THE SEASON OF ADVENT, which lasts between three and four weeks, is a period of preparation for the coming of Christ, celebrated in the feast of Christmas. The theme of Advent is summed up in the phrase of the prophet Isaiah, and repeated by the gospel writers to describe John the Baptist's ministry: 'Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight' (Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:3).
In one sense Advent looks back in history to the period before Jesus' coming. But in another important sense Advent highlights the need which every Christian believer has to 'prepare a way for the Lord' in his or her life.
Our proper vocation
There have always been people who engross themselves in purely selfish aspirations, striving after higher levels of comfort or the trappings of social superiority, even when - as often happens - their efforts cause great anxiety or unhappiness to themselves and strains in their relationships with others.
Although they are sometimes pleasant and sociable on a surface level their philosophy of life is that everyone has to make his own way in the world, without any great sense of responsibility to other people. Life's prizes go to the strong and the clever, and how the rest get on is their own affair. Regrettably, many church members share the same outlook, beneath a veneer of 'Christian' attitudes.
The Christian faith, by contrast, holds that human life has a different and a higher purpose. Our vocation as human beings is to find God, to know him and to live in close intimacy with him. Moreover, as God takes root in us, our priorities and commitments change, and our relationships with other people change.
New motivations and new facets of our character move to the centre of our concern: fellowship, service, care and love of others, an attitude of forgiveness towards those around us, whom we begin to see as frail and imperfect individuals like ourselves. The real spiritual core of our human nature ceases to be buried under a mound of self-centred ambitions and desires, which gradually lose their attractiveness. We begin the journey towards spiritual maturity.
Discovering our spiritual side
It isn't easy to become aware of God and to invite him, as it were, to play a greater role in our lives. For one thing, God doesn't force himself onto people. When we turn to God, we will always find him waiting, ready to respond to our approaches. But our relationship with God - like any authentic relationship of love and respect between persons - can never have any element of coercion or manipulation in it.
In my opinion, however, the circumstances in which we ourselves live are more influential than God's own 'hiddenness' in preventing us from developing our spiritual lives in a beneficial way.
For many people each day and week and month is an almost continuous stream of noise, external activity, social contacts, time-consuming plans for themselves and their families, with all the usual worries that accompany such plans. In addition, there are innumerable spare-time pursuits which keep people 'on the go' and divert their minds from more serious reflections.
The truth is, there is a part of our nature which resists quiet, stillness, solitude, concentration and prayer. Both our present-day work culture, with its pressure and speed, and the modern leisure industry, cater very effectively for this resistance.
If we want to discover the more spiritual side of our nature, and if we want to become more aware of God and experience him as a real and active influence in our lives, there are a few steps which we need to take. I believe that these steps are very simple and even obvious, and although they require an element of perseverance - like any worthwhile activity - they are neither difficult nor complicated, nor do they need any special training or expertise.
These steps involve praying to God, reading and studying a little, and taking time to find the quiet and solitude necessary for reflection, through which we deepen our acquaintance with God.
Themes in Prayer
Prayer means raising our minds and hearts to God. In prayer we reach out to God and address ourselves to God. There is nothing exotic or specialist about it, and it is a great mistake to think that praying is an activity reserved for a few special mystics, who spend hours in a trance or a rapturous vision. In my experience people who say that their prayer-time is spent listening to God speaking to them, rather than the other way round, are often just being pretentious. God communicates to us in many ways, in all the events of our lives, often in ways we don't notice at the time. We have to apply our discernment to recognise God's influence on us over time. In this sense we are engaged in 'listening' to what God has to say to us.
Some people are reluctant to develop a habit of praying because they find that, even if they put time aside, find a quiet place, and succeed in calming themselves sufficiently to concentrate, their mind quickly goes blank.
The way to cope with this problem is to organise our thoughts into a pattern. We should concentrate on a few definite themes.
(1) being appreciative. First of all, we should think of the good things we have, or the experiences we've been through that we should be grateful for, and thank God for them. I know from my own experience that when things are going badly I find it far easier to grumble inwardly and give way to feelings of anger and self-pity. But I have also gradually learned that it is precisely at those moments that it is better to 'count my blessings' rather than persist in conjuring up a picture of myself as a tragic victim of injustice or other people's malice.
No matter how bad things are, there are very few of us who can't identify several things, people, experiences, which have enhanced our lives and made us happy, and it is a helpful exercise to spend time in prayer making such a list and thanking God for each item. This is the experience of men and women who have undergone severe trials and setbacks, in one way or another, only to emerge with far greater spiritual maturity. Their painful experiences left them with a truer sense of perspective about what is important in life, and a more accurate assessment of the many things that don't really matter. They never again run the risk of falling into ingratitude, especially for basic things like health, shelter, food, true friends, happy memories, and so on - things which most of us accept as our due, and seldom feel consciously grateful for.
In a culture which encourages everyone to entertain high expectations of happiness and 'success' it is easy for people to feel disgruntled and cheated if even the most trivial desire or the most selfish ambition is frustrated.
Against this attitude, Christians in particular should cultivate what we might call a spirituality of appreciativeness, by praying in the way I have suggested, thanking God for all the good things and the good experiences we have been fortunate enough to receive. Eventually we will find that this form of prayer liberates us from a very modern form of unhappiness: the unhappiness of not getting everything we want, which is really a form of emotional and spiritual underdevelopment.
(2) being sorry. Christian and human maturity also involves a truthful picture of our own weaknesses, our selfish impulses and blind-spots. When we pray, we should examine our behaviour and acknowledge the various incidents where we have doggedly pursued our own advantage, deceived or manipulated other people, or failed to treat them with the care and dignity they deserve. In the Bible such actions are the essence of sin, i.e. anything which ruptures truthful, respectful, loving relationships between people.
The purpose of expressing sorrow to God for our sinfulness is not to cultivate neurotic feelings of guilt, or to depress ourselves with exaggerated notions of our lack of moral integrity. The aim is to relate everything we think and do to God, to stand before him honestly and without self-deception, and to ask him to help change our selfish habits and tendencies.
It is surprising how many people appear almost incapable, emotionally, of asking for forgiveness, either of God or of those around them. Even when they know inwardly that they are in the wrong, they cannot lose face by admitting it, and they present an outward appearance of defiance and self-justification, twisting the facts of the case to absolve themselves of blame. No doubt the truth is that on some occasions, or with certain people, we have all been guilty of this tendency.
Especially in our relationship with God we will never get anywhere while we maintain such a pompous and self-righteous stance. When we can begin to admit fault, express regret and ask forgiveness, we strengthen our relationship with God and open ourselves to his transforming influence on our character. We become less brittle in our dealings with those around us and although we do not by any means become blind to their faults and weaknesses, we begin to view them with greater sympathy and compassion.
'Being sorry' in prayer is not something we do, then, because God somehow enjoys our humiliation and embarrassment. It is an important element in our spiritual life because of the beneficial way it affects us. We all need to acknowledge that we are less than perfect because an accurate self-knowledge is one of the basic facets of honest spirituality. When we keep this in mind, we find that we are capable of saying sorry both to God and to other people without falling into needless feelings of guilt or losing our basic sense of self-worth. The opposite is true: we are better persons for our truthfulness and clear-sightedness about ourselves.
(3) asking for help. Christ advised his listeners to pray persistently for what they wanted. He compared our prayers to a woman continually pestering an unjust judge until she wore down his resistance and forced him to attend to her legal rights. What is interesting about that particular image is that Jesus saw 'asking for things' as a perfectly appropriate and legitimate form of prayer (Luke 18:1-8).
It is no contradiction of Jesus' teaching to say that as we grow older we hopefully leave behind any childish notion we might have had that praying is the same as making wishes. Prayer and reflection bring us closer to God, and as we grow closer to God our wants and desires alter and become less self-centred. A grown-up spiritual attitude realises that there is something contradictory about praying for purely selfish ends.
God will only give us something if it contributes to our moral and spiritual welfare. We might say that the only thing he can give us is more of himself. The effect of prayer, over the long term, is to smooth out the creases and jagged lines in our character and imbue us with more and more of God's own qualities. Gradually we take on the characteristics of holiness, especially the characteristic of self-sacrificing love in its various aspects, and we begin to mediate God's presence in the world around us.
This in turn has an effect on what we ask for when we pray: our prayers of petition become an exercise in love rather than self-seeking. So - for example - we ask God to look after and bless the people we know according to his best judgement; we ask him to give strength, courage and relief to those who are suffering; we ask him to guide us, and others, in such a way that we arrive at the right decisions in the changing circumstances of our lives. We ask him to lead us closer to him.
If we get into the habit of following this pattern of expressing gratitude to God for the good things in our life, saying sorry for our mistakes and our sins, and asking him for his support for ourselves and for other people, there should be no danger of our minds going blank when we try to pray. We may find that we tend to fall into repetitive formulas, expressing ourselves in almost exactly the same words each time we pray. But rather than being something to worry about, this is probably a positive advantage: prayer isn't a poetry competition, after all, and we should speak to God in the easiest, the most natural, and the least artificial way we can. As Jesus said himself, God is not impressed by florid language or big words (Matthew 6:7).
Reading and Reflection
Faith in God, in the Christian sense, is not a groping in the dark for a God who is completely aloof and mysterious. The Christian faith, as it exists today, has a long history of development. During this history human beings learned more and more about God, his character, and what he offers us by way of our friendship with him. The person who earnestly wishes to find God doesn't have to rely solely on his own inner resources or wander aimlessly in today's maze of spiritual consumerism. There are sources of reliable knowledge which may be read and studied so as to strengthen our faith in God and stop us from falling into misleading and erroneous notions about what God is like.
(1) the Bible. The first and most obvious of these sources of knowledge about God is the Bible. In the books of the Bible, which were written over many centuries, we read how the people called by God learned more and more about his true nature, from their beginnings in almost total ignorance, up to the coming of Christ, who reveals God as completely as he ever will be revealed in human history: 'Whoever has seen me has seen the Father' (John 14:9).
When we read the Bible we gain a fuller understanding of the God we speak to when we pray. Over time, the knowledge contained in the Bible sinks into our minds and shapes our conscience and our attitudes, our manner of responding to God and to others. For Christians this is especially true of the books of the New Testament, and most of all the gospels. All Jesus' words and actions communicate God to us: his preaching and moral instruction, the symbolism of his parables, his emotional reactions - gentle towards the poor and weak and suffering, angry towards the greedy, the unjust and hypocritical - his eventual sacrifice of his life and subsequent resurrection. If we read the books of the Bible thoughtfully and carefully, and in a receptive spirit, our character and personality cannot fail to be influenced by the information we find there.
(2) Christian doctrine. Something similar is true of the other source of reliable knowledge about God - the tradition of church teaching, the body of doctrines and statements of belief which have evolved during the Church's long history.
Every person's spiritual life is a search for truth, a pilgrimage or a journey containing many doubts and uncertainties. Many people today adopt a highly sceptical attitude to life and indefinitely postpone their final judgement on questions of God, life after death, human nature, moral values, etc. At the opposite pole is the religious dogmatist, brandishing absolute imperatives and demanding total conformity to church authority (or to 'Bible truth') as the price of 'salvation'.
Church teaching and official doctrine are not weapons with which to bludgeon persons of fragile or uncertain faith. They exist as signposts, guiding us towards a truer and fuller knowledge of God. Without these signposts, and without the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations of Christians, we would spend a lot of time in our own journey of faith discovering insights and drawing conclusions which have already been reached and are already available for our enlightenment. Or worse, we would lose ourselves in ideas and theories which owe more to our own personality and tastes than to any profound understanding of the content of Christian faith.
This is the occupational hazard, in fact, of every self-styled mystic, who is too proud, unconsciously perhaps, to make use of the Church's tradition of teaching, but prefers to imagine that his supposedly profound spirituality is the product of his own talents and efforts. If we base our spirituality only very loosely on the legacy of the Bible and Christian doctrine, we will run the risk of producing a distorted or semi-pagan notion of God, a God made in our own image and likeness. The trustworthy sources of information which we have about God help us to evade this danger. In my opinion, a strong and solid relationship with God comes from a lifelong grappling with these sources, reflecting conscientiously about the areas of Tradition which we find difficult to accept, rather than rejecting them in a thoughtless way. The alternative, very often, is to condemn ourselves to a lifetime of spiritual adolescence.
(3) Spiritual reading. Last of all, we should recognise the responsibility we have to build up our faith in God by finding spiritual reading material which connects with our temperament and our experience of life. How many people have been deflected from God by being forced into the mould of a spirituality which didn't suit them and effectively extinguished any spark of interest in the Christian faith?
Today there are probably more spiritual books, prayer guides and books of instruction than ever before. Many Catholic authors have tried hard to explain the elements of the faith in accessible language, and there are hundreds of valuable papers, magazines and web-sites. If we are prepared to search, we are bound to find authors with whom we can identify, individuals who describe their own religious experiences in terms that strike a chord with us.
At the same time, the Church's long history has produced several categories of spirituality, often originating with individual saints: Augustinian, Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, Ignatian, Redemptorist, etc. There are always elements in these different spiritualities which reflect the personalities or the experiences of the saints who founded them. This gives them a special attraction to different individuals, based on their own temperaments and experience. God never changes, but in practice he adapts himself to appeal to people in hugely different circumstances. The variety of different forms of Christian spirituality shows how dedication to God takes concrete shape in different characters and different situations. If we find a particular spirituality attractive or useful, we should stick to it, delve into it as deeply as possible, and allow ourselves to be formed by it as much as we can.
Our relationship with God is always a combination of God's inspiration and our response to him. God does his part; we also need to contribute, with discipline and perseverance. I hope that these suggestions, which are of course very unoriginal, may prove helpful and encouraging to anyone who is striving to live the way of Christian and Catholic faith.