In our previous post, we looked at why God invented the liturgical seasons and adjusting attitudes as well as making practical adjustments. Today we will look at the source of busy-ness and practical tips.
Dear Father John, I am looking forward to Advent and Christmas this year with a little bit of enthusiasm and a lot of anxiety. I know it should be the other way around: a lot of enthusiasm and a little bit of anxiety. What am I doing wrong? How can I reverse the proportion?
God has new, personalized, fresh graces ready for each of us during the liturgical season of Advent, as he does during every liturgical season. By making small attitudinal and practical adjustments, we can tune into them and live Advent well. Having reflected on those truths a bit in the previous post, we are now ready to deal with the feeling of anxiety or stress that can often come to even the most well-intentioned Catholic during this season.
The Source of Advent Anxiety
Advent anxiety arises from past experience of difficulties that tend to crop up during the holiday seasons. Having experienced these difficulties in the past, we subconsciously associate them with the season itself. As the season approaches, therefore, we anticipate the stress those difficulties bring, and so start feeling the stress itself. If we can pinpoint and name the difficulties, and plan for them, we will be able to reduce our anxiety and turn the stresses of the holiday season into opportunities for spiritual growth.
Busy Busy Busy
The first difficulty is busy-ness. This season involves a huge amount of added activity: gift shopping, Christmas cards, Christmas concerts, Christmas cooking, holiday parties, school vacations, family get-togethers, and decorating the tree, the house, and the yard. In past ages (at least in many parts of the Christian world), as this kind of liturgical-season-activity increased, the normal secular activity (work and economic life) tended to diminish. In the northern hemisphere, this was partly due to the weather. The economy of Christian Europe was overwhelmingly agricultural until the nineteenth century. And during the winter, the amount of field work decreased dramatically. But those times are gone. Now we tend to simply add on all our holiday activity, without putting any of our secular activity on hold (unless you are a student, that is). This increase in activity and work is draining. It causes stress, even though we believe in its value. Anticipating this stress triggers anxiety.
What do to? Four things.
The Top Three Tips
First, if it is at all possible for you to decrease your amount of normal, secular work during this season, do so. For example, some people can take work-vacation time during these weeks, or get ahead in certain projects during the first couple weeks of Advent so as to have more flexibility during the days immediately preceding and following the Solemnity of Christmas.
Second, be realistic. Some people have a tendency to bite off more than they can chew. They don’t admit their limitations. Instead of running up your credit card debt to buy an abundance of Christmas gifts, for example, buy fewer gifts, thinking carefully about each one in order to make them meaningful. Instead of going to every Christmas party you are invited to, choose one or two that will be exceptionally meaningful, and then take the people who invited you to the other ones out for a cup of coffee and some enjoyable one-on-one conversation. Don’t rush the process of putting up decorations; make it a family affair, decorating different parts of the house together as a family, gradually, throughout all four weeks of Advent. Maybe skip the Christmas cards this year, and instead gradually send out personalized thank-you cards after the New Year to everyone who sent you a Christmas card… The key here is to recognize that all the activity has a purpose: to help you (and those around you) keep your heart focused on the three comings of Christ (which converge on Christmas day) and what they mean for your relationship with God. If the amount of activity you undertake distracts you from that, you are undertaking too much. Whenever we say “no” to one thing, if our intention is pure, we are saying “yes” to something else.
Third, spend more time in personal prayer. This is counterintuitive: when someone is busier than usual, shouldn’t they cut down on their God-time rather than increase it? No. Periods of intense activity can put us off our guard, making us vulnerable to egoism and temptations. We become like Martha, “busy with many things,” and we forget that “only one is necessary,” hearing and heeding the word of God (see Luke 10:38-42 for the passage about Martha and Mary). If giving fifteen or twenty minutes solely to God each day during Advent will significantly disrupt your schedule, your schedule is, most likely, significantly dysfunctional.
We will all be so busy during these holy days that it may take a seemingly heroic effort to squeeze in any time alone with God. But unless we make it a priority to have a daily God-time, how will we be able to hear what God wants to say to us, to see what he wants to show us? The hustle and bustle surrounding this time of year can either exhaust or exhilarate us. If we try to live it with just our own strength, we will be exhausted. If we stay close to God, renewing our confidence in his Providence by spending time with him each day, we will be exhilarated.
Fourth, instead of heaping things onto your external to-do list, alter your internal to-do list. In other words, focus on doing what you ordinarily do, but doing it with an extraordinarily Christmassy attitude. Instead of rushing to complete various tasks, what would happen if we looked at each task (even the normal ones) as part of an Advent mission, a campaign to spread the Christmas spirit throughout our sphere of influence?
There is a beautiful, true story about one woman who re-discovered this active Christian spirit not during the four weeks of Advent, but two days after Christmas. The heroine of our story lived decades ago in the Midwest. She was the owner of a news-stand and novelty shop in small town. One year, shortly before Christmas, she fell sick and spent the whole holiday confined to bed. She felt rather gloomy and even somewhat bitter about missing Midnight Mass and the other Christmas celebrations. But when she re-opened her store two days after Christmas she had an idea: “Why not make today my lost Christmas?” She carried out her plan by putting the spirit of Christmas into the whole day. She smiled more frequently and more warmly than usual. She tried to be extra accommodating and friendly with her clients. She even gave spontaneous discounts to customers who were low on cash. After closing the store for the day, she took some small presents to several home-bound neighbors. And she also visited some poor families to give candy to the children. By the time she came home, she was so full of joy and the spirit of Christmas that she had never felt happier in her life. She decided from then on to keep the spirit of Christmas as long as she possibly could.
How different Advent would be, for ourselves and for those around us, if, with the help of God’s grace, we were to spend these four weeks actively ushering in the spirit of Christmas, instead of passively waiting for it to arrive while we scramble to check things off our to-do lists!
Knowing that the extra busy-ness of this season, which is already weighing on our subconscious, is one cause of Advent anxiety can help us make a pre-emptive strike against its negative effects, reducing anxiety now and reducing stress later, and helping us live Advent the way God wants us to.
But busy-ness isn’t the only difficulty Advent brings with it. We’ll look at another one next time.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD