Advent in our modern world has long been behind the cultural eight ball. It’s a season of waiting in a world of instant gratification, a season of quiet anticipation in a world of noisy commercialism. But this year, in the midst of pandemic challenges and political worries the likes of which we have never experienced in our lifetime, it might just be a season of joyful opportunity in a world of stressful chaos.
As we move through the next few weeks toward the Christmas celebration that will be the pinnacle of our preparations—the prayers said, the presents wrapped, the homes decorated— we are being given a rare opportunity to stay put, slow down, simplify and find hope even amid the challenges thrown in our path every day. It’s not something that can happen without our willing participation, however. We have to commit to it, to seek out beauty right where we are, to soak in the moments of awe in the ordinary, to name the gifts in our midst in an intentional way. And, when we find ourselves losing hope, to return to prayer and begin again. We can always begin again.
I say all of this not as an expert but as a companion on the journey. Trust me, I don’t have this down pat. Far from it. But I know from experience that something shifts when I commit to intentional living and gratitude for what is rather than focus on what I think should be. My heart softens, my breathing slows, my nerves settle and suddenly there is beauty all around me.
So, where do we begin? With gratitude. Not just in our heads or in silent prayer, but in concrete ways—in a notebook, on your phone, on slips of paper collected in a glass jar. It’s so simple it seems insignificant, maybe even silly. How can this shift anything? It can and it will. Just begin. Every day write down three things for which you are grateful. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. In fact, the more simple and ordinary, the better. I was driving to work one day and spied two bright pink Adirondack chairs on the second story balcony of a little gray house. The pop of color in my dreary day made me smile. Later that night, I wrote it in my journal. Crescent moons, raindrops on the roof, an old man walking his dog, the smell of soup simmering on the stove—it’s all fodder for joy. It begins with noticing and giving thanks for the everyday miracles. Of course, you’ll want to include the big things too—the good diagnosis, the job found, the children safe. Big and small, begin to keep count.
The 13th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is, ‘Thank you,’ it will be enough.” Gratitude in any form is prayer, and that is a great beginning, but we need to go further. Look at your prayer practices. Where can you add to it this season? An Advent wreath on the kitchen table for mealtime prayers, perhaps? A Bible beside your bed for morning or evening reflection? A small sacred space near your favorite chair for moments of silent prayer in the presence of God?
This Advent, commit to the spiritual self-care that will not only soothe your soul during these difficult days but will transform your life from the inside out. Little by little, you’ll find that the outside world, with its bad news and daily threats, can’t shake the quiet joy that lives in your heart. The secular world has never really understood Advent, which is such a loss, because now more than ever our world needs the joyful hope that comes from being willing to wait, to watch, to find the miracle hidden in plain sight, no overnight shipping or gift wrap required.
This column originally appeared in the December 2, 2020, issue of Catholic New York.