By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

It may come as a legitimate surprise that any sane person would propose “cultivating” anything during Advent. After all, it’s the busiest time of the year for many people.

There are all the holiday preparations to attend to: selecting and buying gifts, sending out Christmas greetings to old friends and business associates, getting kids off to games and concerts, baking holiday treats, attending seasonal gatherings of all sorts, getting personal finances in order and reviewing tax implications before the year’s end.

If you live in the top half of the U.S. or anywhere on the top third of the globe, it’s also likely you are going to have to deal with a host of seasonal weather hassles: having to bundle up every time you leave the house, shoveling and salting walks, navigating slick streets and sidewalks, avoiding rushed, distracted or just plain bad drivers.

Our faith calls us to take these next few weeks to make room in our hearts for the birth of our Savior. Meanwhile, we wonder how we can even endure this especially cluttered time of the year, much less grow in any meaningful way at the same time.

Take heart! It can happen. The keys are to clear clutter, think small and be persistent. Together these three modest things can generate a vortex of change and growth.

Clear clutter

Now is a good time to take a quick but critical look at our calendars – and our “off-calendar” time-suckers. It’s not unusual for unproductive and unhelpful habits to creep into our lives.

  • Reading is good, but are you reading a bit too much?
  • Socializing at work is good, but are you giving that too much time? Same with socializing after work.
  • Browsing stores can be fun, but are you loitering on longer than the thrill lasts?
  • Exercising is vital for health, but are you letting it become a fetish?
  • Rest is essential too, but are you becoming a couch potato?

Can you clear off some of the clutter in your life to take a few more minutes for prayer at the start or end of the day? What about on your walk between the parking lot and your workplace? How can you best use the time you spend in the shower or on your commute?

Think small

Looking at the little segments of time we have during a typical day gets us to the next strategy: think small.

It’s not unusual for us to think in terms of “remaking” our lives, of doing something radically different to spawn personal growth. That gets our juices – especially adrenalin – flowing. Nothing like a dramatic change to get us focused and excited.

The problem is that visions of big change seldom outlive their adrenalin rush.

Making better use of the little moments we already have in our day to accomplish small things is often the better long-term strategy.

  • Realize you are not alone.
  • Reflect on the many gifts in your life – beginning with your life. If you are reasonably healthy, don’t take that for granted. Our medical centers and nursing homes are full of people fervently hoping and praying to obtain what you have.
  • Reach out to someone you might help – with a smile, a phone call, or maybe just a text.
  • Make a donation – a small one is fine -- to one of the charities appealing for your help now or to the kettle next to the bell ringer outside a store you pass or visit.
  • Attend an Advent event in your parish or another nearby one, or pick a weekday and drop in for Mass.
  • If you’re feeling ambitious, reach out to a local agency to adopt a family for Christmas and then focus on how you are going to make their Christmas special, maybe for the first time in their lives.

Whatever you resolve to do, adopt a goal and keep it at the front of your mind.

If you can emerge from Advent into the Christmas season as the owner of one good, generous little habit – perhaps in place of one or two less healthy habits – you will have made more room in your life for a little more Christmas spirit to last the whole year through.

You’re moving closer to being an effective Jesus-like Leader.

Be persistent

It hurts to admit, but many of our best efforts to improve ourselves and make the world a bit better -- if only by an inch or two -- falls frustratingly flat. We get fatigued. We forget. Our heart’s urge grows faint. We fail.

We want to feel, share and spread the Christmas spirit – to give the world a little more of the selflessness that Jesus brought to human history. Instead, our feet swell, our backs ache, our head throbs and we give into inertia.

Fine. Concede the battle; focus on the war. Rest. Recoup. Rise again.

If it helps, recall the story of the tortoise and the hare. Resolve to be the hare. Take another step in the direction you have adopted. Take a small step, even a halting one. Now do it again.

Pray for help. Pray for energy, for focus, yes even for persistence.

As it turns out, Advent is a wonderful time to cultivate good habits even while we let go of some bad ones. What’s your goal as you try to survive all the clutter of Christmas and make room in your heart for your loving Lord and Savior?

Start with a prayer. Proceed in good company.