Advent began slowly for me this year.
Typically, I dive right in. I get out the tree and put up the lights on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a burst of energy to start the season. I excitedly pull out my kids’ nativity sets and begin our family tradition of lighting the Advent candles on our dining room table. I finally turn on that Christmas playlist and begin baking peppermint-flavored goodies. It usually “feels” like Advent from the very beginning.
But this year was different. This fall was extremely busy, in a way I did not anticipate. The months leading up to Advent were stressful due to a variety of circumstances. Plus, our family started the Advent season with illness. It was just a cold, but it traveled through our entire family and was followed by strep throat for one of the kids…resulting in one or both kids home 6 of 9 school days in the first 11 days of Advent. It was challenging to muster the energy to do anything, especially when we limped into the season in the first place, stressed and exhausted.
For 2 weeks, I kept saying it didn’t feel very “Advent-y.” Sure, we put up the tree. It took us nearly 2 weeks to get it decorated, working in 5–10 minute spurts, but we got it done. We hung the lights outside. We put a wreath on the front door. We pulled out the nativity sets and Advent wreath. I wouldn’t say I did any of it with enthusiasm. I was just going through the motions.
But isn’t that where we find ourselves sometimes? I had not thought about the preparation of my house for Advent and Christmas as a spiritual practice before this year. But now I think it is, for me. I say that because I could have chosen not to do it, to put it off, or to be grumpy when my children asked if we could decorate the tree (because, frankly, I didn’t feel like it). But I chose to do it. To say yes. To engage. And at first, it felt like I wasn’t doing anything. I was doing the “work” of preparing a home for what it is “supposed” to look like during this season. But in the process – and I call it a process because it took 2 weeks instead of a few hours – something changed in me. It was like when I pray not because I feel connected to God or because I want to, but because that’s what I’m supposed to do, and in the process of praying, something happens deep within my soul. Going through the motions of preparing our home for Advent this year was a soul practice like that for me this year.
Last Friday, a few days prior to the third Sunday of Advent, I attended a contemplative Advent retreat. It was small and intimate, with a few friends and a few people who were new to me, all of us pastors and/or therapists. I went for a moment of pause. I had planned an individual retreat during the month of November, and my plans fell through twice. I decided that a guided experience at a particular place and time might work out better.
The morning of my retreat, I began the day with preparation. I did yoga, which is a cleansing for my body and mind. I gathered the items I would need for the day retreat. I spent a few minutes putting the finishing touches on the Christmas tree with my preschooler. And I drove the 45 minutes to the retreat location, another type of preparation.
The retreat began with breakfast tacos. After introductions and fellowship, we entered a long period of silence – about 2 hours. A few of the other participants and I set off for the lake, to spend our time in silence near the water. Whether poor directions or poor listening, I don’t know, but we went the wrong way. We walked in silence, each in our own world of contemplation, near enough to see and hear one another’s footsteps but not conversing. And when we finally realized that those glimpses of the lake were getting farther away rather than closer and decided to turn around, there was a lot of backtracking to do. While this might sound frustrating, it was exactly what I needed. It was part of my process. And it was not lost on me that my journey that morning had mirrored my Advent journey thus far.
When we finally arrived at the lake, I was ready. I had taken an indirect path to get there. But the walking, the movement, the process of going through the motions of walking to the lake without going there at first, had prepared me for when I arrived.
The stress and anxiety I had been experiencing for many weeks prior to Advent had begun to dissipate earlier in the week due to circumstances resolving themselves, but it had not left me entirely. As I walked the wrong direction, and much farther than I anticipated walking, the stress and anxiety continued to melt away.
When I arrived at the lake, the journey I had been on felt much longer than it was. In realty, it was about a 2 mile walk with all the backtracking, but those 2 miles transformed my heart and mind. They helped me to get ready. They prepared me to be vulnerable, laid bare, in the presence of God.
At the lake, I sat down, and I looked out at the expanse in front of me. It was unimpressive, really. The water level was low, far below where I sat, with at least a couple hundred yards of exposed shoreline between the lakeside park and the water’s edge. I couldn’t easily get down near the water, like I wanted to. And yet, as I sat on the ridge overlooking over the water with the wind whipping my hair, I encountered the Holy Spirit. I was reminded of my baptism as I looked at that ordinary and unimpressive lake, recalling that the waters of baptism are extraordinary because of the Holy Spirit’s work, not because the water itself is special. I heard the Spirit in the tinkling of the wind chimes, sounding like bells. I felt the Spirit in the wind, on my skin and blowing my hair. I was fully present.
And I began to write in my prayer journal. The phrase that I kept writing over and over, in the midst of all that I was pouring out to God, was “I am here.” I was so grateful to be there in that place in that moment. Not pulled in many directions at once – body, soul, and mind fragmented by stress and overwhelm as I had experienced for weeks leading up to that moment. And God reminded me that God is always here – no matter where I am, no matter how scattered or fragmented, no matter how high the wall of anxiety and stress is, hemming me in on all sides. God is here. I am here. We are here together.
And in that moment, I realized that I had taken a circuitous path not only to the lake, but to Advent this year. I had gone through the motions, doing the things, and it was the process of going through the motions that enabled me to arrive in this season of Advent, to engage actively in preparing my heart as I had been preparing my home. I am here now, getting ready for the coming of Christ, a miracle like no other…God coming to us in the most vulnerable form as a human baby, saying “I am here.”