Prepare My Heart

God my creator, and the one who loves my soul,
prepare my awareness for the Advent days ahead
so that I can dwell in every moment
with intention, gratitude, and purpose.

Prepare my body to do works of mercy
and also to enjoy feasts, walks,
moments of companionship with those I love.

Prepare my mind to focus on the stunning reality
introduced to this world when the child was born so long ago.

Prepare my thoughts to linger upon what is important,
what is lovely, true, and worthy of praise.

Prepare my heart, Christ of the manger,
prepare it to open wide and let you in.

Prepare my heart, dear Mary, mother of the baby,
to live hopefully, to endure mystery,
and to share through my every breath and every act
the joy of this holy existence. Amen.

Prepare for the Holidays with an Afternoon of Prayer

Prepare for the Holidays with an Afternoon of Prayer - winter trim

Today, I issue a challenge. Schedule an afternoon for nothing but prayer.

I use the word “prayer” loosely, so don’t panic.

And you already know how short an afternoon is. So this activity is not as intimidating as you might first suspect.

Here’s what I propose. Choose a place that’s good for you. It can be outdoors or indoors, somewhere in your home, on your property, or somewhere else entirely. But it needs to be a space that is physically comfortable and free of distractions.

Take just a couple of things with you. Maybe you like to pray with a journal, or rosary beads, or an image. A pot of coffee or tea might help you focus or relax. Don’t begin the time hungry—have a decent meal before you begin. But do take along a snack or two. Whatever you do, travel light; this time is between you and God, and God doesn’t need to see your calendar or lists or just-begun projects. This is not project time at all.

Begin by settling in. Sit comfortably. Have your rosary or journal or icon within reach. Close your eyes and breathe consciously for two or three minutes. Do this by noticing your breath going in and out. Or, when you inhale, think of a phrase, such as, “Jesus, be with me,” and use another phrase when you exhale, such as, “I give you myself right now.”

Pray aloud or write out—or draw, or sing, using whatever medium works for you—how you feel at this moment. Make one statement or several; the point is to be honest.

Now spend at least five minutes naming what you are thankful for. Search through past and present, through your relationships and jobs, to identify the good graces of your life.

Change positions now. You might stand up or shift how you’re sitting. And simply tell God what you need for the season ahead. This might take a few minutes or ten minutes or half an hour. Take whatever time you need.

Now go for a walk. Walk just to enjoy the movement. Walk to move your arms and legs, stretch your neck, widen your eyes. Do your best not to think much as you walk; this is mostly about movement and awareness.

When you return to your sitting-down place, make a list. It’s a list of names of the people you love. You might use colored pencils and draw the names more than write them down. Use the writing to meditate on each person. Allow the image of that person to stay there with you. As you write or draw these names (you can draw pictures of faces if you like), present these people to God: “God, these are the people I care about. I want this season of Advent and Christmas to bring them blessings, joy, and hope.”

About now, you may need that snack. If you do, then enjoy it. Sit there in the quiet, or put on some music, and enjoy your snack. There’s nothing else for you to do right now. This is enough.

Now, pray some version of this prayer: “God, show me my heart. What do I really desire? What do I really need? What do I really love?” This is your time to reflect on these questions prayerfully. Stay with this prayer for at least half an hour but longer if you can. Journal or draw or knit or whatever helps you keep coming back to these essential heart questions.

Then sing a favorite song. Yes, it might be an Advent or Christmas song, but that’s not necessary. But it really should be a song that helps your soul—a song of hope or humor or wisdom.

As you come into the final phase of this prayerful afternoon, ask for direction. Throw questions into the air—or, if it helps, write them down:

  • Where should my focus be this Advent?
  • How can I tend to my deepest loves?
  • What activities will nourish me rather than drain me?
  • Who needs the love I can offer right now? And how will I love that person?
  • What can I give up—what expectation or task or project or event?

Take another little walk, if that helps. Or do a yoga position or two, or a stretch.

Then, ask the Holy Spirit’s help as you commit to three things in the weeks ahead:

  • The activity I’ll do for the sake of my own well-being (physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual) is…
  • One thing I’ll do to express hope to others during Advent is…
  • One gift I will give to the Christ child this year is…

Close with a simple “Thank you,” or an Our Father, or whatever feels right to you.

And here’s Vinita’s confession: I’ve never done an afternoon like this before, but I commit to doing it this year. You can hold me to it and ask me about it later, if you like.

We will be doing an Advent retreat here at DDF this year. Look for the introduction video next week, but mark your calendars now.

Four Keys to Holiday Preparation

Four Keys to Holiday Preparation - winter trim

1. Clean the house, but only to the extent necessary.

I don’t mean scrubbing from top to bottom, like a winter form of spring cleaning, although, if you can do that, go for it. But clutter can get in the way of enjoying days that are meant for celebration. You may not have time to reorganize your kitchen cabinets, but you can probably find a box in which to put items you won’t be using again until after the holidays. While going through the closet switch-out from one season’s clothes to another, you have the perfect opportunity to get rid of clothing you don’t wear—and take it to a thrift store so that someone else can use it.

Clean by priority, choosing first the most important rooms, such as the living room or family room, or other parts of the house you like to decorate and spend time in this time of year. If my living/dining room is all spruced up for the holidays, it’s an easy bet that the office or my study or the guest bedroom is harboring extra stuff and will be in slight disarray for the next few weeks. But I can choose to let that go and concentrate on the few important spaces.

2. Clear the calendar according to your true priorities.

Your life is already full, yes? Your schedule is, at least part of the time, already nearly impossible. So you won’t be able to add holiday visits, shopping, cooking, letter-writing, decorating, volunteering, or movie-watching unless other activities are removed from the calendar. You may have to get ruthless—and you may have to put some pressure on other family members to do their own deleting. As a family you’ll probably have to discuss what can be missed for a month or two. Perhaps regular chores can be absorbed into the cleaning house agenda. Perhaps normal times with friends and family will be skipped for the sake of holiday visits. Perhaps regular TV watching, movie going, and Web surfing will need to be sacrificed for a few evenings of watching holiday movies or baking or decorating together.

Also, dare to turn down some invitations. You are not obligated to attend every party, no matter who does the inviting. If it’s a huge event, not many people will miss you anyway. If it’s connected to work or another organization, it’s fair to say that you have family commitments and leave it at that.

3. Choose carefully what goes on the To-Do list.

I make the same mistake too many years. I decide that this is the year I will:

  • Send Christmas cards to absolutely every person whose address I still possess.
  • Try 20 new holiday recipes.
  • Buy gifts more slowly and attentively so that I actually enjoy the process.
  • Decorate better than I ever have before.
  • Throw the best party I’ve ever conceived.
  • Make more holiday visits, especially to people who are housebound or who would especially appreciate the company.
  • Do a walking tour of downtown to see the lights.
  • Do a driving tour along the lake or through a forest preserve.
  • Read every Christmas book I own.
  • Watch every Christmas movie I own.
  • Go on at least three dates with my husband.

I have already defeated myself with a list like this. This year I may still try to aim for three or four big goals, but I will do so one at a time, according to importance. And I won’t fret and try to force all of it to happen. Maybe this year the cooking will take slot one and the visiting slot two. Maybe I don’t need to throw a party, and how many people send me cards, anyway? Am I trying to keep up a tradition that’s not even a tradition anymore? Instead of a gigantic Christmas mailing, would it be more worthwhile, in terms of relationships, to commit to writing one or two letters a week for the entire year, beginning with people on that Christmas card list whom I still have some relationship with? And make them not just cards with a line or two, but real letters that people would enjoy reading? And I’m actually more drawn to the drive through the country—I don’t have to walk the city. Maybe I’ll watch my three favorite Christmas movies and not worry about the rest. For a list person like me, that’s almost heresy. My husband and I already have a weekly date, so it won’t be difficult to make one of them fancier for the holiday rather than devise three extra-special couple events.

4. Celebrate what you love the most.

This is the time to pay attention to your heart. If celebrating the holidays is a long, arduous, and unhappy chore, then give it up until you understand what you really love. What do Advent and Christmas mean to that deepest, truest part of you? What aspects of this season give you energy rather than drain it? What is calling out for your love, and to what activities is your heart drawn? On Wednesday, I’ll say more about getting in touch with your heart and soul.

The Relationships That Make Holidays So Difficult

Thanksgiving dinner, 1942, Marjory Collins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We can look at several relationships and understand pretty quickly why holidays can be so difficult to survive.

My relationship to myself.
End-of-year holidays beg me to evaluate how I did this year—do I have a good job? Am I in a significant relationship? Am I pregnant yet? Did I get the promotion? Did I do the writing or painting or other creative dream I held for this year? Did I lose weight or find a better hairstyle? Is my house or apartment clean and organized for once? Did I break that bad habit and start a better one? I have a secret and very long list for self-improvement, and it comes up for review every year around holiday time. This is especially true if I plan to send out any kind of Christmas update about me and my family. And because hardly anyone achieves what she had planned to achieve in a given year, such an evaluation leaves a person feeling like a failure, discouraged, angry, even hopeless. Sometimes all of these emotions converge about the time I get out of my car and walk up the front steps to this year’s holiday gathering.

My relationship to the past.
When I go back to the town my mother lives in and where I grew up, the moment I cross a certain highway, the memories begin to well up. I cannot be in a certain geographic place without the memories being there too. This can be lovely and comforting, but of course the dark memories come back around too. Within a few hours I can feel like the awkward teenager who struggled so much to belong and to find love. I can feel ugly and rejected even though my life now is years away from the person I was then. I can in fact be doing well and looking all right and still be stuck to the emotions surrounding those bad memories. All I can do is hone my awareness for when my emotions begin to slide down that deep ravine of past hurt and regret. When the memories begin their damage, I can counter them with prayers of thanksgiving for what is happening now in my life. I can focus on other people I’ll be seeing and ask myself how I can be an encouraging presence for them—because every other person is doing that silent battle with the past too.

My relationship to my parents.
It takes work and intent to make a distinct separation between me and my parents. To them I will always be their little girl and they will always remember my hurts and weaknesses. I hope they remember my successes as well, but I can’t control the way they interpret and retell the past. Some of the worst hurts suffered by adults are the faulty stories their parents continue to tell, the versions of their children they insist on clinging to. Whenever I visit my mother (my father died years ago), I am vulnerable, still, to her interpretation of who I was back then and who I am now. She will always see me in a certain way and be unable to see me in other ways. Fortunately for me, my mother has a kind and loving version of history applied to me, and she’s proud of who I have become and what I do. But this is not the case for everyone. For some people, every visit to a parent reopens vicious wounds that have never quite healed.

My relationship to my peers.
I grew up in a farming community where it was the norm to marry right out of high school and start having babies. Of course, quite a few people did not follow that script, but the script held power over all of us. And still, as adults who are years away from high school and college, we tend to be sensitive to where we stand in relation to our peers. Did I marry, and if so, did I marry “well”? Did I have children, or did that not happen for me? Do I have a job I enjoy and I’m proud to talk about when I run into someone who has known me since school days?

In some families, sibling rivalry can take much of the pleasure out of holiday gatherings. We are too busy comparing our jobs, our cars and homes, the accomplishments of our children, and on and on, to enjoy one another simply for being here. It doesn’t help if a sibling, parent, or other family member is compelled to mention someone else my age who has achieved some part of life I have not—such as marriage or pregnancy.

My relationship to my children, or lack of children.
Our children are not our children. They come from us, or in some situations are adopted and nurtured by us—but they are their own persons. It’s not their job to perform so as to make us look wonderful in front of friends and family. And if they feel that kind of pressure they will likely do just the opposite: act out in front of all the aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Anything a child or teenager is sensitive about will become a more crucial issue when you add people and special meals and events. If anything, holiday celebrations are perfect opportunities to leave our kids alone and allow them whatever high or low profile they seek.

Holidays can be really painful for the person who has always wanted children but does not have them. Holiday commercials, events (religious or non-religious), movies, and songs stress family happiness—which is ironic, because most families are broken and in need and not terribly happy much of the time. It can be an excruciatingly lonely experience to be in church or at the long family table beside everyone else and their babies and children. Unfortunately, no one else can really tend this deep hurt of mine. Depending on how distraught I am—for instance, if I recently had a miscarriage—attending a big family gathering may not be the best thing for me. I’m a firm believer in alternative holiday plans, such as time away in some other, new place with a friend or two or just my spouse and me, if the family scene will be just too much to manage emotionally.

My relationship to the church.
In just about every family gathering will be people who have no love for religion or who may even have a violent reaction to it. Families of mixed religions—such as Catholic husband and Jewish wife—will need to navigate complex schedules so that all can honor their faith. We need to be especially sensitive toward people who are depressed and anxious because it’s holiday time and their fears and unhappiness are amplified; talking cheerily of God’s love as if it magically fixes everything can make matters worse. In some families, religious traditions are front and center, but in other situations, I may need to reserve my faith practices for more private time. Perhaps I was brought up in a faith tradition but have landed somewhere else along the religious spectrum. I can’t expect others to provide what I need. Likewise, I cannot expect anyone and everyone to tag along to the Christmas Eve Mass with me.

These insights are certainly influenced by my age and the region in which I grew up. Feel free to add some wisdom from your particular situation.

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