itself. As we walk step by step toward Christmas, we are continually reminded that the journey is the goal, because this is about so much more than a moment that comes and goes in the blink of an eye. If we are paying attention, this journey will coax us along, reminding us that when the bows and ribbons are discarded later this season and the tree is brought to the curb, the inner place where we dwell in silence and the Person who dwells there with us is eternal. If this season does what it is meant to do, we will be left with an internal glow that shines on long after the ornaments and singing Santas are packed away.
While that sounds nice, we all know it’s not so simple. It can be difficult to keep that light shining through all the challenges and frustrations and annoyances that come our way day in and day out. It’s so much easier sometimes to slip back into dissatisfaction, to take up a poor-pitiful-me position and wonder why God (and everyone we encounter) can’t make it easier for us to be prayerful and patient and peaceful. But that’s not the way life works, and what merit is there in being prayerful if its power only sticks when times are good, right?
I think it comes down to remembering that rejoicing (today or any day) doesn’t mean we have to be happy all the time, outwardly bouncing around with a smile on our face from one moment to the next. To truly rejoice is to remain inwardly joyful even when times are hard, because our joy isn’t in things of this world; our joy is in God and what God has done for us.
When I was on an Advent retreat several years ago, we sang a beautiful Taize chant:
“Our darkness is never darkness in your sight. The deepest night is clear as the daylight.”
The play of light against darkness is so apparent during this season, when the ever-increasing glow of the Advent wreath stands in stark contrast to the thick cover of night outside our windows. During these turbulent and troubling times, it is especially easy to become so laser-focused on the darkness that we don’t see (or choose to ignore) the light shimmering all around us. We can even get into the bad habit of seeking out the darkness and stewing there. It becomes familiar and comforting, despite being painful and fear-inducing.
Throughout Advent we hear the messengers of Scripture reminding our ancestors in faith — Zechariah, Joseph, Mary — not to be afraid. Because God is with us, not just during Advent, not just on Christmas, but through every high and low of our year and our life. Once we realize there is no darkness with God, everything becomes clear, and we shine like the sun, even at midnight.
This column originally appeared in the Dec. 8, 2022, issue of The Evangelist.
My Catholic News Service column for the Second Sunday of Advent. (The image is me offering an expanded version of this message as a reflection at Mass during the Advent retreat I led this past weekend at the Dominican Retreat & Conference Center in Niskayuna, NY.).
The image of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel stands in stark contrast to the secular holiday images that bombard us from every side during this season.
Camel hair for clothes and locusts for food are a far cry from a red velvet suit and a plate of cookies, and, yet, here we are, trying to navigate between two very different worlds with two very different messages. Ho, ho, ho, you brood of vipers!
This Sunday’s readings can be a tough sell. We listen, we hear, but it’s hard not to feel just a little bit disappointed to be handed threshing floors and unquenchable fires as we decorate our Jesse trees and open the doors on our Advent calendars.
And while John’s dire warnings may seem out of place in a season of hopeful waiting, if we dive deeper into the readings, we find glimmers of a hope that will outlast anything we might find under the tree come Christmas morning.
For starters we can soothe our jagged souls by spending a little time with St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, today’s second reading, to offset some of the harshness John is serving out.
In Paul we find endurance and encouragement, harmony and hope. That’s more like it, we want to shout, but the hard truth is that ours is not a faith of either/or but one of both/and. We do not get the harmony and hope without the repentance and refinement through spiritual fire.
We probably should not expect anything less from a God who was willing to break into our world to save us by becoming one of us.
“The Advent mystery in our own lives is the beginning of the end of all, in us, that is not yet Christ,” wrote famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton in his essay “Advent: Hope or Delusion?”
“It is the beginning of the end of unreality. And that is surely a cause of joy! But unfortunately we cling to our unreality, we prefer the part to the whole, we continue to be fragments, we do not want to be ‘one man in Christ.’”
That sounds suspiciously like an updated version of the message John the Baptist brings us today.
This mystery we call Advent, this path through darkness toward light, is not only about preparing the way of the Lord but preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming — on Christmas, yes, but also at the end of time.
Advent is a season that dwells in both realities. We prepare to celebrate a birth even as we prepare for the end of the world as we know it.
But what does that mean for those of us who are living in the world, cooking dinners (not of the locust variety), buying gifts for family and friends, decorating our house and sipping eggnog?
Can we enjoy those moments of lighthearted joy even as we accept John’s message of repentance? Yes, because Jesus showed us how.
Throughout Scripture we see Jesus attend parties, share meals with friends and find joy in the innocence of children. Ours is not a joyless faith, just the opposite. It is a faith that finds joy even amid suffering, which is no easy thing.
This season of Advent and the Scripture readings that guide our way day by day provide the operating instructions for the difficult task of letting go of our unreality and clinging to the only reality that matters: Jesus Christ.
The rest of the world wants you to blast Mariah Carey around the clock, bake cookies till you drop and spend so much you’ll need six months to dig yourself out of debt. When you think about it, that doesn’t sound all that joyful, does it?
Advent, on the other hand, asks you to slow down, pause, breathe, wait, be. Can’t you feel your shoulders relax as you hear that? If you want a recipe for real joy, skip the world’s version and find what’s hiding in the challenging words of Scripture.
“Our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, not as it might be,” wrote Merton. “The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will.
“Our Advent is a celebration of this hope. What is uncertain is not the ‘coming’ of Christ but our own reception of Him, our own response to Him, our own readiness and capacity to ‘go forth to meet him.’”
In other words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Turns out John the Baptist is right on time, not only in this season but in this period of history. The world tries to tangle us up in heartbreak and division, but John reminds us in the bluntest of terms that this world holds nothing for us.
We belong to the One who is and was and is to come.