One of the aids to remembering events and where to place them in your life is having major milestones that serve as a point of reference, an external anchor so to speak. Sometimes it’s as simple as our progression through school – “oh, yeah, that happened at elementary school such-and-such.” Middle and high school serve well, as does college and so on. Major life events help secure our memory on the timeline: dating, marriage, children, family vacations. Careers and our work events – all of that and more. It all helps. “Sure, I remember that. It was while we lived in Baltimore, dad was working for Martin Marietta, and we all went to St. Perpetua.”
But it might be different for dad who lived in Baltimore for his whole married life, mostly in the same house, establishing a good career with the same company, and then retiring and eventually moving to Florida. Sometimes the points of reference are too constant – living in the same house – or can get conflated. “Do you remember Elaine’s prom?” And he thinks, “Gosh I love all four of my daughters and they all went to prom…so which prom was that?” Of course, Elaine married and brought his first grandchild into the world. That’s easy to remember…the other 10 grandkids are a little more challenging to place in time, they all came so close. “It’s great that they have cousins about the same age, but…”
It can also happen on a more daily basis when you lose your external reference points. Back in the day, life aboard a deployed submarine had that challenge. Think about it. You’re under the water, no sunrise or sunset, your life is confined to the 350- to 500–foot length of the boat. While the world continues on a 24-hours basis, the submarine lives on an 18-hour clock of shift work. The only consistent marker of the time of day was what was being served for the next meal – although sometimes lunch and supper could throw you off a bit, depending. But there was nothing that marked the day of the week. It all kinda’ blurred together.
Are you still with me? I am going to take a small detour and then get back on track. So hang in there.
Fr. Jim is a true scripture scholar. I am a scripture enthusiast. Fr. Jim can write a scholarly commentary. I write “casual commentaries.” Right now, I am working on the Book of Jonah, one of the great and completely misunderstood books of the Bible. Anyway. At the beginning of the book, the Lord comes to Jonah and tells him that he is to go and warn the great city of Nineveh to repent or be destroyed. Now Nineveh is the largest, worst wrecking ball of an empire that part of the world had ever seem. They decimated the north of Israel, took people captive and sent them into permanent exile. They tortured, looted…you get the picture.
When God comes to some of the prophets, they are reluctant. Not Jonah. He flat out says “No!” and runs away. From his home, he goes down to Joppa, he goes down onto the boat headed to Tarshish, and then goes down below decks – and later he goes down into the whale. See where he is headed? Jonah doesn’t.
When the great storm sets upon the boat, endangering the captain, crew, the ship and their livelihood, Jonah is curled up asleep below deck. Oblivious to it all. The captain comes down and yells at him to wake up and pray: wake up and pray.
What about the memory and markers of our spiritual life? What is the equivalent of school, kids, career? What marks progress towards eternal life. Early on it might be the sacraments, but what about now. Maybe your spiritual life has been on an extended submarine patrol. You have no idea where you are, you’re just along for the ride, and can’t quite tell one day from the next. Maybe you don’t know it, but you have been on a slow descent into ho-humness of celebrating your faith. Each Mass is sort of like the others, at least today we had the Advent wreath and candles to bless. You lose focus during Mass. Is the priest still prattling on with his homily? “I wonder what teams are playing on TV today?” or you are running down the list of things you have to do before Monday. It happens.
What about the prayer life? Spiritual reading? What about the hundred other things that can form and support a life in faith? Can you see where you are headed? Jonah couldn’t. Can you?
Take all that and mix in a pandemic with safer-at-home. Holy cow! You are on an extended submarine patrol living within the same four walls. Every day is sort of the same with meals being the time marker. At least you have sunrise and sunset. But what day is it? Well, it called “Blursday” when it has all blurred together into one less-than-memorable voyage.
But spiritually, are you are below decks, curled up asleep? Maybe just napping? Has it all blurred together, or like Jonah is it all heading down. It’s not that you’re running away from God, but you’re not running towards him either. Are you heading to spiritual Tarshish and you don’t know it? “Where is Tarshish?” you ask. Exactly my point. Do you know where you are spiritually heading? As it warns in the gospel, “May [the Lord] not come suddenly and find you sleeping” below deck like Jonah, in the midst of a spiritual storm and you are oblivious, asleep at the wheel.
No matter, because wherever you are or headed, napping or fully asleep, this is the First Sunday in Advent, and the captain of the ship, the Lord Jesus Christ, is standing over you, telling you ““Be watchful! Be alert!” (Mark 13:33). The promise of Scripture, the promise of Advent is that the captain has our back. He will find us above deck, below deck, overboard, or even in the belly of the beast. He is captain.
As captain, Christ calls each of us to (a) wake up, (b) get our bearings, and then (c) set course to where the Divine Captain is pointing in each of our lives. Each of us is crew on our voyage of life.
What should you do? That is part of the season of Advent, figuring that out, being watchful and alert. But I will tell you this: the captain in the story of Jonah had great advice – advice to begin your day: wake up and pray. It’s a start.
May your Advent journey have fair winds and following seas.