You may or may not have heard about the Advent Day of Recollection that is happening today in San Francisco at St. Dominic’s Parish in the Lady Chapel from 9:30am to 12pm. I am leading the day, which I call an Advent Spiritual Reboot. It is meant for people who find their interior lives overwhelmed during Advent and want to refocus on the ultimate aim of Christian existence in this life. If either you were not able to attend today or did attend but to refresh your memory of any of the three talks, below are my notes from all three talks. I hope these help you have a grace-filled Advent Season.
Br. Andy Opsahl, O.P.
Residency Student Brother at St. Dominic’s Parish
Back to the Basics of Christian Existence
This first talk is about getting back to the basics of Christian existence in this life. That way everything we do can be done in a state of watchfulness, which is important because Christ could come at any time. The problem is Advent is often not a time of year people experience in a state of watchfulness. During Advent it is common to find ourselves overwhelmed, overstimulated – ultimately dominated by worldly distractions.
What kinds of distractions do we face during Advent? Shopping, driving the kids to special functions or attending them ourselves, planning for parties, baking – you name it. Some of those things may be necessary and some may not, but they’re pretty much all good things, not bad things. What is bad is when we allow them to dominate us. Because when they dominate us, they blur our focus on the ultimate aim of our existence in this life. The more that focus becomes blurred, the more misdirected toward material things of creation our intentionality becomes, rather than what it was made to be directed toward, which was the creator.
The goal of today is to pull the plug on that misdirection in our interior lives. Advent is the beginning of our liturgical year, so it is a time to regain our spiritual bearings and prepare ourselves to approach the rest of the year with our vision nice a clear.
Our tendency to be dominated by worldly distractions has been at the heart of what has been causing humanity so much trouble since the first human sin – the reason we needed Christ to come in the first place.
During the Season of Advent we bring to memory the anticipation of the first coming of Christ experienced by the Israelites as a way of revitalizing our own joyful anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ.
Why is it so important to that we anticipate the second coming of Christ during the lead-up to Christmas?
To get a sense of that, we need to remember why it was so important for the Israelites to anticipate the first coming of Christ.
And to have a sense of that ultimately means remembering how we human beings got on this whole trajectory at the beginning of human history.
In the beginning human beings lived in a state of the perfection of what God created them to be at that point.
They were not deities like God, but they enjoyed the union with God they were made to have in this world while in a state of human perfection, meaning without sin.
Being without sin meant we did everything with an eye genuinely AIMED at placing GOD’S Will above our own.
Glorifying God over ourselves.
Human beings cut themselves off from that perfect union with God by preferring to obey themselves, who were part of creation, rather than obeying God who created them.
Thus began humanity’s tendency to be dominated by worldly distractions from God as the ultimate aim of everything human beings did.
We no longer lived in the perfection of what we had been created to be on this earth. That perfection had been corrupted, and that corruption led to human pain, lust, toil, and ultimately death.
We could not reestablish our union with God under our own power because our once perfect nature had been corrupted. We had blinded ourselves.
We needed God to bring us back into union with him, to reconcile us back to himself. We needed him to do the work for us. Something we got a lesson in repeatedly over the centuries under the Covenant with Moses. The Covenant with Moses was contingent on the Israelites’ ability to keep the law, which they failed to do time and time again. They could not stop turning back toward worldly concerns, worldly distractions as their ultimate aim.
Finally, after centuries of that failure, in the new Covenant God established with King David, God promised to send a Messiah through the line of King David and the Tribe of Judah to reestablish a Godly Kingdom, to reestablish a unity between human beings and God that would last eternally. Unlike the covenant with Moses, this covenant’s ability to last would not be contingent on humanity’s ability to keep it. It would be rooted in God’s ability to keep it.
That covenant is the reason expectation of the first coming of Christ was such a big deal to the Israelites. They were waiting for that unconditional covenant with God to be reestablished by the Messiah that God promised to send them.
When that Messiah arrived, however, many of the Jews he preached to could not recognize him as the Messiah because he preached a kingdom that was not based on worldly things – not based on things like worldly wealth and prestige. For many of those Jews, their eyes were so darkened by that worldly mentality, by an approach to the law that, in practice, was so dominated by exalting creation over the creator, that they were not able to recognize Christ as the Messiah their people had been anticipating. With their darkened, earthly mentalities, the only kind of Messiah that made sense to them was an earthly king who would reestablish the Kingdom of God in a worldly way.
Jesus preached the opposite. Jesus said people must pick up their crosses and die to this world like he did in order to rise with him to the new life of that everlasting kingdom, that renewed everlasting union with God.
That kingdom is something that reaches its fulfillment after we die, at the end of time when Christ comes again to make his final judgment of who will reign with him and who will not.
Scripture tells us that right now Jesus is sitting at the Father’s right hand where all things have been put under his feet. We hold as an article of our faith that he will come again. In the meantime, those of us who have spiritually died and risen with Christ through our baptisms, but remain here in the realm of time – before physical death – are left in a state of what should be joyful anticipation as we await the redemption of our physical bodies.
This time of joyful anticipation does continue amidst challenges. While we wait here in this life, our flesh is still able to lust against the spirit within us, against that renewed union with God that has begun but is awaiting its fulfillment at the end of time. We are left in this waiting period to groan inwardly and work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as Saint Paul teaches.
All of that is why anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ is such a big deal. It is the ultimate aim of Christian existence in this life. And that second coming could not happen without the first coming of Christ, which is why during Advent we also recall anticipation of the first coming and then during Christmas celebrate the fact that it actually happened.
Since the ultimate aim of Christian existence in this life will reach its fulfillment after death, the best way I know of not being dominated by worldly distractions in this life is to spend time contemplating the end of this life. Nothing gives my interior life a nice, clean reboot like meditating on the fact that I am going to die at some point. With every passing moment, I am moving closer and closer to that unavoidable event.
Contemplating death is not easy, and I imagine it becomes more complex, emotionally, the closer we perceive ourselves being to death.
The fact that I am going to die is something for most of my life I have had a mental block to contemplating. I could not think about it for longer than a passing moment.
Why? It was too profound a reality for me to handle, and there was always some nearby distraction to relieve me from thinking about death.
If I went to a funeral or visited someone who was dying in the hospital, afterwards I always needed to watch a funny TV show or turn to some other worldly distraction.
I needed something to blur my perception of that reality that was not going to stop staring me in the face.
Many of us do reach a point where we are more willing to contemplate death. Different factors can lead to that willingness.
For me, it was being in religious life.
Religious life is meant to pull away many of the distractions the world offers. Religious life is also difficult emotionally because you have to live with people who push your buttons – who cross your boundaries, irritate your sensibilities, and enflame your insecurities.
I had to face a lot of those human struggles we all face as a result of sin, of human beings preferring creation to the creator.
If you want to be a healthy religious you need to deal with those issues.
I had to ask, why am I here in the first place? Where is my life headed?
The unavoidable answer to that question in terms of this life was that it was headed toward death.
What is it I believe about what happens after death in terms of what I believe about the source of my existence?
I had to get back to basics.
The more I did that, I started to see contemplation of death as something that freed me from those difficulties.
They didn’t seem like such a big deal when I remembered that the end-game of my existence was after death and those things that were bothering me wouldn’t matter after death.
And so I want to give you some time now to think about death.
It is the key to living a life aimed at the end-game of your existence because death is the closest a person gets to that end-game in this life.
Making Christ’s Paths Straight
This talk will be about refocusing on Jesus as our path to perfect happiness.
John the Sunday Gospel reading for the second week of Advent, John the Baptist tells us to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths.
What does it mean to make the Lord’s path straight?
I would say it means to clear the sins we put in Christ’s path as obstacles.
But what is sin?
For the purposes of this talk, I will call sin straying from God’s will, preferring instead our own will.
Ultimately, it is that tendency of human beings to turn away from their creator and redirect their focus on things in creation as their life’s ultimate aim.
The more we do that, the more we blur our sense of focus on the ultimate aim of our lives, which is eternal union with our creator.
How does John the Baptist recommend we remove those obstacles that cloud our vision?
The first steps John the Baptist recommends are to repent and believe in the Gospel.
Repenting is certainly the first step, but keep in mind Advent is about starting out the year in a way that will help us be better so that hopefully we have less to repent of next year.
We Christians know that we tend to turn our focus away from our creator and toward things in creation.
It is easy to do because things in creation are enticing. Many things in creation bring us various types of pleasure. Understandably, many of us associate pleasure with happiness.
Happiness often involves pleasure as a side-product, but happiness for a person in the Catholic tradition comes from that person moving closer and closer to the full actualization of what God made that person to be.
When we reach eternal union with God, the ultimate aim of Christian existence in this life, we will be the full actualization of what God made us to be.
That will be our greatest source of happiness because Heaven is a reality in which our every longing is fully engaged.
In this life, a Christian’s every action should be ordered toward that goal.
Given that the Kingdom of God has been initiated for every person who has died and risen spiritually with Christ through baptism, why do we still sin? As stated in the previous talk, the Kingdom of God will reach its fulfillment at the end of time when we have all left the realm of time.
Scripture tells us that right now Christ is at the right hand of the Father where all things have been put under his feat. He will come, but in the meantime, for those of us who remain here in the realm of time – before physical death – the flesh is still able to lust against the spirit. We still must battle that tendency to prefer things in creation to our creator as the ultimate aim of our lives.
As I have stated in several different ways, when we allow things in creation to drive our focus off of eternal union with God as our ultimate aim in this life, we fall into sin.
Why do we sin when we lose that focus? The answer is that we are walking around with blurry vision. The more blurry that vision becomes, the more sinful our lives become.
We fall into vice.
Let’s look at what the Christian tradition calls the Seven Deadly Vices.
Lust – Allowing sexual passions to stay from how God ordered them.
Gluttony – Over-consumption
Greed – Excessive pursuit of material possessions
Sloth – Slacking off from what we should be
Wrath – Inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of anger
Envy – Sorrow at someone else’s good – wanting it for ourselves and not that person
Pride – Admiring ourselves in a way that leads us to disdain others.
A good moral life, a life consistent with moving toward the full actualization of what God made us to be can involve enjoying many of the good things in creation, but enjoying them well.
What does it mean to enjoy them well?
Enjoying the good things in creation well means not being dominated by them. If they dominate us, they can obstruct us from doing the things we should – the various things we need to do to take care of ourselves and others.
Below is a list of the Seven Heavenly Virtues that the Church sees as corresponding with the Seven Deadly Vices.
Lust – Chastity – Practicing self-control sexually according to our state in life. Keeping custody of our eyes.
Gluttony – Temperance – being able to go without things we enjoy, like food and entertainment media.
Greed – Charity – Love, self-sacrifice.
Sloth – Diligence – Putting in effort to be the best we can be.
Wrath – Patience – Forbearance – being able to endure discomfort inflicted by others so that we are in a place to treat them with mercy.
Envy – Kindness – Learning to delight in someone’s good, not being threatened by it.
Pride – Humility – Nothing thinking less of yourself, thinking of yourself less.
Again, enjoying things in the world well means enjoying them in a way that does not drive us into vice.
The good news about virtue is that it is like a muscle we can develop through exercise. The more we practice virtue, the easier it becomes to act well.
The easier it becomes to act well, the easier it becomes to keep our focus on that ultimate aim of Christian existence in this life.
To be free of the obstacles we put in Christ’s path.
Are you honestly aiming your life at eternal union with God as your greatest source of happiness?
How are you putting obstacles in Christ’s paths?
Practical Steps to a Vibrant Advent and Christmas
Make this a time of new year’s resolutions for your soul.
Start by looking at those obstacles you tend to put in Christ’s paths
Go to the sacraments – Mass and confession.
Look for opportunities to be generous. Don’t wait for some formally organized charity activity. Ask God to send you someone to help if you don’t see any opportunities immediately in front of you.
Read scripture to learn more about God as part of your pursuit of loving God.
Saint Thomas Aquinas says you cannot love what you do not know.
One day a week, give up something you will miss.
This can function effectively as a reminder not to be dominated by world.
Reminder of that ultimate aim of Christian existence in this life.
Make it a goal to reach the end of the Christmas season not feeling glutted
The entire Christmas Season should feel celebratory.
At the end of Christmas should have a sense of being empowered spiritually to take on the year.
Every time you consume something, especially food, during Advent, ask, “How is this going to affect my goal?”