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imageAdvent: Pious Purposelessness?

Fr. Daniel Durken has not been gone from our midst all that long, so memories of him are still quite vivid in the monastery.  During a long and productive life he taught scripture to undergraduates at Saint John’s University, was editor at The Liturgical Press, and for a while served as novice master.  He excelled at all, but we remember him best for his love of the English language.

As a preacher Daniel had a unique style, and we looked forward to his displays of wit in the pulpit.  What was most remarkable was not just what he had to say, but how he said it.  For one thing, alliteration was the signature element in all of his homilies.  Effortlessly he could string together phrases and even sentences that hung on a single vowel or consonant.  I’m guessing he was predisposed to this, since his initials were DDD.  But his expertise didn’t end there, and many a well-crafted sentence became grist for thoughtful meditation.

A friend of mine reminded me of this last week when she wrote about the onslaught of work as Christmas approaches.  She knows from experience that the season can be too much for her, and that’s when she pauses to glance at a note that Daniel penned to her long ago.  “You can’t do everything altogether at the same time at once right now.”

imageObviously this points up the major shortcoming of multi-tasking.  We mere mortals can do one thing at a time, and if so we can do it pretty well.  Or we can try to do a bunch of things at the same time, and the results likely will be shoddy.  Less obviously, this is also a reminder of the impact of deadlines that come nearer and to-do lists that lengthen.  Ironically, those lists tend to grow longer at the very time of the year when the days grow shorter.  It’s a recipe for panic.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent John the Baptist makes his entrance into the Advent story.  The gospels portray him as a voice crying in the desert, and his message is striking for its simplicity.  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths.”  It’s all a very nice thought, but do any of us really have the time to add one more thing to our to-do lists?  Could this be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back?

The interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not a good practice run for the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.  Actually, for most of us it’s a crazy time of frenzied shopping, congested traffic, holiday parties and the like.  It’s a high-stress time when people and events can push many of us to the breaking point.  We do it all to promote goodwill and build community, yet some of us still find ourselves lonely and depressed.  We can often feel like we walk the paths of life alone.

It’s important to realize that John the Baptist is not asking us to add one more item to our to-do lists.  Rather, he suggests that this may be the best time to set everything aside for as long as it takes to make some sense of it.  Where is all this mindless activity taking us?  Do we even know what we want to do with our lives?

imageJohn the Baptist offers a way to deal with the season and the pressure, and it’s a matter of sitting down and sorting things out in the light of our gospel calling.  If tasks do not have some ultimate meaning or purpose, then chances are they lead to dead ends.  If hyper-activity leaves us dazed by mid-day, then it’s possible we’ve become little more than hamsters on a wheel.

Making straight the way to the Lord is not just another job.  It’s not pious purposelessness, to use some of Fr. Daniel’s alliteration.  A focus on the Lord gives perspective, and it helps us prioritize all the stuff we think we need to do.  A focus on the Lord provides the criteria for effective triage.  If something contributes to personal peace as well as to goodwill among family and friends, then it can stay on the to-do list until it finally gets done.  But if it doesn’t help us realize a vision of Christ in our lives, then off the list it should go.

So John the Baptist is not trying to choke us with one more assignment.  Rather, he urges us to simplify our lives.  Focus on the Lord, he suggests, and all the pieces will come together — eventually.

This Advent, then, if we have too much to do and we’re doing it all poorly, then let’s try to do at least one thing well.  Let’s heed John the Baptist and get a grip on ourselves and go out and get lives.  Preferably we should get lives rooted in the Lord; and if we do so, all else will come our way besides.  Of course this is easier said than done, until we finally start to do it.

image.Notes

+On November 30th we celebrated the lighting of the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  This year it was different for two reasons.  First, after umpteen years we finally had to dispense with a live tree in the Great Hall.  Our insurance company and the fire department had badgered us for years to stop dragging in a live tree, for fear of fire.  Because of that, long ago we stopped decorating it with lights.  This year we finally went with an artificial tree that should last us for years and years.  But with that came the opportunity to decorate it once again with lights.  So it really is a sight to behold.

+On December 5th the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict performed their annual Christmas concert at the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis.

+John the Baptist has been a favorite subject for artists for centuries.  At Saint John’s images of him abound, including the stained glass in the Great Hall and the sculpture by Doris Cesar in the abbey church.  The third photo is a mosaic from Lourdes, and at bottom is another mosaic, from the cathedral of Orvieto in Italy.

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