The Preparations for Christmas

6fa6fd16fcc7ef723dd55f1d4fafa5fcChristmas approaches and the preparations for the holiday seem to consume what little free time people have in their already busy daily schedules. Fitting in Christmas shopping – online or in the stores – baking, decorating, attending parties, concerts, and other festive events can become exhausting, so that, by the time we get to Christmas Day, it can often feel anti-climactic. What’s left – a New Year’s celebration?

In our Catholic Church we celebrate the season of Advent – a somewhat counter-cultural celebration. I say, “somewhat” because it is intended to be a joyful time of “anticipation” and waiting for Christmas. So the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are meant to be a time to focus on the meaning of the Nativity story as it relates to God’s plan for salvation. This focus brings a very different energy to mind, one that requires additional effort beyond our regular daily responsibilities, but one that is expended inwardly through thought and prayer rather than outwardly in all of the prescribed Christmas activities that fill our calendars. That is not to say that we cannot be attuned to the message of Advent while honoring many of our Christmas traditions that we enjoy.

One activity I particularly enjoy is playing and singing Christmas carols. In my quick on-line research, I discovered that Christmas caroling in public did not become popular until the late 19th century. Before that time, local town leaders led official carol singers called “Waits.” The name was derived from the fact that they only sang on Christmas Eve, which was know as “watchnight” or “waitnight,” in anticipation of the birth of Jesus and the celebration on Christmas Day.

The excitement and anticipation of Christmas was certainly celebrated centuries ago; however, the activities that occurred during the period of preparation were considerably less frenetic and more reflective, much in the way the Advent season of the Church still calls us to be.

How do we accomplish both – keeping Advent and preparing for Christmas? I suppose like most things, it is about balance – knowing when to make time for reflection and prayer, knowing to make time to help collect gifts for children and food for families in need, knowing when to stop “surfing the net” or walking the malls for bargains, knowing how to celebrate with family and friends at Christmas gatherings, student concerts, and outings that include a visit with Santa Claus. I believe that all of these traditions – religious and secular – celebrate “hope” and the goodness of humanity in the face of so much violence and misunderstanding. Just reading the top 50 stories of the year produced by CNN saddens me to think what would happen if all of the energy that fuels conflict were diverted to empathetic listening and understanding. So are we being superficial in preparing for Christmas as usual when our world is filled with so much hurt and brokenness? I believe, that, if in preparing ourselves for Christmas, we include personal prayer and reflection with all the other traditions of the season, we become people of hope who can then share that hope with others in an effort to improve our world one person at a time. So I plan not to wait until Christmas Eve to sing a Christmas carol, but I do want to make time to reflect on the real meaning of the Christmas event. And that is my prayer for all of you this Christmas: may you and your family experience the real meaning of Christmas, providing you with the faith, hope, and love you need to make the world a better place one person at a time.

Merry Christmas!

“The Time Has Grown So Short; The World So Wide”

Recallilarge_news733886_587430ng my own graduation from Archmere Academy makes me reflect on all of the mixed emotions I felt – excitement, happiness, a sense of accomplishment, nervousness, anxiety, and expectations for college and a career. As the school year draws to a close, I expect that many of our seniors have the same thoughts and feelings.

The May issue of The News Journal carried an article by Danielle Paquette of The Washington Post, called “Meet ‘Generation Katniss:’ Born between 1995-2002.” The title references the popular series, “The Hunger Games”, and the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Specifically discussing young women and their attitudes and feelings, Paquette quotes British economist, Noreena Hertz, who, from her research with young women in the U.S. and Britain, states, “This generation is profoundly anxious.” She goes on to say that our young generation has witnessed international threats of terrorism, domestic job loss, gender pay gaps, distrust of the motives of large corporations, civil unrest, accumulating college debt, high stakes testing, competitive college admissions, and the challenges of educational reform. And they read and view images of all of these things practically in real-time. Is that not enough to contribute to an individual’s anxiety?

So, how do we adults help our teens to cope with the images and messages of the world? What assurances can we give to help them cope with the anxiety and nervousness that they may be experiencing?

My experience of most Archmere students is that they are high achievers and prize academic success. From the Academy’s earliest years, Archmere students have sustained a school culture that supports stretching personal limits of learning, and “setting the bar high.” This achievement culture can be wonderfully creative and supportive, particularly when it is understood that failure is celebrated as much as success, because through failure we also learn something – what not to do, how not to go about tackling the problem, what assumptions made might not be true. In other words, through exploration and experimentation, we may not only solve our initial problem, but we may also broaden our understanding of the topic, recognizing typical pitfalls and red herrings, and, potentially accidentally discovering other revelations tangential to our original quest. If we can incorporate this philosophy into our students’ sense of achievement, I believe that can help reduce greatly students’ anxiety as it relates to their academic career. They should not be expected to walk an academic tightrope, and particularly a tightrope without a safety net! That does not mean that students should not plan or organize or develop a career path based on their passions, interests, and skills. It does mean that sometimes students have to be flexible enough to consider other academic and professional paths that may be quite different from what they and/or their parents had in mind.

As parents, teachers, and adults, I believe that our most important role is to be the guides for our young people, relating to them our own personal journeys, filled with “fork-in-the-road” decisions and choices, and offering them support by truly listening to what they are saying to us, and responding with sincerity and empathy. We also need to be role models – walking the talk. This adult task is not an easy one. When either of my own children call me from college and graduate school and “want to talk”, most of the time I feel good about the opinions I am offering to them about the issue they wanted to discuss. But there are those times when the issues may be more complex, or we may not initially be “on the same page” as they say. After ending the phone call or Skype, I question if I was at my best. Did I say the right thing? Did I offer good advice? In those times of self-questioning I usually have to resort to reflecting on my personal beliefs and values – almost as if I were lining them up on a cloth like silverware ready to be scrutinized and polished. I think about my conversations with my children and ask myself if what I said and how I said reflected my core beliefs and values. And if I realize that I spoke harshly or out of emotion because, as they say, your children “know how to push your buttons,” then I ask myself why did that bother me so much. I usually find the answer in my own upbringing.

My beliefs and values were shaped by my Catholic faith, my family, and my educational experiences – most particularly, Archmere. For me, this exercise produces an internal calm and quiet that allows me to work through especially difficult situations – those that generally make us nervous and anxious.

Paquette concludes her article with optimism, saying that, although this young generation has experienced much to cause anxiety, being so aware of the problems of the world may inspire them to devote their lives to solving them. Quoting Hertz, “This generation celebrates difference, diversity, their own independence . . . they want to create, lead and be heard.”

The last Green Concert of the 2014-2015 series held in the Patio featured our student musicians. Claire Caverly. a graduating senior and a national award-wining soprano, sang “Laurie’s Song” from Aaron Copeland’s “The Tender Land.” It was a beautiful and fitting ending to the Concert and to the school year, perhaps capturing the personal sentiments of Claire and so many seniors who are being graduated not only from Archmere, but from other high schools and universities. This is a hopeful time of year when the talents and optimism of our graduates should sufficiently suppress our anxieties. Laurie says it best in her lyrics,

Once I thought I’d never grow

Tall as this fence.

Time dragged heavy and slow.

But April came and August went

Before I knew just what they meant,

And little by little I grew.

And as I grew, I came to know how fast the time could go.

 

Once I thought I’d never go

Outside this fence.

This space was plenty for me.

But I walked down the road one day,

And just what happened I can’t say.

But little by little it came to be

That line between the earth and sky came beckoning to me.

 

Now the time has grown so short;

The world has grown so wide.

I’ll be graduated soon.

Why am I strange inside?

What makes me think I’d like to try

To go down all those roads

Beyond that line above the earth and ‘neath the sky?

 

Tomorrow when I sit upon the graduation platform stand,

I know my hand will shake when I reach out to take

The paper with the ribboned band.

Now that all the learning’s done,

Oh who knows what will now begin?

Oh it’s so strange, I’m strange inside.

The time has grown so short; the world so wide.

 

To the graduates of the Archmere Class of 2015, congratulations and God-speed. Perhaps when you arrived as Freshmen four years ago you thought the space inside our fence was plenty for you, but now, four years later, you have grown in so many ways and are prepared “to go down all those roads beyond that line above the earth and ‘neath the sky.” Know that you will always be a part of Archmere and Archmere a part of you.

To all of our parents and Freshmen, Sophomores, and Juniors, thank you for sharing so much of yourselves to make the 2014-15 school year at Archmere so successful. Our students are preparing for AP and final exams – a potentially stressful time. And I know that the year was not without personal challenges, disappointments, and anxious moments, but I hope those times were balanced with successes, accomplishments, and happy celebrations, all contributing to our collective growth in “pietate et scientia.”

Enjoy the beautiful Spring weather and best wishes to all in the last few weeks of school!

Temples of the Spirit

At Sunday Mass, the weekend before Lent, the priest asked the congregation during his homily what we planned to do for Lent – how were we going to use this holy season to grow deeper in our faith, to become better persons?

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Among his suggestions, he included saying a decade of the Rosary each day. As Lent arrived this past Ash Wednesday, I thought about that homily, and, while I was driving to work I decided to pray a decade of the Rosary.

I find the Rosary prayer to be very contemplative, and often my mind wanders from the visualization of the particular Mystery intended for the decade prayed. As I thought about the Annunciation and what it have took for Mary to say yes to God’s will, I had a moment – a sort of awakening about how I should approach prayer, how prayer creates tangible benefits, and how prayer strengthens the life of the Spirit in us.


Praying

For the most part, I realized that most of my prayers have been about asking God for things – for peace, for good health to family members and friends, for our children’s success in life, and so on. I have also prayed in thanksgiving for blessings that have been given to family, friends, and myself.

To a much lesser extent, I rarely prayed for acceptance, for recognition that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Prayers of acceptance, of allowing God to work within and through me crystallized in my mind.

Benefits of Prayer

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Prayers that focus on acceptance of what might not be within our control and on those aspects of ourselves that might be improved or changed, offer us an opportunity to strengthen our mental and spiritual capacities. Scripture passages and images ran through my mind – do not worry about the things of this world. A temple of human hands is destroyed, but Christ rebuilds the temple in three days.

Prayer helps our minds focus beyond the temporal world around us. It builds up in us a reservoir of strength, of peace and calm to manage our way through this life focusing not only ourselves but also on others whom we allow to enter into our lives.

Life of the Spirit

When we practice the discipline of prayer, we become better at identifying those aspects of ourselves that can stand improvement. For example, becoming a better person – one who interacts most favorably with others and is comfortable in his or her own skin – ironically is one who has developed a life of the Spirit.

This journey of prayer brings us closer to the reality of death – the transforming moment when our lives transition entirely to Spirit. I believe that the more energy we devote to preparing for this moment, we will be less anxious when the time arrives and have a more fulfilling experience.

These 40 days of Lent provide a time for us to consider how we will invest the time we have in our lives. This upcoming week, both the Fathers’ Club and Mothers’ Guild will embark on their annual retreats on March 8 and March 12, respectively. May the time they invest in meditative prayer and spiritual reflection enrich their experiences during this Lenten season. On Tuesday, March 11, the student body will bless the Lenten cross in the center of the Quad.

I believe that if we devote some of our time to the development of a strong prayer life, we will have made a doubly rich investment – one that provides us with contentment in this life and the ability to embrace life after death as the joyous gift that it is.

All of these thoughts rushed through my head as I prayed one decade of the Rosary on the way to work on Ash Wednesday morning. I prayed a second decade immediately after.