I am an “Advent and Lent” priest, someone who appreciates the more intense focus on prayer and practice offered by the liturgical seasons. We need invitations to step outside of our normal routines and see with fresh eyes, and our liturgical calendar gives us time and space to look at the mystery of Christ–and our own deeper existence, of course–from a different angle.
During this season of Advent, we have a month to practice waiting, prayerful watching, and listening–none of which are particularly strong or valued character traits in our contemporary society. While the world around us may be framed by a fast-food mentality, we Christians are a quirky sort who recognize that God often speaks in whispers that can easily be missed in the cacophony swirling around our heads.
This year, I have become much more aware of–and troubled by–this cacophony, and I wanted to explore a practice or discipline that might help ground my heart during this vital season of prayer. What began as a contemplative challenge to myself, I now want to share with my community: with Grace Church, Gainesville, the Diocese of Atlanta, and colleagues and friends around the world.
I am calling for a special Advent Fast–in particular, a fast from sensationalism.
I have noticed that I wake up each morning and immediately check my phone to see what craziness happened during the night. What political manipulation landed on the headlines by seven a.m.? I realized that before I even thank God through sleepy eyes, I fix my sight on absurd and toxic political narcissism. This awareness made my heart hurt.
Now, I will be the first person to say that it is important to be aware of the struggles and pains of the world around us. Only with this awareness can I truly practice a compassion that is grounded in reality. I practice an faith rooted in the Incarnation, so I am called to look for God around me in the world, as well as within my heart. Jesus calls us to this honest awareness, and the Spirit stirs our hearts to hear the cry of those in pain and grief–and to share in the joys and laughter of those celebrating! With an honest awareness, we realize how interconnected we truly are, and we become more authentically human as we shake off our fixation on self-interests and heed the Gospel’s call to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
So, I am all for an honest awareness, but what disturbs me is our shared addiction to sensationalism. It is not enough to know what is happening; it seems that we need to be whipped into a frenzy (or we allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy). When the first sound out of my mouth in the morning is one of guttural disgust, I need to realize that, while there are real struggles in the world, there is also a spiritual disturbance in my heart.
To frame it in the image of Advent and Christmas, how can I notice the guiding star of hope when my vision is blurred by the shining lights of sensationalism and manipulation. I need to pay attention to this.
In the Christian contemplation tradition–indeed with the entire broader mystical tradition of all the world’s great faiths–we learn that there is power in what we pay attention to. The eyes are the windows to the soul, so what we fixate on flavors us. It soaks down deep to our bones. We say that the way we pray shapes the way we believe, our frame of religious perspective. What we focus on shapes and forms us into the human beings we are. This is why contemplative practices are so vitally important for us in this day and age.
So, this Advent, I am fasting from sensationalism. I am saying no to those powers that want to manipulate me and wound my soul. I am resisting those influences that lure my eyes away from the star of hope so that I become hooked by the demons of ego, greed, and narcissism–in whatever shape they take. I am turning my back not on the struggles of the world but on the cacophony that distracts me from an honest awareness and instead makes me full of rage and thus malleable to the forces that seek to manipulate us all.
Perhaps you’d like to join in this Advent Fast.
Here’s what we can do: instead of watching a screen, read a text. Slow down and reflect. Perhaps you can pause between paragraphs and simply say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Try to resist sharing sensational news and recognize when you are hooked by a force that wants to manipulate and distract you. You may feel anger and disgust, but the desert mothers and fathers knew well what happens when we give in and let the demons of anger and rage guide our lives.
Some people may think I am naive, or that I’m avoiding the issues. Call me naive if you’d like, but this Advent my prayer is for my soul to be more grounded, for my perspective to be oriented toward the in-breaking of God into my life, and for my heart to be truly attuned to ways in which I am being called to be a God-bearer in my little corner of the world.
I am saying goodbye to the noise and talking heads, to ego and greed. I am keeping my eyes open to notice a star.