The glorious season of Advent is almost upon us and not a moment too soon. Between the ongoing pandemic, lockdowns, election stressors, civil unrest, ongoing issues within the Church and (given the ongoing restrictions on worship) “without,” it risks nothing at all to say that 2020 has been a problematic pip of a year, from start to finish. And we’re not done yet.
It is a true measure of just how stressful the year has been that “we’re not done yet” sounds more like a threat than a mere fact.
But Advent is coming! Lovely Advent! Expectant, hopeful Advent! The season that invites us to breathe deeply and look outward in the sort of “joyful hope” we Catholics talk about but rarely—most rarely, this year—feel. This is the season that shakes us from our torpor as early night comes, and the match is struck, and the message is brought home once more that we are forever in the absence of light until we permit it to beam, splendid and warm, into the remotest apertures of our shivering, battered, and lonely spirits.
And we help the light along by quietening down, adding a bit of silence to the shorter days where we can, and hopefully by picking up an instructive or soul-nourishing book—or even better, a book that both informs and feeds, even if it is not specifically themed to Advent. My friend (and Word on Fire Institute Fellow) Holly Ordway tells me she will be revisiting A Retreat for Lay People by Msgr. Ronald Knox, because “Knox’s reflections are excellent for this season of preparation, penitence, and patience. He offers spiritual advice and wisdom from a perspective that is wholly grounded in Christ and graced by devotion to Our Lady. His insights are down to earth and practical—the first reflection is on discouragement!”
A reflection on discouragement and how to understand and get past it? What could be more needed this year?
Another friend, Leah Libresco Sargeant, also means to challenge herself in Advent. She shared that St. John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty will close out her year, adding, “As we consider the four last things [during] Advent, I want him to remind me how far short I fall of charity and how far our culture is from being just. May I do better in 2021!”
May we all do better in 2021, particularly if the difficulties of this year seep into the next, as they likely will, and we will all feel the need to do better at coping; do better at reaching out; do better at prayerfully, thoughtfully responding to what comes at us, rather than merely reacting.
Here are some more books—some distinctly seasonal, and some not—that might help us bring more light into Advent, so that our hearts may be well-prepared for the Nativity of Christ, and our Christmas days may truly be filled with “comfort and joy.”
And hopefully, too, so that 2021 may be received by us all with the illuminated wisdom of Christ, newly, freshly entered into the tumult.
In any season, you really can’t go wrong with St. Thomas Aquinas, and so Advent and Christmas Wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas is a fine choice for this season. This is a quick daily read: a bit of Scripture, a bit of the Angelic Doctor, and an invitation to a few minutes of contemplation.
For something a bit heavier (and more time-consuming), but incredibly readable and instructive, try Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944. Fr. Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit priest who died in a Nazi death camp in 1945, and his prose is lyrical and touches the heart.
Bishop Robert Barron likes to remind us that “your life is not about you,” and he is very right. Our lives are not all about ourselves, and that’s certainly true, but if we’re not feeling great about ourselves, or our faith, we can’t do much for anyone else. If that describes where you’re at right now, then this Advent might be a great time to read Deacon Greg Kandra’s The Busy Person’s Guide to an Extraordinary Life. It’s not so much a self-help book as a means of learning to habituate a perspective that fosters gratitude, optimism, enthusiasm, and spiritual well-being, all of which taps directly into being spiritually healthy enough to really give a workout to the works of mercy, both spiritual and corporeal—of being Christ’s hands and feet year through challenging year.
Toward that end, some may find Mark Shea’s The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching to be both inspiring and instructive. It’s a small, fast read that helps us better understand the Church’s social teachings, which matters if you want to make a difference in the world that transcends the ideologies and idols that so frequently intrude on what is true.
Both of those last two books put me in mind of one Advent book I return to frequently and recommend (because it is both full of wisdom and done with a light, deft hand): Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Art of Waiting, by Mother Mary Francis, PCC—the light-hearted and insightful founding abbess of a community of Poor Clares in Roswell, New Mexico. First, I love that she brings a contemplative outlook to the season, and shows us how waiting is, yes, an art, but I also love the book because it is readable, entertaining, and frankly life-changing, as this abbess’ take on things is always fresh and original.