For the longest time, I considered myself more of a Lent person than an Advent person. The journey through the desert felt familiar, the three-prong practice of fasting, prayer and charity was concrete and easy to grasp. As I age, I find myself learning to love this season of waiting, a season plunged into physical darkness but centered on the Light of the World. The paradox of Advent is not limited to the play of darkness and light. We find it in the Scriptures, too, as we prepare for both the coming of the Savior swaddled in a manger and the coming of the Savior at the end of time. We find it as the world around us rushes to wrap presents and play Christmas music, even as we are called to step outside the fray and sink into silence and wait.
On the cusp of Advent, two experiences nudged me to enter into this season in a different way than in years past. I was working from home one day and listening to a podcast called “How God Works,” when Jesuit Father James Martin, a guest for the episode on “Contemplating Death: A Secret for Happiness,” started talking about the Ignatian practice of thinking about our own death and how, rather than cause us to be morbid, it does just the opposite. He talked about someone who might have a big decision to make, something that might require letting go of something familiar. “You can imagine yourself on your deathbed thinking, ‘I wish I had done that,’” he explained. A few bold moves I’ve been considering ran through my mind before I quickly pushed them aside, labeling them as unreasonable or too bold, even as I knew Father Martin was right about the likely regret.
In my studies to become a spiritual director, I keep circling back to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, to the nightly Examen that is a key part of Ignatian spirituality, and now to this practice of contemplating myself on my deathbed before making a key life decision. Maybe it’s due to the pandemic that these heavy topics keep surfacing; maybe it’s due to the fact that I’m now beyond middle age and can see both physical and spiritual changes that mark this new chapter, this last third. Recently on social media, a woman who lives with cancer long term was asked if she now lives every day as if it is her last. She responded that, no, she now lives every day as if it is her first. The daily reality of how precious and uncertain life is has not made her more fearful and sad, just the opposite. She goes after each day with gusto.
Clearly this Advent is supposed to be the season in which I contemplate my inevitable death to better focus on the life right in front of me. No easy task, so I decided to get some assistance from a new book by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, F.S.P.: Memento Mori: An Advent Companion on the Last Things. Talk about countercultural. While everyone else is putting an elf on a shelf, I’ve got skulls and skeletons and sand through an hourglass.
“As human beings, we are prone to distraction and becoming lost in the passing things of this world,” she writes in the introduction to the book. “We likely experience this every Advent when, amid a liturgical season that invites us to enter into silent awe, shining lights and tinsel vie for our attention. But this is precisely why meditating on the Last Things during Advent can be so spiritually fruitful.”
I invite you to join me on this unlikely Advent journey. Can you turn down the Christmas station with Mariah Carey playing on endless loop and tune into the Spirit whispering to your soul? Can you ponder, for even a few minutes, your own death and, in doing so, finally learn to truly live?
This column first appeared in the Dec. 1, 2021, issue of Catholic New York. Do not reproduce without permission.