"He looks on me individually, He calls me by my name, He knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness, and He means to give it me.” -St. John Henry Newman
As the Advent season begins, it might seem odd to mention happiness. Aren’t we supposed to focus on being holy rather than being happy?
That is the question posed by one of Fr. Spitzer’s listeners, and his answer is enlightening:
Father explains that the fourth level of happiness is the pursuit of holiness. His answer enables us to see that in pursuing “happiness,” we are not trying to unrealistically eliminate suffering from our lives, nor maintain an artificial upbeat feeling. Rather, we are trying to take responsibility for our choices as we encounter the challenges of living in a fallen world with a fallen human nature.
We want to change, so our choices will not harm ourselves and others. We want to grow in holiness and virtue and bring about God’s kingdom here and now—but how?
In a series of posts on moral conversion, Fr. Spitzer has pointed the way. These posts are excellent sources for spiritual growth and change.
One of the challenges in the process of growth and change is awareness of our faults. Fr. Spitzer recommends using the Examen prayer of St. Ignatius to aid us in this process. However, as Fr. Spitzer reminds us:
“...the objective of the Examen is not to beat ourselves up, focus on our imperfections, and then feel a profound sense of guilt and alienation. Rather, the discipline is intended to give us the power to move beyond our temptations and sins—namely to increase our resolve to do good instead of evil, strengthen our higher self in Christ, and to move towards greater love and service of the Lord." -Fr. Robert Spitzer
Resolve to do good
You might be wondering how you could possibly begin the process of self-transformation (while cooperating with grace) in the hectic days following Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas with its social, cooking, and shopping demands.
An interesting finding in cognitive research indicates that our circumstances need not control us. This is called top down attentional processing, and it shows that the focus of our attention can drive our behaviors in good and bad ways.
What we believe about ourselves (good person trying to be better, miserable sinner incapable of change, etc.) can affect the choices that we make. Motivation often kicks in when there is a discrepancy between who we are and who we think we ought to be and between our present self and our “ideal self.”
The season of Advent and change
Advent offers us the perfect opportunity to change our focus and act on the desire to change.
In this brief look at the history of the Christmas feast and Advent, the author notes that almsgiving and fasting are common practices to prepare for Christ’s coming, just as they are in the season of Lent. In Advent, however, there is a more joyful tone—think Christmas music, cookies, and decorating!
What are the effects of such practices? They direct our attention away from our own bodily needs and require that we pay attention to the needs of others, especially those less fortunate.
With our attention focused on the needs of the poor, we can look for opportunities to do something to alleviate their sufferings: volunteer at a soup kitchen or food pantry, visit the elderly in a nursing home, donate toys or groceries for Christmas baskets, and other activities. (Parish bulletins are a great place to see what opportunities are available.)
In addition to alleviating other’s suffering, such activities move us more firmly into the realm of Level 3 or contributive happiness, and, in combination with the Examen mentioned above, prepare us well for Christ’s coming.
With God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26)
In the end, how you respond to the challenges involved in becoming holy and happy is your choice.
With your eyes fixed on the beauty and glory of being a child in the kingdom of God—and recognizing He will give you the strength and means to achieve it—let Advent be a time for change.
"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning. Growth is the only evidence of life." -St. John Henry Newman