My Advent Plans

It’s that time. The liturgical year of the Church is drawing to a close, and we start again. Advent. This is perhaps the most difficult season in which to live intentionally, at least at first. But I find, being a convert to Catholicism, that as the years go by and liturgical habits take deeper root, the resting/waiting/reorienting becomes second-nature. I thought I would share some of my (*planned*) habits for this Advent season, and perhaps they will spark ideas for your life and family rhythms.

What I’m reading/contemplating/praying…

Here’s what’s in my book stack:

  • The Liturgy of the Hours — I don’t think that we can pick better for ourselves than what the Church has already selected for us to be praying and reading together. I’m excited about the Psalms, prayers and antiphons that await me during Morning Prayer and the selections from the Office Of Readings that I will be reading and praying with my husband.
  • Grounded in Hope Bible study — I lead a Walking With Purpose (WWP) study in my home (I’m also the co-ordinator for the program at my parish if you are local and want to join a study!), and this year my group is working through Grounded in Hope: A Study of the Letter to the Hebrews. As always, the topic for the lesson we are currently on seems perfectly timed: REST! There is so much good Scripture and truth on this topic to apply during my Advent journey.
  • Be Still — Lisa Brenninkmeyer, the founder of WWP, just released a beautiful devotional for women that is full of reflections on Scripture and catechism passages. My husband surprise-gifted it to me (just ’cause he’s awesome), and I’m excited to have it in my reading stack. And yes…God’s clearly echoing this theme of “resting” in Him.
  • Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany — I’m so excited to jump into this one! This year I resolved to always be in a book of poetry, reading at least one poem a day. At the beginning of the year I discovered Malcolm Guite’s poetry compilations. He has a book for Lent as well, which was my Lenten poetry, and it was wonderful. If poetry isn’t part of your life, I encourage you to adopt the practice of “a poem a day”. This book during the season of Advent would be a great way to start this habit…and kick off the new liturgical year!

What I’m listening to…

Last year I revamped and shared my Spotify Advent playlists — traditional and contemporary — that I play aloud in our house throughout the days of Advent. So I have those; but our friend Fr. Matt Fish has shared his curated Advent playlist on Twitter, and it is fantastic. It will be on repeat around here! I think that intentional music selections are such a wonderful way to set the liturgical tone in the home, helping us to all enter into the message and waiting of Advent and then into the message and celebration of Christmas. The thing is, there is more amazing Advent-themed music out there than you have time to listen to through all of Advent; you just need to have it ready to go. So just click, “follow,” and you are all set!

What I’m doing with my family…

We continue our meaningful family traditions from years past:

  • Dinner Table Advent Candles — We have a tradition of rolling our own beeswax Advent candles with the kids (who love it!). It sounds fancier and more time consuming than it is. We usually get this kit (which makes three sets) and invite friends to make them with us. Throughout the Advent season we light the candle(s) and sing the first verse of “O Come Emmanuel” before we say the blessing for our dinner meal.
  • Jesse Tree — When my oldest was a baby, I made this quilted/felt Jesse Tree Advent Calendar. I decoupaged ornaments that correspond to passages in the Jesus Story Book Bible (there are lots of options on Etsy for these ornaments). The selected stories with corresponding ornament symbols unfold the story of salvation history. We read one story each morning from December 1 to 24. This is definitely my kids favorite part of Advent…and mine too. I’ve been know to get choked up at Sally Lloyd-Jones’s beautiful diction.
  • St. Nicholas Day — The kids “put out their shoes” before bed on December 5th, and when they wake up on the Feast of St. Nicholas they have been filled with clementines and chocolate coins. And each child gets a Christmas book to add to our collection.
  • O Antiphons — I have shared here about how we incorporate O Antiphons in evening family prayer time from December 17-23.
  • Distinct Decor — We like to wait on Christmas decorations so that they are fresh for the Christmas season, and we like to let Advent have it’s own progression of decor to usher in Christmas. Decorations in the home are great signifiers of the liturgical season for the whole family. In our home, there’s usually a purple cloth on the prayer table, the Advent wreath on the kitchen table, and a gradual nativity scene (baby Jesus gets hidden somewhere in the house until Christmas morning!). Around the final week of Advent, we put up our Christmas tree with a simple purple ribbon around it and most of the other more time-consuming decorations for the house. But we wait to put all the ornaments on the tree until December 24th.

Why Advent is significant for me…

When we first became Catholic (about six years ago), I didn’t really understand the distinctness of the Advent season. I have a chapter on the liturgical seasons in my forthcoming book, and in it I describe my journey to understanding the significance of Advent, particularly as an antidote to our commercialized inculturation of Christmas. Living fully in the Advent season, as with living fully in any season of the life of the Church, ultimately focuses us on the meaning and consequence of the Incarnation. Living the liturgical year with intention helps us to conceive of our own lives in the story of salvation history, to meditate on the life of Christ, and to contemplate and live expectantly for our final home with Him in heaven.

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey

Messengers of Hope

While recently out of town visiting family in Charlotte, NC, I attended Sunday Mass at the beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (If you ever visit the area, you will enjoy the intentional liturgy and spiritual atmosphere of this parish.) To my delight, Fr. Chris Alar of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, MA was visiting St. Patrick’s that morning. He celebrated Mass and gave the homily. I expected a good homily, because I’ve heard him speak before. But I was blown away by the story he told.

While in another country, he had celebrated Mass in a Church of pilgrimage for thousands of people from many different countries, who spoke many different languages. After Mass, he exited the Church into the large courtyard, and he was going to turn left toward the blessed sacrament, but something was drawing him to go to the right. As he walked that way, he suddenly saw a woman standing apart from the crowds of people, and she was sobbing. 

He had no idea if she spoke English, but he approached her and asked if she was okay. “No,” she said. “No one loves me; God doesn’t love me.” And then she told him of her plans to take her own life. Fr. Alar told her that he had actually just finished writing a book on suicide, and he spoke confidently to her of God’s passionate love for her. “The mere fact that you exist,” he said, “is proof that God loves you.” After they had talked for a few minutes, Fr. Alar asked her where she was from. She said she was Ukrainian. He told that he was impressed by how beautifully she spoke English. She just stared at him. “Father,” she said, “I don’t speak English. I’m speaking Ukrainian.”

The whole time they spoke she was hearing Ukrainian, and he was hearing English.

Miracles like this actually happen all of the time. We just have to be open to witnessing them. What is so powerful about this story is that God, out of his deep love for this woman and compassion for her suffering, made an extravagant gesture to make the message of hope—ultimately of His undying love for her—real to her soul. He brought her into contact with the person that had the message that she needed. Fr. Alar was designed to be a beacon of hope for that specific person at that specific moment in time, and I’m sure that at many other moments of his life he has been the divinely appointed beacon of hope for many other individuals. 

Fr. Alar’s story, and the main point of his homily, left me with one clear message—we are all designed by God to be messengers of hope daily to specific people. We may not always know who they are or even realize that we have come into contact with them; so often God means for us to spread His message of hope through our actions rather than our direct statements. Yet sometimes he gives us words at the right time, intended for one of His dear children who need them. 

We are to be His messengers of hope every day; and if we don’t do it, if we don’t respond to His nudge in the daily moments of our lives, then who will? Who will reach the people who are living without hope? If only we can accept that God intends for each of us to deliver His message of hope to particular people every single day. If we live as ready messengers, imagine how many people might be rescued from despair and encouraged to live in the light of God’s love for them. 

The Difficulty Before Delight

I recently experienced a phenomenon in our homeschool that offers great parallel truth for our spiritual lives. “Handiwork” is one of our school subjects, and for this year I wanted to focus on knitting, with a lesson once a week. One of the goals of formal handiwork instruction is that in time the students are able and eager to pick up that work whenever they desire during their leisure time. I learned to knit a couple of years ago, and I have found such delight in the occupation. It is both relaxing and rewarding to be in the middle of a piece of knitting work, slowly seeing an object begin to take shape with the repetition of every rhythmic click of the needles. To me, this creative occupation is a delight, and it is one that I wanted my children experience for themselves.

However, as you would imagine with 8- and 6-year-old boys, it’s a skill that doesn’t come without effort…tedious effort in the training of fine motor skills. In fact, for the beginner, especially children, the delight is not immediately experienced. There is some pleasure in being able to “cast on” a few stitches to begin a project, but then comes the part that my boys found quite challenging–learning to make the knit stitch. It is the most basic stitch in knitting. In fact, there are many different items one can make using the knit stitch alone. My boys were eager to create their first project, but they couldn’t even begin until they had learned how to make this basic, yet vital stitch.

They quickly became discouraged–and rightly so! To be able to make this stitch, you have to make your hands do several things simultaneously: hold the needles steady in each hand, maneuver the right needle through a stitch on the left needle, pull the working yarn taut with one finger while looping it round the needle, then pulling the wrapped yarn back through the same stitch and slipping it off the needle while holding all the other stitches steady and preventing them from flying off with the one. If you watch an experienced knitter working away, this looks easy as pie. But for the beginning adult, let alone a child, it is extremely hard! It requires such attention, precision, patience, gentleness–all virtues we want to develop in ourselves and our children–but also things that require great effort to attain. In short, the delight of knitting is delayed by the great difficulty of training fine motor skills and practicing patience and perseverance.

We had been working at the knit stitch for a few weeks. I had them watch some videos of people doing it over and over. I also explained and demonstrated it several times. But there are really no short cuts. They had to have the work in their own hands and keep trying over and over again, until they would get. In the lesson this past week, I was sitting at the table with both of them, my hands over their hands, slowly helping them work through each step. Gradually (and with a great deal of testing to my own patience), I was able to let go and let my 8-year-old make the movements himself, until finally he shouted in triumph–“I made a knit stitch!” What satisfaction was his! The thing that had been incredibly painstaking for so long only moments ago had suddenly brought great joy to his heart. In fact, as I had hoped, once he had made a few more stitches successfully, he was eager to spend some of his free time working on it again.

I probably don’t need to draw the parallel for you. As difficulty precedes delight in many rewarding occupations, just so with our own spiritual growth. There are painful seasons of hardship when we have to learn or re-learn virtues, where trust needs to be renewed, or when faith needs strengthened. Delight comes in our spiritual lives when we are able to rest in the love of our faithful Father and abandon ourselves to trust in his divine providence at work in our lives. But we don’t get there without effort, without difficulty. We will experience the tedious work of the spiritual life throughout this pilgrim journey, but we can be assured of the delight that will be ours in the presence of our Lord, as we continually seek his face and surrender to his loving, perfect will.

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey