For years I’ve worked to eliminate the madness that invades Advent in family life. And every year, by the time Christmas comes, I know I haven’t quite succeeded, but I’ve got new ideas for what I need to change “next year” to make it a truly peaceful season.
It started with shopping early. I’ve got to do all that shopping in November, I thought, so I don’t have to run around or shop online during December. Then I realized that my handmade gifts were piling up in December and causing stress. Ok, let’s get those done early or skip them altogether. Let’s simplify the decorating. Let’s not throw a party. Or go to any.
It really didn’t matter. Thinking that I could control Advent craziness turned out to be an illusion. Yes, it helped to plan ahead and spread out the work that goes into preparing for a beautiful and enriching celebration of Christ’s birth. But no matter how much I plan, simplify, and think ahead, the bustle is still there. It’s there in the demands from extended family that I can’t deny. It’s there in the things that cannot be done ahead or skipped, like the company Christmas party, or replacing the Advent wreath when it catches on fire. I can’t plan for that.
That’s why, in spite of all the scheming I’ve done over the years with the goal of having a peaceful Advent, I found myself in early November confessing to a group of mom friends, “I’m dreading December.” What a shame. We sat and talked about all the demands we’d be facing as Advent rolled around, and shared ideas for reducing stress. My friends helped me work out a few specific problems I was facing, and it turned out that their practical ideas were great contributions to my Advent plan. But it also became clear that most of us had stressful aspects of our Christmas preparation and celebration for which there was really no solution. Some of the craziness is beyond our control, out of our hands.
And that may be worse than the craziness itself – the feeling of helplessness regarding it. For years, I assuaged my disappointment over not controlling the commotion by making plans that I thought would help me improve the following year. When the next Advent was just as hectic as the last, I knew I had failed again. So my November trepidation was less about dreading the busy-ness than dreading another failure.
Letting Go of the Guilt
The real answer came when we closed our Moms’ Group in prayer, and my friend Cathy prayed for each of us that we would know in the midst of the craziness that while there are things that are beyond our control, we give God control of our hearts. Tears sprang to my eyes as I realized that I did not have to do the impossible: I did not have to fix what I have no control over. I could let go of the guilt I had about not ever succeeding in executing the stress-free Christmas season. And best of all, I could still experience peace. Not because I had created it around me, but because God could help me have it inside me.
I began to ponder St. Teresa of Avila’s words in Way of Perfection regarding distractions during prayer. She said that our senses are like sentries whom we send out of the castle to do our work in the world. But that at any time, we must be able to recall them, to refocus them to the interior of our souls. In the same way, although our senses must be out in the world perceiving all of the busy-ness that precedes Christmas – and must to some extent participate in it – we must also (and we can!) recall them to the peace and rest of our interior castle – our hearts given over to Christ.
That is not to say that we do not need to eliminate aspects of the Christmas season that cause needless anxiety. In fact, doing so will make it more likely that we can enjoy that place of peace in our hearts. The fewer sentries I have out on the walls, the easier it is to call them in. So cut back wherever you can.
Likewise, even in a busy season – especially when we are busy, as Mother Teresa said – we must have that oasis of peace that is daily prayer. Again, if the sentries are never recalled, how will they know the master’s bidding? Faithfulness to daily prayer roots us in the truth that we are celebrating. It is one of the primary times to enjoy the peace and quietness of soul that we seek.
Preserving the Peace
Realizing that peace was not about what was going on outside me, but was a gift God could give me and I could choose to accept was like opening the door from a dark, stifling room and stepping out into a vibrant spring day. It no longer mattered that the to-do list was too long for the hours in the day. What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t “get it all done?” Wasn’t it better to play a board game with my teen son when he invited me instead of baking the cookies that were on my list for that day? Before, I might have said yes to the game, but I would have been a little stressed inside the whole time I was playing, knowing I “should” be doing something else. This time, I decided to enjoy it and think about the list later. There’s always tomorrow. Until it’s Christmas, and then who cares if there are a few less cookies?
In the same way, we can decide how we let the bustle of December affect us. We can’t stop or avoid all of the commotion. But we can choose to perceive it as something wholly separate from our interior experience. We can close the gates of our souls to it, preserving the peace that helps us encounter the source of all peace in the infant Jesus.