Chances are that right about now the Christmas season is getting the best of you. At least that's how it's going at my house. Just last night I suggested to my husband and kids -- amid the fighting over who opens which door on the Advent calendar and who hangs which ornament on the Christmas tree -- that maybe we should just pack it in and pretend there's no Christmas this year, which is kind of missing the whole "reason for the season" in a pretty glaring way. So we tried to regroup and declare a do-over on the lead-up to Christmas.
If you're experiencing any of the same symptoms -- crankiness, stress and a definite lack of interior serenity -- there are some concrete things you can do to restore the calm and shut out the chaos in a season that can be more psychologically debilitating than spiritually renewing. I had to re-read my own new book, "Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality," just to get up the courage to start my Christmas shopping.
Here are five ways to bring a sense of balance and peace to your otherwise harried and off-kilter Christmas season -- and every other season:
- Stop multi-tasking now. No, really, right now. Put down whatever else you're doing and just focus on one thing at a time. Although multi-tasking can make us feel efficient -- Look how much I'm getting done all at once! -- it's anything but, and it begins to eat away at our inner peacefulness in a subversive kind of way. So the first step to becoming less fragmented and more whole is to become aware of all those times you multi-task, and start cutting back. Go cold turkey, if you can. If you're going to talk to your child, don't read email at the same time. If you're going to eat dinner, don't watch TV at the same time. Our new motto for the rest of this month needs to be, "One thing at a time, all the time."
- Seek silence daily. Unless you're a hermit, in which case you probably shouldn't be online reading this, your day-to-day life is probably anything but silent. And when those rare moments of silence do occur, you may find them uncomfortable, maybe even unbearable. We've become used to filling every void in life with some sort of noise or chatter or mindless activity, whether it's Facebook or television or snacking or shopping. But a little silence and solitude are good for the soul. For just five minutes each day turn off your phone, the computer, the TV and any other distraction, and sit in silence. Gradually increase the time. Although at first it may seem odd and unproductive, eventually, if you pray for the guidance of the Spirit, you'll begin to connect with God in the silence of your heart. This small investment of time will pay off big in terms of how you approach the rest of your life.
- Discover the divine in the mundane. If you're like me, you probably think your life would be more focused and centered if only you had time to go on retreat, meditate, go to daily Mass or fit in any kind of regular prayer. But who has that kind of time? Guess what? You just ran out of excuses. Although it's important to set aside some regular time for quiet prayer, you don't have to stop moving to start praying. Look at your daily life and see where you can weave prayer into the actions of your day. Turn your activities into moving meditations. "Wait a minute," you might be saying right now. "Isn't that turning prayer into multi-tasking?" Nope. Prayer doesn't pull you away from the activity; it helps you enter more deeply into it. Try it, and you'll see what I mean. Chopping vegetables, scrubbing floors, commuting to work, painting the living room, sweeping the floor -- all of it is conducive to prayer. You can pray for the intentions of others, you can meditate on a line of Scripture, or you can simply take in the sounds of the world around you and listen for the whisper of the Spirit amid the din. By making prayer part of everyday life instead of reserving it for a specific time and place apart, you begin to do what St. Paul challenged: "Pray without ceasing."
- Create daily rituals. Catholics are immersed in sacred rituals, signs and symbols that constantly help draw us closer to God. Those things don't have to be reserved only for church. You can create your own rituals and establish your own sacred signs to point you back toward God when you're starting to drift. At the top of the list is a sacred space within your home. It can be as grand as an entire room set aside for prayer and meditation or as simple as a shelf in your kitchen where you can see a few little trinkets that give you some spiritual inspiration. But, beyond that, begin to look for opportunities for rituals that open you up to God's presence in your life -- a meal eaten in silence once a day, the beeping coffee maker or microwave that prompts you to say the Jesus Prayer, the long checkout line in the store that allows you to pray for all the strangers ahead of you -- even the ones holding up your purchase.
- A little self-evaluation can be a good thing. At the end of each day, before you nod off in mid-sentence of that great novel you're reading, take some time to reflect on your day. Known as "The Examen" in Catholic prayer, this little exercise -- established by St. Ignatius of Loyola -- is considered imperative to spiritual life. Look at where God blessed you during the course of your day and give thanks. Then look at where you let God, or yourself, or someone else down. Ask for God's forgiveness, and pray for the strength and wisdom to do better the next day. Gratitude always helps us become a little kinder, a little calmer,= and a little gentler, but a dose of honest self-awareness and some repentance thrown in for good measure goes a long way toward turning us into people who are humble before God and compassionate with those around us.
Nothing on this list will take more than five minutes out of your day at any given time, and some won't take any time at all, but put them all together and you've got a recipe for true transformation. So what are you waiting for? Give yourself the best gift this Christmas: inner peace. No shopping required.
Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality. She blogs at www.notstrictlyspiritual.com