“Some people,” my priest friend said, “Would step over a bleeding body because they’re late for adoration.”
It wasn’t, of course, a knock on people who take seriously their obligation to perpetual adoration. He encouraged us all to go to adoration, to pray daily, to worship God with our whole hearts, at Mass and everywhere, with all our hearts, all their souls, all their minds, and all their strength.
But as a priest, he struggled with benighted flocks who worshipped God with all their committee memberships, all their novena talleys, all their Latin hymn memorisation, and all their votive candles – but they never got around to loving their fellow man. Over and over, he would insist from the pulpit: If you want to know how your relationship with God is going, check out how you treat the humans in your life. We are here to please God, and we please God by serving each other. We cannot see God, but we can see each other. So, hop to it.
I remember an anecdote from a Catholic speaker. One afternoon, he gave a searingly convicting talk about a man’s obligation to love his wife as Christ loves the Church. This means not dominating her, but cherishing her, listening to her, attending to her needs and desires as they are, not as a man thinks they ought to be. The talk was very warmly received, and a bunch of men from the audience wanted to meet with the speaker afterwards.
The speaker said that one fellow at the back of the line had his wife with him, and she was begging to leave the hall so they could get some lunch and see the sights before it was time to make the long drive back home. “Stop!” the husband hissed in a rage. “This is my only chance to talk to Dr LoveExpert!”
And the good doctor heard, and despaired. The fellow was so on fire to talk about marriage that he didn’t have time for his actual wife.
We all do stupid stuff like this, and like the adoration-goer who hurries past the bleeding man. Goodness knows I do, anyway. I’m self-aware enough to realise that I need some form of improvement, some kind of self-discipline, some structure and guidance to help turn me into a better person; but the actual transformation? Turns out to be really hard. It’s a lot easier to cling to the trappings of loving God — a First Friday, an interview with the marital expert, a prayer ritual – than it is to internalise and act on that love.
It’s especially easy for us to get caught up in this “exterior only” kind of spirituality when there’s a big liturgical to-do, like there is right now, during Advent.
Advent at the Fisher house includes singing, lighting of candles, opening a door on the Advent calendar, reading the passage from the calendar’s matching booklet, picking the appropriate homemade ornament and hanging it on the Jesse tree, looking up and reading the corresponding passage from scripture, and plucking the chocolate out of your own personal Advent calendar, if you haven’t already brushed your teeth. Well, brush your teeth again, then.
Fisher family Advent has transcended tradition and achieved rigmarole status. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m happy to be doing special things that we don’t do at any other time of year. It’s a wonderful combination of scripture and aesthetics and gentle but memorable lessons, perfect for children and adults alike. It wouldn’t really feel like Advent without it.
But it would feel even more like Advent if I didn’t yell at everyone the whole time we were doing it. It would feel more like Advent if I focused less on reading the right Bible verse in the correct tone of voice, and focused more on being open to the word of God. If I lit a flame in the darkness and let that symbol speak to the kids’ hearts’ directly, rather than correcting them for pronouncing “Is-ra-el” wrong, or brooding in my heart that I’ve raised them all wrong, and we need to do scripture drills every night.
If, in short, I prepared a way for the Lord for the sake of the Lord, rather than preparing for the sake of getting preparations done.
Shh, there’s a little baby nearby!
That’s what I’m trying now to keep in mind. And it helps make my Advent a little more like Advent. It makes everything a little gentler, a little quieter, a little more slow and thoughtful, just as if there were a tiny baby in the next room, someone I don’t want to disturb, someone I don’t want to grieve. Someone whose world I want to make warm and quiet, soft, welcoming, and kind.
I can’t always control what we have to do during the day, but I can control how I do it. I can take a breath and give a mild answer when someone insults me. I can offer help to someone who’s struggling, rather than waiting for them to ask. I can warmly compliment someone for achieving something small. I can hush my tone of voice; I can apologise sincerely when I screw it up. I can try again without flagellating myself for my inevitable sins. I can take every encounter with another human being as a chance to make the world good for the baby who is nearby.
This is what works for me, since so much of my life has been dedicated to caring for babies. But what about you? What if you don’t have a baby in your life?
Oh, but you do. You have someone helpless, someone in need, someone who needs patience, someone who is easily frightened or overwhelmed. Someone overlooked. Someone who is just starting out, someone who isn’t getting much done but could still use some praise. Someone whose world would be better if you decided to act out of love.
The “baby” may look like a snotty teenager, an obnoxious co-worker, or a difficult parent. It may look like a pushy stranger on the bus, or a rude cashier. It may look like a priest who’s disappointed you, or an internet troll who really is out to get you. It may look like someone who never thinks of what you need. How are you going to respond? Would you do any different if the person were a new baby?
At all times of the year, but especially at Advent: It’s always about the person in front of you – or, if you like, it’s all about the baby nearby. And this is how you serve the Person who, liturgically speaking, is nearby, about to be born: By serving the person in front of you, by helping, whether he’s bleeding on the ground, or twiddling the berries off the Advent wreath, or nagging you to take her to lunch, or just crying, needy, waiting for someone to come and offer love. How are you going to respond?
It’s Advent. There’s a baby nearby. What kind of world do you want to make? And how will you begin, if not with the person right in front of you?