From darkness comes light.
The weeks preceding Christmas—Advent—usually have the perception of being a magical, jovial, and anticipatory of the birth of the Christ-child. While certainly, my Advent began with an anticipation, it lacked marvel and apparent joy. Instead of initially thinking about preparing my heart and mind for the Lord, I juggled the infectious side effects of projectile vomit and diaper explosions. Both of my sons came down with the stomach flu over the weekend.
Nothing tests a parent’s patience, will-power or love of their children quite like a continual cleaning of bodily fluids. On top of the symptoms of the stomach flu, my youngest son is also recovering from an adenoidectomy (see below diagram if you never heard of that organ before–as I never did prior to this surgery!) Because the flesh is healing behind his nasal cavity, my two year old’s breath has smelled like death since the surgery and apparently it may take up to three weeks for his rotting-breath odor to be gone! What a start to the New Liturgical year!
Too often society places pressure for the perfect “holiday” season: all the gifts must be precisely wrapped and laden under the Christmas tree in a tidy order, the Christmas meal has to be cooked to the exact temperature and paired with the appropriate side dishes depending on the main dish, and family members need to behave–especially your “estranged/weird” uncle [or aunt or other unique relative you may have]. Honestly, I fall into this fallacy almost every year myself. This year was no different. I hoped to be able to take my entire family to Mass to celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. I wanted to show my kids the beautiful Advent wreath and talk about the particular reasons the priest wears purple, or “FATHER IS DRESSED IN PURPLE” as my daughter would shout with glee. Sadly, none of that happened. Because of my priority as a parent, I had to miss this Mass to care for my ailing family.
After taking some time to reflect on the apparent failures of the weekends, I realized maybe God was preparing me for something greater—Advent really is all about preparation for the coming of Christ. Revisiting the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, showed me that the arrival of Jesus did not occur in the ideal standards, at least according to the world’s standards. Luke 2:7 details how Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem “too late” and the innkeeper denied them a room at the inn. Instead, of giving birth in the amenities of indoor comfort, Mary had to give birth to Jesus in a humble way—in a simple stable. American novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote the following about the Incarnation,
Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.
By becoming a human Jesus was able to encounter the entirely of the human condition save for sin. In my children’s pain, suffering, tiredness, and thirstiness this past weekend, Christ was with them in a unique way as he already suffering all those things during his 33 years on Earth.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 463, “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” The season of Advent is not about preparing for the “perfect” Christmas where Mary and Joseph get a room at the inn. Rather, Advent is about preparing for the birth of Jesus Christ. His birth took place in the messiness of the stable, his Passion and Death took place on the messiness of the Cross. While not everything in my life will be neatly fit in my control, after this incarnational and infectious start to Advent, I had the privilege to be graced with the gift of perspective and opportunity to serve my children as Christ served the world!
The Key To A Peaceful Day!
Grand Illuminations (& Advent Awakenings)
According to American author Anthony J. D’Angelo, “Don’t reinvent the wheel, just realign it.” The continual focus on progress, change, movement, and improvement dominates 21st century humanity. Continued desire to improve on limiting stress, furthering personal and career goals may be inherently good; however, a person reaches a point when the trajectory of progress cannot ascend any higher. Ernest Hemingway wryly wrote, “Never confuse movement with action.”
Throughout history and literature, quick and unbridled progress poses the danger for a quick fall back to mediocrity and a starting at square one. The Great Depression in the 1930s happened on the heels of an epic economic boom, Greek literature warned of Icarus soaring too close to the sun—and eventually his wax wings melted and he fell to his doom. Personally, I too notice that whenever I experience a successful season in my life I have to be wary of being puffed up too much with pride. I start think too boldly—leading to the error of becoming a braggadocio!
As a Catholic, my faith plays a strong shaping force in my world outlook and daily life. According to Lumen Gentium the primary goal of all faithful is to grow in holiness, the Council Fathers declared, “Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive (no. 42). I never truly pondered it before, but I recently realized that Jesus’ parables and teaching examples often included planting, gardening, and farming references because plant growth takes time—it is slow, but steady. Likewise, our growth in virtue and moral excellence needs to be watered with essential elements. The growth need to be natural, steady and sure for the progress to be permanent. Ascendency towards one’s goals whether that be moral, work, or exercise related poses a threat of a great fall. To avoid any backpedaling, it wise to return to the fundamentals of success. Below are three basic activities that helped me limit stress, decrease my negativity, and improve my relationship with others.
- Prayer: Saints wiser and infinitely holier than myself, always proclaim the importance of prayer. Perhaps no one else discussed the importance of prayer more plainly than St. John Chrysostom, “It is simply impossible to lead, without the aid of prayer, a virtuous life!”
Over the past couple of months, my wife and I committed ourselves to a regular, steady prayer routine. Before putting the kids to bed, we pray a decade of the Rosary. According to St. John Paul the Great, “The Rosary is the storehouse of countless blessings.” His words ring true with crystal clarity—the graces I received have been immeasurable. My manager noticing the changes in my demeanor at work told me, “Matt, you have had a tremendous month. I notice a great calmness within you over the past few months.” I almost was tempted to pull out my scapular—strong Marian devotion—to show my manager that what has changed did not occur on my own power. To cite John Paul II again, “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.”
- Exercise: Along with daily prayer, renewing my focus on regular exercise greatly helped sustain the progress I made. Because of the changing of the weather, I have get creative with my workouts. Actually, not truly that creative, I just call upon Shawn-T with his T-25 fitness program that I watch through the Beach Body channel on my Roku. Jabbing, hopping, and twisting my arms, legs, and core in my living room I feel replenished with energy after the under half-hour workout session. Not only does exercise help with the body, it reinvigorates my mental capacity and energy for the rest of the day.
- Reading Renaissance: Those of you that have followed The Simple Catholic will be aware that one of my strongest passions and loves in this life consists of the written word in the form of books. The only hindrance for me from purchasing and amassing more and more books is because I would either have to buy more bookshelves or take time away from reading to make a bookshelf myself. It is quite the predicament!
In all seriousness though, reading, and specifically reading good books from good authors, reignites my desire to become a better person. Late American essayist E.P. Whipple wrote this beautiful description for books, “Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time.” Reading books, especially the classics, allows the reader access to the thoughts, intellects, curiosities, and inquiries of history’s greatest minds. The foundation for all success is being humble to realize someone else is always smarter and wiser than yourself. After reading Fulton Sheen’s Remade for Happiness and C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, this fact was reaffirmed. Surrounding yourself with the wisdom and insights of those men and women before you will only enhance your ability to become the best version of yourself.
Progress is not bad, in fact, it is necessary in an ever changing world. In order to survive and flourish, you need to learn to adapt to changes. If you have found strategies or things that have already proven to help you develop into a healthier, stronger, and more virtuous version of yourself keep doing those things! Go back to the basics as often as needed. My revisiting of my basics—prayer, exercise, and reading— continues to provide me stability for a successful [and hopefully sanctifying] life!
Cardinal Sarah on kneeling before the Eucharist, Communion in the hand