Living Advent

Living Advent December 2, 2013

“What should I do for Advent this year, Bill?”

The year was 1993. Bill had been my spiritual director since 1985. He was Fr. William Shannon, retired theology professor and Merton scholar…but soon after our monthly meetings began, he was urging me (as he did all his friends) to call him Bill.

On his retirement from teaching, Bill had become chaplain of the Sisters of St. Joseph in our hometown, and he lived at their Motherhouse. In response to my question, he suggested, “Why not do what we’re doing here—paying special attention to the insertion in the Lord’s Prayer.”

It was the insertion at Mass that he was referring to, where the priest adds after “Deliver us from evil”:

Deliver us, Lord from every evil

And grant us peace in our day.

In your mercy, keep us free from sin,

And protect us from all anxiety,

As we wait in joyful hope

For the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

At daily Mass at the Motherhouse during Advent, all the Sisters were saying these lines along with Bill as presider. My husband and I don’t go to daily Mass, but for Advent that year—and for many years thereafter—we said these lines at the start of our meals together.

“But what else, Bill?”

I persisted. Just saying that prayer daily didn’t seem enough to live Advent’s spirit. So Bill began talking about his sense of parousia. It’s the Greek word for “being next to,” translated in the Latin Vulgate Bible into adventum (coming). “It sounds like a contradiction,” he said, “being next to the Lord who is coming. But it’s not really a contradiction, because the Lord who comes to save us is already within each of us.”

Bill delighted in this core paradox of Advent, which he returned to often during the twenty-five years of Advents that I went to him for spiritual direction, until his death last year.

“But how to live this paradox, Bill?”

“Attentiveness,” he’d say.

To explain, he talked about the difference between Advent’s and Lent’s penance:

Here at the Motherhouse, our Penance Service, at the start of Advent, is gentler than Lenten penance. Lent’s is repentance for sins we’ve committed; Advent’s is preparation for the mystery of the Incarnation: waiting, watching, standing straight before the Lord, as Luke’s Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent (Luke 21:28) puts it.

All of which means, Bill and I agreed, resisting distractedness. The reading from Luke’s Gospel continues: “Be on guard lest your spirits become bloated…with worldly cares.”

“But, Bill, how to resist distractedness?” I asked, knowing I was sounding a bit like the broken record of the four-year-old who keeps asking “Why?…Why?…Why?”

One year when I asked this, Bill’s answer was to tell me about the discipline he himself was incorporating into each day of Advent: pausing between each activity of the day to say a transitional prayer—a simple “Come, Lord Jesus.”

This is harder than it sounds, since we’re all used to rushing (or at best flowing) from one activity to the next. But try this:

Before getting out of bed in the morning, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Before eating breakfast, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Before getting up from breakfast, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Before opening your computer and closing it each time all day, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Before checking your Smartphone each time all day, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

After chatting on the phone, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Before going out for a walk, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

On returning from a walk, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Before checking to see if the mail has come, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Before…well, you get the idea.

When I’ve tried to practice this Advent discipline, by dinnertime I’m astounded by how many transitional pauses I’ve missed during the day. One year when I told Bill of my sloppiness, he admitted that he had as much trouble remembering the prayer-pause as I did. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.

As our years of Advent’s went by together (picture those calendar pages rapidly flipping over in old films), Bill would often animatedly mention his favorite Advent prayer—“the profound alternative Opening Prayer for Mass of the first Sunday of Advent.” He liked especially its formulation of that Advent paradox that he treasured: our being already in the Lord’s presence at the dawn of his coming.

Father in heaven,

our hearts desire the warmth of your love

and our minds are searching for the light of your Word.

Increase our longing for Christ our Savior

and give us the strength to grow in love,

that the dawn of his coming

may find us rejoicing in his presence

and welcoming the light of his truth.

We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.


Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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  • Jan Vallone

    Resisting distractedness is very difficult, especially before Christmas when we are pulled in a multitude of directions. I doubt I’d be successful with the transitional prayer–my life seems like infinite transitions. But I like the idea of attentiveness and will try to modify Bill’s suggestion and focus on God’s coming and presence at the main transitions of the day, maybe morning, noon and evening. Thank you for sharing Bill’s wisdom, Peggy.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      That’s wise, Jan, to recognize what would not work for you. Your focusing on those 3 times a day sounds lovely. The purpose, anyway, is just to pause and attend to the God who is already with us.

      • Jan Vallone

        Off to a good start! It’s still morning, though.

  • Tania Runyan

    I really needed to read this and will try the transitional prayer. So simple and powerful, and yes: I bet much harder than it sounds!

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Yup, the transitional prayer is a challenge. Here on Day Three of Advent, I’ve forgotten it about a hundred times already!

      • Tania Runyan

        I got three or four in today so far, which is three or four more than I usually do. So, thank you.

      • C. R. Fultz

        Or perhaps you were being insincere about all this.

        • Peggy Rosenthal

          Not in the least. Paying attention to something beyond the flurry of our daily activities is a spiritual challenge.

          • C. R. Fultz

            You bristle? What, you want a medal? Or are you bucking for something bigger? I’d maintain that the true challenge is “paying attention” to those daily activities that contribute to the world before us. Those who were supposed to create weren’t “paying attention.” The operator of the Metro-North train wasn’t “paying attention.” The co-pilot of the EgyptAir flight a few years back was paying attention to how “great Allah” is. I know where my priorities lie.

  • Jesus

    Me parece clave esa sensacion y esa realidad paradojica de vivir ya la presencia del Senor y a la vez estar abriendose a su llegada. Esa ambivalencia de nuestra experiencia de fe refleja nuestro propio ser: poseemos un don estupendo, pero no pleno todavia, por eso vale la pena actualizar esa presencia invocandola: Ven!

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Gracias por estos pensamientos sobre esta paradoja de nuestra fe. Tus palabras me hace pensar que nuestra “¡Ven!” al Señor es un “¡Ven!”
      con anhelo: como rezar al Señor “Aunque ya estas conmigo, ¡Ven mas y mas en mi vida!”

  • JLMThompson

    Thank you for sharing the the transitional prayer. I am going to start working with this right away. I had been looking for a way to deepen my Advent experience and I think that this deceptively simple sounding practice might really help me stay aware and help open my heart.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Best of luck with this practice! I’m falling short so far this year (I forget the transitional prayer many, many times), but Advent is still young, so there’s hope!

      • JLMThompson

        I also fell a bit short but as long as we keep coming back to practice we make progress bit by bit.