By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

What a difference a year makes.

Just a year ago we Catholics were in the midst of Advent, preparing for Christmas. For most of us that meant doing what we have done for years and years.

We brought out our traditional Christmas decorations, whatever they were, and unless we have moved in the last year, we put them in pretty much the same places they were in the year before. Mostly likely those decorations included a creche, perhaps one passed down to us from parents or other family members.

Many of us went out to buy a Christmas tree, a family tradition. Or we brought one up from the basement or down from the attic, stored where we always store it to display it where we always display it.

As we decorated indoors we played Christmas carols – and quite likely sang or hummed along. Maybe we sipped a Christmas toddy.

We made a list of people for whom to buy presents and another list of people to whom to send Christmas cards or email greetings.

We shopped – doing some of it online but also heading out to our favorite stores to sample their choices.

We wrapped. We baked.

We visited – or hosted – gatherings of colleagues, friends, family, and with them we grazed, drank and fondly exchanged Christmas greetings and good wishes for the new year.

We anticipated the arrival of Christmas and the celebration of family traditions, whatever they might be. For some of us the big gathering was Christmas Eve, for others it was Christmas Day. The anticipation warmed our hearts.

When the day finally came, we dressed up and went to Mass.

Mostly, we did things last year that we have been doing for many, many years before. The familiarity of our rituals and routines brought us a deep sense of peace and well-being. Our hearts warmed more. We celebrated.

But that was last year. This year so many of our rituals and routines are just memories -- fond but now very, very distant and melancholy memories.

Oh, what we will miss this year. Oh, what we are giving up for a better chance to be here, altogether, to celebrate next year.

Not for everyone

I know that’s not the way it will be for everybody.

  • Some people will ignore the pandemic, gather as they have always gathered, and do what they have always done.
  • For others with a loved one or more among the nearly 300,000 who have died from the virus in the U.S., or the 1.55 million-plus who have died worldwide, there is no going back – and perhaps almost nothing to look forward to in the days ahead. Nothing will go back to normal ever again.

Yes, thank God, a vaccine is on the way. But, dear God, we know it will not arrive in time for us to go back to celebrating Christmas as it seems we have always done.

Building hope

As we have noted before, restrictions and cautions about large gatherings have changed the ways Catholics can obtain spiritual nourishment.

A sacramental people, we have had to forego many of the opportunities to receive the sacraments that we took for granted only a year ago – including especially the Eucharist, since our churches have been closed or their deeply limited capacities filled, or when we have had to make prudential decisions regarding the need to take special precautions to be safe.

Now more than ever, the need to nurture hope in matters both here and in the hereafter fall more on us as individuals or as families.

The challenge comes at an inconvenient, perhaps well nigh impossible time.

  • We are trying to work from home or risking our health and the health of our families by going to work, or we have no work to go to anymore.
  • We are trying to serve the educational needs of our children by operating homeschools we never intended and are not well-equipped to survive, much less succeed.
  • We are trying to look after the health of parents and grandparents, of older or infirmed neighbors, of our spouses and own children – all at once.

Are you kidding me?

Make time to nurture our spiritual well-being? Are you out of your mind?

I don’t think so. The challenge is that if we don’t pay some mind to our spiritual well-being, who will?

And spiritual health is not a sum-zero game. If we are able to get and keep some perspective on things right now – on life as we are living it – we will have more energy and focus to deal with the other more practical and seemingly pressing things in life.


Quick suggestions

So here are some quick suggestions for spiritual health:

Say a prayer or two at rising and at bedtime. Short prayers – just a few words – will do quite nicely.

Take a moment to count your blessings. Even counting just one is a step in the right direction. But if you can, write down a couple every morning. Scratch paper is fine. A pad or journal is better. Thank God for every last one of them.

Say a short prayer before meals. If you say traditional grace, your children will learn it. If they learn it, let them lead it. If you say just a few words, that’s fine too.

If you’re shut inside, take a gander out the window. If you can’t get back to sleep, take a peek at the sunrise. At night, if you can, stick your head out the door and take in the stars overhead. Such majesty! We are in very good and capable hands.

Reach out and connect. Write a letter, or a card will do. Send an email. Make a phone call. Is there someone out there possibly even more isolated than you? Call them first. Call them often.

If you can do video calls, do them. Seeing your loved ones’ faces – their smiles – is priceless. So are your smiles. Share them at every opportunity. Ask them what they are doing these days.

Take a stab at the daily Mass readings – and look for good commentary that goes with them. We’ve found good, free stuff online. Or pick a Gospel and read a bit of it each day. I know a person who decided at the start of Advent to read a chapter from the Gospel of Luke each day before Christmas There are just 24 chapters, so he gave himself a few days to skip if things came up.

There’s still time to read two chapters some days and one chapter on others and finish by Christmas – or better yet, keep going after Christmas. Is there someone you can discuss them with each day?

Indulge and share your memories. Recall the good times, the hugs and kisses. Let them warm your heart. If they start to make you feel sad and melancholy, shed a tear. Just don’t bathe in them. Distract yourself with a book or television show, or a phone call. Move on. Try to think of better days ahead. If you can, relish what is to come.

Read a good book – or even just a fun one. It’s cheap entertainment and growth.

My wife shares books with a handful of friends. I’m an addict. Right now I’m reading both of Pope Francis’ new works, his encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship) and his little hardcover, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (see related article in this newsletter). Both help me to better see a better future – and to keep me connected to the world beyond my front door.

Spread some cheer. Do what you can. Pray that it is enough – for you, for those you love, for the whole world.

We will get through this. And after we do, we will be better … if we choose to.

Best wishes for a faith-filled and growth-filled Advent.