Sssssh! Watch out! Wake up! Get with it! Shape up! Listen! How many of these warning phrases that call for your attention have you used or heard? I suspect most, if not all of us, have heard or used these phrases or ones that are similar. Sometimes we just need to get someone’s attention. We need to shake someone out of a comfort zone, or a lazy zone, or a time of inattention, that we use these phrases. Each of us can become, usually without even realizing it, inattentive to what is really important.
Depending on the circumstance and situation, and depending upon what we are doing, these phrases can be life saving. The passenger who alerts (or even wakes up) a distracted or sleepy driver can really be a life saver. The teacher who reminds children in a science lab of the importance of safety can do the same thing. The parent who becomes distracted for even a moment can learn how quickly a child can do something.
It is not simply that we need these reminders from others. It is not simply the case that we can be distracted from events in the outside world, it is that we can even be distracted within ourselves. We can cease to consider the importance of following God in our lives. We can become distracted spiritually. And at these moments of spiritual distraction, we need the wake up call. We need God to come charging into our lives to get us back on the right track.
But the fix for spiritual inattentiveness is quite ironic. Because even though we know that God can come crashing into our lives, often the best way for this to occur is when we can cast aside the distractions that got us into trouble in the first place. As busy as these weeks before Christmas can be, they are not always busy with spiritual things. The world around us, the shopping for gifts, the decorating and the parties can sometimes remove us from the real meaning of the incarnation.
And so we need to be rattled out of our comfort so that we can deliberately choose something better than the priorities we sometimes choose. Perhaps it would be helpful to consider Mohamed El-Erian, a wealthy executive who surprisingly left his job with PIMCO, a decision that perplexed many. But he writes about a very important reason for him to make this important change. “As much as I could rationalize it — and I had rationalized it — my work-life balance had gotten way out of whack, and the imbalance was hurting my very special relationship with my daughter. I was not making nearly enough time for her.”
His life was out of balance. His daughter compiled a list of 22 things he had missed, things that were really important to her, “from her first day of school and first soccer match of the season to a parent-teacher conference and a Halloween parade. And the school year was not yet over.” Wow. The list came out of his daughter’s frustration that he was asking her to do things when he did not hold himself to the same standards.
Of course, as with most of us, his reaction at first was not too positive. “I felt awful and got defensive: I had a good excuse for each missed event! Travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call, sudden to-dos . . .” This is the way it can be when our priorities get out of whack. We attempt to justify the choices we make by insisting they are quite important and they were done for good reasons. We do not always want to be forced to look inside to see there might really be something else going on in our choices.
El-Erian was able to change his life in a way that many cannot. But the point is that when faced with the “Wake up!” from his daughter, he made the changes necessary to re-balance his life. He realized his daughter was growing up all too quickly. He was missing out on something, the life of his daughter, for which there was no replacing. You cannot recreate those important moments in a father-daughter relationship. When they are gone, they are gone.
Our spiritual life can be this way too. We can rationalize with God that we cannot pray because of good excuses. We are busy doing ministry, we are organizing the parish, we are not praying because we are doing something else, which at the time, seems important, and in itself could be a good thing were it not for what we are avoiding.
So on this first Sunday of Advent God is trying to get our attention, much like the little girl got her father’s attention. What important events are we missing in our faith life with God? What types of ways do we need to reorder our lives so that God becomes the priority? How is it that we are running from our prayer life with God, and what are we running from? And by extension, how is it that God is calling us into a deeper relationship not only with him, but also with those who are important and special in our lives. These are not easy questions, but they form the very questions of advent.
It is said the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Getting our attention is the first small step, and finding something practical to refocus our lives is the second most important thing we can do. Since sometimes concrete suggestions can help, or at least trigger the thinking about what can help, below are some suggestions to get the priorities in our lives back in order.
Reading the daily Mass readings. The website of the US bishops feature a link where the readings from the Bible for each day are present. While getting to Mass is always better, accessing the readings of the day can be important. The bishops’ website is usccb.org and the readings can be clicked using the calendar on the right.
Praying the rosary. The rosary is in many ways reflective of the Dominican order in that it is both active and contemplative. The rosary beads provide something tactile. The repetition of prayers can keep us attentive, and because of the repetition we can find that our minds are free to contemplate spiritual things.
Prayer services and ideas for the Advent Wreath. Just google “Advent wreath prayer services for families” and a number of options come up. Franciscan Media (the publishers of Saint Anthony’s Messenger) has a website filled with ideas. You might want to check it out.
I am praying for you cards. A number of years ago, and when I was teaching, I made up a number of business sized cards with the phrase “Someone is praying for you.” After asking the students what they would like me to pray for on their behalf, I gave them this business card with the phrase on it. The results were really amazing. Numbers of people indicated being moved knowing this was being done for them.
Spiritual Reading. Every advent I read Carroll Houselander’s book, The Reed of God. I find the book helps me to prepare the inside of my heart and soul for the incarnation God wishes to have with me. You might find it helpful, or there may be some other book you find helpful. Spiritual writers can help us to examine our faith in a new way.
Whether you choose to do any of these suggestions, or something else, try to do something in response to God’s call to “Wake up!” There is not time like the present to respond to God’s invitation. There is no better antidote to the crazy activity of the season than to seek out the silence. There is no better way to fight the isolation that can be a part of this time of year than to turn our minds and hearts to things of God.
Sssssh! Watch out! Wake up! Get with it! Shape up! Listen! Today is the day of salvation, and this is the acceptable time. Jesus is ready to come into our lives!