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Advent Anxiety… What do I do? – Part II of III

December 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Advent, Fr. Bartunek, Seasonal Meditations

In our previous post, we looked at why God invented the liturgical seasons and adjusting attitudes as well as making practical adjustments. Today we will look at the source of busy-ness and practical tips.

Dear Father John, I am looking forward to Advent and Christmas this year with a little bit of enthusiasm and a lot of anxiety. I know it should be the other way around: a lot of enthusiasm and a little bit of anxiety. What am I doing wrong? How can I reverse the proportion?

God has new, personalized, fresh graces ready for each of us during the liturgical season of Advent, as he does during every liturgical season. By making small attitudinal and practical adjustments, we can tune into them and live Advent well. Having reflected on those truths a bit in the previous post, we are now ready to deal with the feeling of anxiety or stress that can often come to even the most well-intentioned Catholic during this season.

The Source of Advent Anxiety

Advent anxiety arises from past experience of difficulties that tend to crop up during the holiday seasons. Having experienced these difficulties in the past, we subconsciously associate them with the season itself. As the season approaches, therefore, we anticipate the stress those difficulties bring, and so start feeling the stress itself. If we can pinpoint and name the difficulties, and plan for them, we will be able to reduce our anxiety and turn the stresses of the holiday season into opportunities for spiritual growth.

Busy Busy Busy

The first difficulty is busy-ness. This season involves a huge amount of added activity: gift shopping, Christmas cards, Christmas concerts, Christmas cooking, holiday parties, school vacations, family get-togethers, and decorating the tree, the house, and the yard. In past ages (at least in many parts of the Christian world), as this kind of liturgical-season-activity increased, the normal secular activity (work and economic life) tended to diminish. In the northern hemisphere, this was partly due to the weather. The economy of Christian Europe was overwhelmingly agricultural until the nineteenth century. And during the winter, the amount of field work decreased dramatically. But those times are gone. Now we tend to simply add on all our holiday activity, without putting any of our secular activity on hold (unless you are a student, that is). This increase in activity and work is draining. It causes stress, even though we believe in its value. Anticipating this stress triggers anxiety.

What do to? Four things.

The Top Three Tips

First, if it is at all possible for you to decrease your amount of normal, secular work during this season, do so. For example, some people can take work-vacation time during these weeks, or get ahead in certain projects during the first couple weeks of Advent so as to have more flexibility during the days immediately preceding and following the Solemnity of Christmas.

Second, be realistic. Some people have a tendency to bite off more than they can chew. They don’t admit their limitations. Instead of running up your credit card debt to buy an abundance of Christmas gifts, for example, buy fewer gifts, thinking carefully about each one in order to make them meaningful. Instead of going to every Christmas party you are invited to, choose one or two that will be exceptionally meaningful, and then take the people who invited you to the other ones out for a cup of coffee and some enjoyable one-on-one conversation. Don’t rush the process of putting up decorations; make it a family affair, decorating different parts of the house together as a family, gradually, throughout all four weeks of Advent. Maybe skip the Christmas cards this year, and instead gradually send out personalized thank-you cards after the New Year to everyone who sent you a Christmas card… The key here is to recognize that all the activity has a purpose: to help you (and those around you) keep your heart focused on the three comings of Christ (which converge on Christmas day) and what they mean for your relationship with God. If the amount of activity you undertake distracts you from that, you are undertaking too much. Whenever we say “no” to one thing, if our intention is pure, we are saying “yes” to something else.

Third, spend more time in personal prayer. This is counterintuitive: when someone is busier than usual, shouldn’t they cut down on their God-time rather than increase it? No. Periods of intense activity can put us off our guard, making us vulnerable to egoism and temptations. We become like Martha, “busy with many things,” and we forget that “only one is necessary,” hearing and heeding the word of God (see Luke 10:38-42 for the passage about Martha and Mary). If giving fifteen or twenty minutes solely to God each day during Advent will significantly disrupt your schedule, your schedule is, most likely, significantly dysfunctional.

We will all be so busy during these holy days that it may take a seemingly heroic effort to squeeze in any time alone with God. But unless we make it a priority to have a daily God-time, how will we be able to hear what God wants to say to us, to see what he wants to show us? The hustle and bustle surrounding this time of year can either exhaust or exhilarate us. If we try to live it with just our own strength, we will be exhausted. If we stay close to God, renewing our confidence in his Providence by spending time with him each day, we will be exhilarated.

Fourth, instead of heaping things onto your external to-do list, alter your internal to-do list. In other words, focus on doing what you ordinarily do, but doing it with an extraordinarily Christmassy attitude. Instead of rushing to complete various tasks, what would happen if we looked at each task (even the normal ones) as part of an Advent mission, a campaign to spread the Christmas spirit throughout our sphere of influence?

There is a beautiful, true story about one woman who re-discovered this active Christian spirit not during the four weeks of Advent, but two days after Christmas. The heroine of our story lived decades ago in the Midwest. She was the owner of a news-stand and novelty shop in small town. One year, shortly before Christmas, she fell sick and spent the whole holiday confined to bed. She felt rather gloomy and even somewhat bitter about missing Midnight Mass and the other Christmas celebrations. But when she re-opened her store two days after Christmas she had an idea: “Why not make today my lost Christmas?” She carried out her plan by putting the spirit of Christmas into the whole day. She smiled more frequently and more warmly than usual. She tried to be extra accommodating and friendly with her clients. She even gave spontaneous discounts to customers who were low on cash. After closing the store for the day, she took some small presents to several home-bound neighbors. And she also visited some poor families to give candy to the children. By the time she came home, she was so full of joy and the spirit of Christmas that she had never felt happier in her life. She decided from then on to keep the spirit of Christmas as long as she possibly could.

How different Advent would be, for ourselves and for those around us, if, with the help of God’s grace, we were to spend these four weeks actively ushering in the spirit of Christmas, instead of passively waiting for it to arrive while we scramble to check things off our to-do lists!

Knowing that the extra busy-ness of this season, which is already weighing on our subconscious, is one cause of Advent anxiety can help us make a pre-emptive strike against its negative effects, reducing anxiety now and reducing stress later, and helping us live Advent the way God wants us to.

But busy-ness isn’t the only difficulty Advent brings with it. We’ll look at another one next time.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Tessye

    Thank you father for this post, it hit home! Sometime after Thanksgiving, I started feeling Marthaish from sun dawn to sun dusk, my prayers were constantly attacked with anxiety thoughts of what to do next and not having enough time! I remembered after feeling frustrated I prayed, “Lord help me, I don’t want to be like Martha!”. Then before you know it, my son came down with the 24-hour stomach flu, and soon after, my other two children & husband came down with it, when one got well, another got sick; I was forced to “slow down” by having my anxiety thoughts of “rushing for today” replaced with love, charity and calm. After my children recooperated, that calmness and peace still remains. This was God’s way to keep my prospective on what matters, the spirit of God’s love and not the “buzz” of my expectations. As I nurtured my family, I felt I was being nurtured by God’s love. Thank You God for saving me!!!

  • Finding myself in the “belly of the beast”(That is ALL the endless obligations and an ever-shrinking shipping window), I am so grateful for this series, Fr. John. My prayer life is consumed with Santa’s scroll! However, I am doing my very best to keep my heart centered on the beautiful meaning of Christmas…so, one “gift” I am planning to give loved ones this year is a print out copy of your tips and some others I received over a recent Advent retreat. I am also composing an Advent letter for next year that will share my desire to stay Christ-centered over the holiday. I think when we remind ourselves and others well ahead of time of the sacredness of the season, the burden is lifted a bit for all and there is more joy around the (more commercially-driven) traditions. Indeed, there is no greater “present” than God’s “presence”. I keep trying to remind myself of that…

  • Sista T

    How interesting,
    I had the very thought today matter of fact, that reflection of Mary at the feet of Jesus, and Him saying to her, Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. And found my self rejoicing as the music played and I sang unti the Lord., with out a care for shopping, for it was raining, and in my pain I forcused for my family duites, grateful to be able to do something, anything! For my condition is at the mercy of the Lord, everyday is a gift. Thanks Be to God.!

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