The past two years blur in my mind into a reel of fuzzy memories, stresses and changes, Covid alert levels, protests, violence, political animosity, Twitter fights, masks and yard signs. And that’s just what happened in the wider world. In my own life, there was a cross-country move, the birth of a son, hospitalizations for postpartum complications, job changes, church changes and a parent’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
All of us can list struggles in these past few years. The experience of a pandemic alone has been called a “mass trauma.” We’re tired. I’m tired.
So I am particularly grateful for the practice of Advent this year, a penitential season that began last Sunday. It is a time of spiritual and emotional preparation before the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
I am not ready for Christmas yet. I cannot force myself to barrel into festivities and holiday cheer. I need to take a minute. I need a season to notice, reflect on and grieve what we collectively and I individually have walked through this year (and the past few years, really). I need to take stock of where I am and how I got here.
Advent is a season of hope, and part of practicing hope is noticing where we need it. In church, congregants sing a well-known Advent hymn that begins, “O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” We recall that we require ransom and rescue. Another year has gone by and we still live in a world in need of mending. We have learned anew through these long years that a virus can suddenly change our lives, that our illusions of control and predictability are fragile and faulty, that lies are often mistaken as truth, that we cannot keep ourselves or those we love from pain, that the wreckage of poverty, injustice and darkness persist. This is the very world of heartbreak, Christians say each year, into which Christ came and will come again.
The sister of hope, which looks forward, is remembering, which looks back. We recall God’s faithfulness in the midst of pain or beauty in the past to trust in God’s future presence and redemption. In an article for the BBC, Ed Prideaux wrote that part of how we recover from trauma is to remember and reflect. When trauma goes unprocessed, undiscussed, perhaps actively repressed, he wrote, we, as a group, “remain disturbed and unhealed.”
“Advent” means arrival or “coming.” In this season, the Christian liturgy asks us to imaginatively wait for the first coming of Christ at Christmas and for his promised future return (which is sometimes called the Second Coming). But we also wait for the coming of Christ in our own small lives. The church marks out this season for reflection, repentance and stillness not only because life is worth paying attention to (which it is), but also because the hope of Christmas cannot simply be a theoretical hope for a theoretical life. We walk into the Christmas season bringing with us all the particular days, minutes, struggles and laughter of this year.
So before we sing “Joy to the World,” before we pop open the bubbly, before we ring bells and open gifts on Christmas morning, we recall the actual and ordinary ways we need God’s blessings to “flow far as the curse is found.” We recall how we await the coming of Christ in the specific pain, disappointments, losses, relationships, work, needs and joys of this very moment in our lives.
To that end, I want to offer some ways to help embrace reflection and recollection.
1. Slow down. Advent offers a yearly call to notice our own lives. The holidays can get very busy. I understand that. But we can carve out even a few minutes each day or week to allow intentional time for stillness. Sit in silence for 15 minutes. Light a candle or go on a walk. Think of times of consolation or joy in the past year. What are ways that you have known provision, love, laughter or God’s nearness? Think of times of desolation. Where have you experienced anxiety, grief, anger, frustration or a sense of God’s absence? Journal, draw or simply sit with these feelings. Don’t try to fix them or avoid them. Simply acknowledge them.
2. Be curious about your own internal life. I turned 42 this year, so I have been low-key meditating on Psalm 42 all year. There’s a question that refrains in the Psalm: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”
Being a Texan who was brought up to stoically ignore grief, I’m intrigued by the curiosity the Psalmist has about his own soul. He does not say “Don’t be cast down” or “Stay positive” or “Look at the bright side, O my soul.” Before the Psalmist tells himself to “put your hope in God” he truthfully asks, “Why are you cast down?” We have a duty to be interested in the sources and meaning of our own grief — our own “cast down-ness.” Enter into reflection with a sense of curiosity. Our own souls are mostly uncharted territory, and there is much to explore.
3. Mourn your losses. Part of living in a good but aching world is that all of us have experienced loss of some sort this year. I grew up thinking that if anyone had it worse than me (which is always), I didn’t have a right to grieve. “It could be worse” echoed through my house enough that it should be emblazoned on our family crest. Particularly during a pandemic, it is difficult for those of us who have not lost jobs, our personal health or close family members because of Covid-19 to feel we are allowed to grieve because we know that it could indeed be so much worse.
Of course, it’s good to have perspective. The suffering these years have brought is not distributed evenly. But still, comparatively smaller losses deserve to be mourned. Moreover, if we don’t grieve the pain of the past few years, the pain will not simply disappear — it will come out sideways as anxiety, anger, depression or the like. Our job is not to compare our losses or pain with others’; it’s simply to acknowledge and honor our own.
4. Notice the light. Just as we allow ourselves to lament and grieve the losses of these years, we can take time to notice what has helped us survive — or perhaps even thrive — during them. In my book “Prayer in the Night,” I write about how I lost the ability to pray and found it again amid a period of sorrow, doubt and grief.
“I have learned that in the darkness,” I wrote, “I need to intentionally look out for how God is actively noticing and loving us. And I learn to do this through prayer. Prayer adjusts our eyes to notice God in the darkness, just as our pupils dilate to let in more light, to see more than we first thought we could.”
This is not an exercise in denial. You don’t have to drum up feelings of happiness if you feel miserable. It is simply an intentional way of noting moments of grace amid loss.
As we crest a new holiday season, it is vital that we take a moment to look back and remember. Reflection is how we make space to heal and grow, to receive God’s work in and through the raw material of our lives. It’s the time needed for the quiet seeds hidden in the hard soil of the past two years to begin to sprout.
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”