Refuge and Prayer in Advent
Advent is often one of the busiest times of the year for everyone. In this sermon Br. Matthew considers private prayer as a means of refuge amidst all the stress of the season.
Readings: Isaiah 26:1-6
This homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. Listen here or read below:
One of my earliest childhood memories involved my mother having my sisters and I make Advent chains with the red and green paper links that marked each day of the Advent season leading up to Christmas. Each day she would read us some scripture verse or pious mediation for the season. Then she would have us tear off a link in anticipation for Christmas and place the chain over the fireplace just above our stockings. At the beginning of Advent, I would stand in front of a fireplace and just stare at the chain.
I remember trying to count each link and thinking to myself, “Man! Christmas is never going to come.” This was mostly because I was anxious about opening my presents. But each day there was a profound sense of anticipation of going through the pious ritual and tearing off the link and knowing that I was that much closer to Christmas. In a real way this helped us live in the moment and foster in us a sense of patience as we awaited the coming of Christmas. Amidst all the angst of the season we were able to lose ourselves in a moment of mediation as the world passed us by. While a sense of angst remained, there was a profound sense of calm as we reflected upon the mysteries of advent. It really was a strong city that protected us from the anxieties of the world.
One of the biggest temptations of the Advent season is impatience because we are extraordinarily busy. For whatever reason, with the way things workout this can be a very anxious time of year where we want certain events to come quickly or in other cases we want them to pass quickly. So, what are we to do amidst all this anxiety? Reflecting on this conundrum, Anselm, the 10th century monk turned bishop offered an interesting reflection. He wrote:
“Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him. Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire.”
Anselm is not saying that we should neglect our obligations. Rather he spoke of a very real human need to find brief moments throughout the day, throughout the week to separate ourselves from work and have leisure. Not simply zoning out idly in front of the television or simply killing time. We need moments to reflect and open ourselves up to what is most good and noble in life. We need a wall and ramparts to protect us. When my mother had my sisters and I tear links off from our Advent chains and listen to a story from the infancy narratives, we could embrace a moment of that liberating silence. In moments of contemplation like this we stand outside the world, reflect, and encounter the Lord whom we are all seeking whether we know it or not.
A very worthwhile thing to do during this season is to find time alone for prayer. As religious we are called to pray the office multiple times a day. And that’s great. But it is very easy just to go through the motions. I’m very busy and stressed right now finishing my last paper. However, our lives are only going to get more and more busy as we move through formation and then reach Holy orders. We’ve all seen friars who busy themselves with many things but do so at the expense of personal prayer. Although this is very easy to fall into, it can really hurt our spiritual life. We can also see the fruits of friars who balance work with personal prayer. While there are many things we can do to combat this problem I would encourage scheduling time throughout the day for personal prayer. To give an example, let’s say go to chapel or a secluded place four times a day for five minute periods of prayer. Breaking away from our busy lives for small moments can really remind us how doable it is to offer ourselves to the Lord in prayer. He is our rock in whom we trust. This kind of escape brings true freedom and patience. It helps liberate us from our own impulses. We should trust that if we offer ourselves to him he will keep us in perfect peace.
The very reason why we experience anxiety is because we are looking for that which will give us complete rest. We are anticipating God to come into our lives. In these moments of prayer and quiet devotion we can rest in the Lord. They open us up to God so that we may patiently wait in anticipation for Christ to become fully present in our lives.