Last weekend I had the great pleasure of participating in a silent retreat with my grandpa, dad, and two uncles. It’s been a Breen family tradition for some years now to visit Christ the King retreat center in The Other Buffalo (Buffalo, MN).
This was a particularly challenging retreat, for whatever reason, but it was also particularly inspirational: I felt empowered to enter Advent with a fresh set of eyes and grace. I’d like to share one of the core takeaways I experienced.
In a spiritual direction meeting with one of the priests on retreat, we discussed St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who spoke of the Three Comings of the Lord or the three Advents. The first was his Incarnation, in “flesh and weakness”. We are also told of the Second Coming in “glory and majesty” at the end of days. The middle and third Advent, however, is where Christ comes to us in “Spirit and power” every day of our earthly existence. Jesus meets us in the sacraments, in prayer, in the people we encounter every day. And this “third coming” is no less important than the other two! While Christ’s daily incarnation in our lives may not feel as momentous as Revelation and the end times, it is by no means invented: Jesus tells us in John 14:23 that, “whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”
For me, St. Bernard’s Three Advents had a personal parallel. Every year, it seems Advent flies by. There’s the Advent that others may experience: no thought of the “reason for the season” whatsoever; pure commercialism and chores and cooking, and, “Sheesh, I could use a vacation from my holidays.” Then there’s the “ideal Catholic Advent”, spent immersed in prayer and quiet contemplation, racking up devotions and novenas like someone’s keeping score (jk, love you all who do it well!). And finally, there’s the Advent that most of us experience: somewhere in the middle.
At the retreat this year, God spoke into this part of my life. He told me he didn’t want me to feel guilty for not having the ideal, but to strive for something greater than the mindless. Most profoundly, God asked me to reflect on how Mary, Joseph, and Jesus experienced the first Advent. Did they spend hours in quiet contemplation in the temple? That’s not the version I’ve heard. I was inspired to think of the Holy Family, making a home wherever they could, and ultimately celebrating Emmanuel’s arrival in a stable/cave. They were living a real life, just like we do. They were a real family, just like mine. God does not call us to rise above our family life to some sort of mystical state of prayer during Advent, he came for just the opposite: to redeem the human experience and to sanctify family life!
My guilt for not setting aside more time in prayer melted away.
Don’t get me wrong. Prayer is essential. Meditation and contemplation are wonderful. A mystical state of prayer is Catholic #goals. But many of us also live lives with very real demands THAT COME FROM OUR VOCATION. I am busy because God has called me to be a husband and a father. Since he has called me, HE WILL MEET ME THERE. When God calls us to our vocation, he is also promising to meet us there! For those who do not live the monastic life, our role models do not need to be the monks!
Instead, I felt the Lord calling me to reflect on how the Holy Family lived the first Advent: Christ’s quiet coming in the night. I felt the Lord calling me to drop the shame and instead seek for the moments where I could ponder Jesus in my heart. Mary and Joseph are my examples this season, and I feel free.
Praised be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.