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

December 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Advent, Fr. Bartunek, Seasonal Meditations

In our last post, we looked at the busy-ness and practical tips for the Advent season. Today, we'll examine the roots of Advent sadness, how to go on the offensive and a story to help bring home the message of the season.

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?

Attitudinal and practical adjustments can help us plug into the grace of this privileged liturgical season, and they can also help us anticipate and combat the difficulties that loom on the horizon, sparking Advent anxiety. In the last post we addressed one of the most common difficulties: Advent busy-ness. In this post we need to address another, more dangerous difficulty: Advent sadness.

The Roots of Advent Sadness

In the United States, more suicides happen during the Advent and Christmas seasons than any other time of the year. Deaths from drunk drivers increase. Family violence rears its ugly head. Why? The season is primarily about joy, the joy of God’s love and presence in our lives and in the world. But for those who are estranged from God and stuck in cul-de-sac of secularism and egoism, being surrounded by symbols of joy can be disheartening instead of inspiring. It can highlight the existential angst that is eating away at their soul. It can aggravate their festering wounds of unrepented sin and tighten the suffocating grip of their regrets.

Those of us who have faith in Christ and a friendship with him are less vulnerable to extreme depression in the face of the season of joy, but we are not invulnerable. We all still have emotional and spiritual baggage. Much of that baggage is connected with our family relationships, our past experiences of growing up. And during the holiday season, we spend more time with extended family. Under the surface, reconnecting with family members who rub us the wrong way, bother us, or have wounded us in the past (or whom we have wounded) can create irritating or painful interior turbulence. Add to that the simple fact that our defenses are often already worn thin because of the stress of busy-ness, and you have a formula for meltdowns. Even on a physiological level, emotional lows naturally come after emotional highs. During these days, we often enjoy intense emotional highs – which means the lows will come soon after. We have experienced this before. The anticipation of experiencing it again is a cause of Advent anxiety.

Going on the Offense

What to do? There is no quick fix. The long-term solution for this source of anxiety is nothing other than growth in humility and closeness to Jesus Christ. Only he can heal wounds caused by sin (our sins or those of others). Only he can teach us to forgive and allow ourselves to be forgiven. Only his light can shine in every darkness. Once again, therefore, we see the crucial importance of not cutting corners during these days on our daily God-time. And once again, I highly recommend spending more time than usual in daily, personal prayer, even if it’s only five minutes more. (It may be that you usually don’t spend time in daily prayer every single day – Advent is the right season to form this daily discipline.)

Our daily time with God, where we contemplate his goodness, power, wisdom, and mercy, is the best defense against these subtle attacks of the enemy of Advent (the devil). But we can also go on the offense. Advent is about the coming of Christ. There is no better time of the year for us to strive to embody this truth in our words, actions, and behavior. We can decide to live Advent as ambassadors of reconciliation, as messengers of Christ and his gentle goodness to everyone in our lives. By going on the offense, we create a spiritual momentum that will enable us not only to withstand spiritual attacks, but to roll back the forces of egoism and discouragement that cloud the hearts of those around us. Make a point of reaching out to others during these weeks, even if it means spending less time making Christmas cookies and sending Christmas cards. A visit to an ornery relative, to a prison, to a nursing home, to an orphanage… A call to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time, a word of kindness to someone who is struggling, a family rosary offered for broken families… These are ways to embody in our own actions the coming of Christ that we contemplate and celebrate during Advent and Christmas. If we all strive to spread the joy of Christmas, we ourselves will experience more of that joy – just as during the candlelight service at Midnight Mass we enjoy an increase of light ourselves when we use our candles to light the candles of those around us.

The Little Broom Stick

An old story illustrates the beauty of going on the offense during Advent.

A poor little girl was taken sick on a street London one Christmas eve. Some good people found her shivering on the sidewalk and took her to a hospital. There she heard for the very first time the story of Jesus, the Lord and Savior of history, coming into the world as a little baby. One morning, Little Broomstick, as they called the girl because she was so thin, whispered to her nurse. She said she was having a very good time in the hospital, and she hoped she would take a long time to get well, so that she could stay. Then she asked her nurse if she had ever heard the story of Jesus being born. The nurse said she had, and then told Little Broomstick to stay quiet and still, because she needed to rest. But the little girl looked up at the nurse with surprise and said, “You did know about Jesus? I thought you looked as if you never heard about it before, and I was going to tell you.” The nurse’s curiosity was piqued. Forgetting she had just told the girl to stay quiet, she said, “Why? How did I look?” “Oh,” answered Little Broomstick. “Just like most people, sort of sad. And I thought you wouldn’t ever look sad if you knew about Jesus being born.”

That little girl had experienced the joy of God’s love, and she overflowed with it. If we give ourselves a solid few minutes each day to contemplate Jesus in prayer, the same thing will happen with us.

Advent anxiety flows from the subconscious anticipation of the difficulties we face during that season, especially those of busy-ness and sadness. But by attitudinal and practical adjustments that keep us in tune with the message of the season, and by planning preemptive strikes to minimize the difficulties, we can live Advent well. And by the way, you can count on my prayers for you and all the readers of this blog, who are becoming kind of like virtual members of a spiritual family – at least, that’s how I see it, and I always pray for family members during Advent.

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, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Guest

    Thank you, Fr. John for this post and your last sentence. To me, I have taken all those who contribute to this Website and you, who have made it possible, as my Family whom I pray for daily during the Holy Hour Adoration and after the Holy Communion and at Night Prayers. My Spiritual growth has been to a very large extent been facilitated by your Posts. God bless you all

  • $1650412

    I really like this post. First of all, the verbage is engaging (love the second paragraph!) and soothing- it is always helpful to me to hear someone restate succinctly exactly what the ailments are. Secondly, the advice and counsel are completely understandable and ultra-practical. And lastly, the encouragement and connection make even a removed interaction via internet seem personal. I very much appreciate that you pray for your readers here.
    Thanks all y’all behind the curtain there in the SD Oz!
    And thanks Mary7 for your prayers too!

  • DianeVa

    I enjoyed the post Fr John. Thank you. The little broomstick story made me think of an important yet sad fact. Many people know that Jesus, the Lord and Savior of history, came into the world as a baby; yet too few accept Him as their personal Lord and Savior coming into our PERSONAL salvation story. When we chose to truly “pick up baby Jesus” and place Him in our hearts that’s when the anxiety and sadness begins to diminish and true joy begins.
    Have a blessed Christmas!

  • Sandra Traw

    Oh, I have been experiencing such sadness. I felt this year I had somehow put in more time and preparation and would not be here only 2 days from Christmas with this deep sadness and no anticipation. I am still praying light will break through my darkness!

    • Brother Gabriel

      “Be not afraid!” Sandra, what a blessing it is, that God is finally able to treat you like a spiritual adult, drawing you to seek him and love him in a“dark” night of faith, instead of enticing you, as before, with the sweet candy of sensible consolations. Do not curse the darkness, but stay faithful and patiently wait upon the Lord, who will show himself again in due time. Accepting the cross of dryness and to despair not – is the only way to find peace in this dark way of faith.

      • Sandra Traw

        I am very fearful. That is a true saying. I fear so much separation and I my sins are so many and my heart is so dark. I can no longer find my way. My priest says keep on knocking keep on seeking…all sin is lack of love of God and neighbor. But my heart is so black and dark…how do I find my sins I feel that “sin” is who I am! I read God hates despair…is that true?

        • Sandra Traw

          Oh, I had one more question….how do I go about falling in love with God?

          • Brother Gabriel

            What exactly do you mean by “how do I go about falling in love with God”?

          • Sandra Traw

            I am taking up so much time. But I want to know how does a person love? I am not sure I have ever loved anyone except myself not God, nor family, nor neighbor and I am not sure I know where to begin. I seem to make no gains in my love for I do not seem to make improvements in keeping His commandments or doing His will. Well I must not continue to take up time here…thank you

          • Brother Gabriel

            It would be so easy and tempting to offer you many off-the-shelf thoughts and ideas about true, selfless love of God. In your case, however, I don’t believe this would really be helpful to you in the long run. What I would recommend, and this is easier said than done, is to find a wise and experienced spiritual director to help guide you. Someone who can answer your specific and individual questions as regards your own particular spiritual life and personal experience. Do not assume that just because a person is a priest that he necessarily has the knowledge and experience to properly lead you. So,don’t be afraid to continue to look for a orthodox spiritual director, who has experience with guiding those in the active, meditative and contemplative prayer experience. God bless you, Sandra.

        • Brother Gabriel

          It is impossible to adequately respond to you and your spiritual state in this short combox. I will do my best. First, not meaning to contradict the good intentions of your priest, but you will NEVER find peace if you approach your state the way that you are presently. In fact, you are no more or less “sinful” than the next person. The “darkness”and overwhelming fear and separation from your God, that envelopes your soul is not caused by the sin of lack of love of God, but the opposite, it is because of the deep tenderness of your love for him. The particular grace, that he has blessed you, is to infuse into the ground of your soul, a supernatural “Divine Touch”, whose pure light, shines so brightly on it, that instead of feeling wonderful, you feel the deep “sinful” nature of your faults and imperfections reflected instead. Just “Be still, and know that I AM God”. Do NOT despair. Let God do his work in you. This is a genuine and authentic part of a process of the spiritual life, to prepare you for truly experiencing God in a deeper loving union and peaceful embrace – to come later.

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