Hello my friends, and Happy New Year!
The new church year begins with Advent, and the anticipation of Our Lord’s coming. This calendar year has been a challenge, and a painful invitation to grow in grace. Catholics enduring prolonged separation from the Sacraments have perhaps discovered a series of opportunities to seize on smaller, homelier vehicles of grace: traces from richer and fuller days that yet continue to permeate our lives.
Indeed, what can we do to practice our faith during long periods of isolation? Quite a lot, really. It is not ideal or complete, but as part of a Christian response to difficult times there is much we can do to keep our faith alive. If ever there was a time for the domestic church to shine, surely this is it.
We can enter deeply into a life of prayer, with fewer interruptions and so many burdens to lay at our Father’s feet. We can follow the feasts, fasts, novenas, and hours of prayer that have ticked along with the Church through many bad times before. We can plumb the depths of our faith by reading about its history, catechism, charisms, and saints. We can practice virtue in a time of hardship, and love our families with the love that God offers us. That’s enough to keep us busy for a lifetime in quarantine.
It is, of course, exercising these opportunities within the context of family life that interests me, for that is my vocation. Moreover, as part of my own family’s response to the uncertainty of the present situation, I find myself officially accepting that role I have always held as my children’s teacher. Homeschooling was not originally what I had planned for this year – pitching finished manuscripts was more what I had in mind – but it has proved to be a great blessing, as it has allowed me to prioritize and balance my family’s many needs. I must gratefully acknowledge that what has held us together more than anything else are the rituals that we have been building into our lifestyle for many years.
These aren’t necessarily glamorous or especially holy. Whatever else happens, the cows need to be milked every twelve hours. The calves must be fed, and the chickens and pigs, and the farmers too. But since we’ve all been home, we’re taking our time and doing this together in a new way. The children go out every morning to clean the milking parlor and tend the calves, then again at midday and again in the evening. Each takes a turn planning and preparing supper every week. When the morning chores are finished we brew a pot of tea, light a candle, and sit down to our devotions and a bit of reading aloud before we continue our school day. On Saturdays we bake a treat, and on Sundays we lay out the blue willow china and enjoy tea in the afternoons (if you’re following along on social media, you can see our creations). These activities are nothing more than simple, everyday tasks that need to be done; but we are striving to do them together, with some semblance of the goodness and grace that sometimes feels as if it’s missing from this big old world.
We have been reading quite a lot, and I have a great many titles to share with you as my duties permit. Yet I’ll be honest: reading has been difficult for me. Each book is tinged with the uncertainties of my own recent experiences. What makes a good book great is, at least in part, its continuous relevance; we see something of ourselves and our circumstances contained within it, and we are forced to confront them. This is the brilliance and, I would argue, the necessity of great literature; and humans respond to this enriching medium from a very early age. Reading gives us reference points for dealing with our own broken world, and the hope to strive for something better.
However, our hope can turn to despair if we do not keep our eyes fixed on God. I have found lately that when I begin to lose sight of Him it is music that restores me. We play music in the house almost continuously now, and I have never been so grateful for it. Every Sunday morning, while still in my bathrobe, I turn on my playlist of sacred music. It begins with Handel’s “Zadok the Priest”. The familiar grandeur of this soaring piece always brings my frustrated soul back to the One Who, in His constancy, loves me forever. Everything else may fall away, but this shall not.
Advent brings with it a sense of something familiar, but this year of course it is different. I could never have imagined, when last we entered the church as a family, that the vestments would once more be purple before we would be able to do so again. Yet there are ways to grow in our faith, and they come back to us with the reflexive lighting of the wreath and unpacking of the crèche. There is so much more, if only we follow where He leads.
The Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle always falls near the beginning of Advent. He was, after all, the first of the apostles to leave everything and follow Jesus. We have a custom in our family, of baking a dozen gingerbread men on the Feast of Saint Andrew. One of them we decorate as the first disciple, with attributes in icing: a fishing net, a tongue of fire, a large red X. We break him apart and eat him, asking the prayers of the Saint he represents. The other eleven we seal away in the freezer, and as the feasts of the other apostles roll around throughout the year, we take one out and do the same for each of them. It’s a small, continuous way to follow with these heroes of the faith and, in turn, the Master.
I don’t know how much longer these trials will visit us, but as we mark another year in the long, long life of the Church, I know that Christ will prevail. We must wait for Him, remaining faithful and watching for Him in the most unexpected places. A kitchen table scattered with crayons. A fishing boat. A manger.
Keep watch, my friends, and follow where He leads.
Note: if you would like to try the gingerbread apostles, this classic recipe is delicious and very easy for children to work with. Go ahead and freeze any extras, in case of breakage. I keep tubes of ready-made cookie icing on hand in red, blue, green, and white for decorating. Store cookies in a plastic freezer container; they don’t freezer-burn, but if you store them in a bag they can start tasting a little bit like the wrapping on an ice-cream sandwich by the time you get to Saint Bartholomew. That is, if you can still taste them at all under gobs of frosting fishing nets.