Advent: A Practical Guide

Advent is one of the shortest seasons in the church year, a time of hope, preparation, and waiting. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. But in the ancient church Advent was a time for slowing down. This season, could you take a break from the bustle, the consumerism, the pre-Christmas insanity? Could this season be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

I would argue that this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. The season helps people to wait. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. The words of the prophets, even the words of Jesus’ mother Mary in the Magnificat, long for a country and a world where justice reigns and powerful rulers are put down from their thrones. These stories help us to know that God is there with us in our longing for a different reality. This year, I think, we could use reassurance, some camaraderie of hope and longing with the saints.

What follows are a few potential practical ways to engage this short season of waiting and hope.

Try a prayer practice

Many people think of Lent as a time for a new prayer practice, but I would argue Advent can work even better. Lent is a long haul. Advent is less than a month. If you are looking for a suggestion, here are just two:

The Daily Office

The services of morning and evening prayer in the Anglican tradition are a simplification and combination of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification hopes to bring the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities of monks and nuns, and into the daily lives of common people. The Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture. For a longer explanation of the offices, check out this set of posts, a conversation about the offices with my friend Jason Evans, a recent convert to the Episcopal Church.

You can access the daily office through Mission St. Clare. They pre-load all the readings for you. They even have a great app for IOS and Android.

Contemplative Prayer

All the words of Morning or Evening prayer can seem like a lot in a season of slowing down. So, why not try silence as a gateway to prayer? The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating, has re-introduced the ancient practice of centering prayer. Centering prayer is deceptively simple. You sit in silence for 20 minutes. When you find yourself engaging a thought process, you use a “sacred word” (a simple word, associated with God, that doesn’t lead to images and further thoughts). The sacred word helps you gently let go of your thoughts. Centering Prayer helps us to rest in God.

At Holy Communion we’ll be practicing Centering Prayer for three weeks in Advent on Wednesday evenings at 6pm. We’ll follow the pprayer with a simple soup supper. If you live near St. Louis, you’re welcome to join us. If you don’t, consider finding a group for practice through Contemplative Outreach. 

Here is Thomas Keating’s two-page guide to Centering Prayer.

Sitting in silence can seem difficult, at least at first. Listen to Amanda Olsted talk about her journey:

Shop with purpose

We can always try to buy less, to live more minimally, but this time of year consumption is unavoidable. There are folks we love who might be hurt if we don’t buy them a gift. So what if we shopped more intentionally? What if we paid attention not to the quantity of gifts, but the quality of life of the people producing the goods, food, and services we purchase this season?

For example: my husband and I are planning to get most of our family members shirts from Bravely, a social enterprise that was conceived by women survivors of sexual exploitation and addiction. Women employed at Bravely are participants in the Magdalene St. Louis residential program—a community where women live and recover together.

You can shop at bravely by clicking here.


Eat differently

Advent was traditionally a season of fasting. In our time it can be anything but a fast! Cookies, candy canes, eggnog, and peppermint lattes abound. In the midst of all the temptations, could you choose to engage differently?

A fast is different from a diet. Fasting is not about body image. Fasting is knowing that you could eat something, and choosing to abstain. Fasting helps us remember that this is a season with a direction. We look forward to the Feast of Christmas by making the simple decision to eat less before the feast.

Maybe your fast could involve abstaining from meat, alcohol, or sweets. Or maybe you choose just to have one cookie a day, instead of indulging every time someone shows up with a plate. However you practice fasting, it will help you be intentional about food in a season of over-indulgence, and help you to look forward to the feast to come.

Let Go of Worry

In her book “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening,” The Episcopal Priest and teacher Cynthia Borgeault points out that Contemplative Prayer helps us to let go. In the prayer, we try and let go of our busy thoughts. We try to let go of the noise that crowds our world. What we do in our prayer practice can also affect how we live our life. How can we let go of worry? How can we turn down the news, the rush, the busy? Are there ways you can practice intentional disengagement? Could you make space for quiet, for waiting, for hope?

Advent is an invitation

This year, perhaps more than most, we could use a little creative spiritual disengagement. By unplugging from the rapid cycle of news, work, and consumption, Advent invites us to encounter this time differently. Advent is a season to acknowledge the “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” This season encourages us to rest in the hope that another world is on the way. If we are ready, we might help midwife God’s new creation in the smallest and subtlest ways. To be ready we need to slow down. We need to practice silence, patience, and hope.

Laying Fallow

Letting the ground lay fallow, unplanted, unyielding, is an ancient practice.
Over the millennia we have of agricultural records, farmers have practiced some form of letting land rest, between rotating crops letting the soil just lay there for a time, fallow. In arid zones, this break allows more water to be stored in the earth so that when crops are again planted, the soil will have some reserve water. Even in wet climates, letting the dirt alone allows the nutrients and bio-matter, necessary for healthy crops, multiply in the soil.
1619442_10100793126839496_188004418_nRecently I visited the Community of the Holy Spirit’s Bluestone farm in New York State, where the sisters have decided to let their garden lay fallow for a year. Ten years ago a group of four sisters came up to their property here to experiment with a garden. Now they are entering a time of rest, refreshment, and reflection on the experiment. The sisters, too, need some time to rest, to dream of new possibilities.
I was there to talk with them about interns. They’ve hosted many volunteers over the decade, and I am tasked with helping the Episcopal Church figure out how to build a “gap year” program for young adults aged 18-22. The sisters are in a mode of reflection, and they graciously invited me, through my friend and their resident companion, The Rev. Matthew Wright, to reflect together about the possibilities and challenges they have found with interns in general and specifically 18-22 year olds.
Laying fallow, it seems, is a good metaphor for our servant year programs in the Episcopal Church. This past Sunday night I had dinner with a group of interns from the Episcopal Service Corps at theEpiscopal Campus Ministry at Washington University in St. Louis. We were there to talk with the college students about volunteer programs.
Washington University is what my grandmother would have called a “good school.” Their acceptance rate is low, and their students are among the brightest and most talented in the country. Many WashU students leave college with an offer of a six figure salary and a bright career ahead of them. In effect, the ESC interns and I were asking these students to consider letting their careers lay fallow, to take a break from being “productive” and “fruitful,” at least in the ways the world, and perhaps their parents, expect.
Early in the year I spent in Honduras with the Young Adult Service Corps, the Episcopal Church program that sends 21-30 year olds abroad for a year of missionary service, I remember feeling pretty useless. My Spanish was still pretty bad, and I couldn’t get the little boys at the school I was working to behave, let alone teach them any music or English. I wrote an email home to one of my priests to say I was thinking of coming back. “I’m not useful here,” I wrote. His response was three sentences long:
Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness.
None of it was good.
Stay in Honduras.
I stayed. I’m still glad I did.
Part of what we have to learn from our faith, we have to learn by taking a break from the wisdom of the world, by taking a break from usefulness. Spending some time in our lives, particularly our young lives, laying fallow before we go try and be “fruitful,” can enrich our soil and our soul.
The Church is learning new ways to invite young leaders into a practice of giving themselves away for a year, letting the priorities of career rest, and allowing themselves to be nurtured while also serving the church and the world. Episcopal Service Corps and the Young Adult Service Corps are growing rapidly. The idea seems to be catching, but it is still early.
What other ways of laying fallow could we discover?