The Advent list
No Catholic should have a "bucket list"-- 10 things he thinks he absolutely must do before he "kicks the bucket," such as climb the Matterhorn or see the Grand Canyon. We should of course do such things if we can, but they aren't so important in the end, and no one should be very attached to them.
A saint was once tilling his garden when someone told him the world was going to end later that day: the report was of no concern to him, and he went back to tilling his garden, because his "bucket list" had been already taken care of. He had gone to confession, received Our Lord in the Eucharist, said the rosary, contemplated the Scriptures, and served his neighbor. "Make sure my conscience is clear" is enough to fill anyone's bucket.
And yet Catholics clearly need a list of things which are neither the "absolute must-do's" of a bucket list nor quite the "resolutions" we make at New Year's, or on retreat. By all means lose weight, and exercise every day. Start praying at a fixed time every morning. Get to daily Mass. Gather your family or friends together in the evening to say a rosary with them. But what about things we don't do every day, but which are optional? Where's the list for that?
I propose, then, a new concept: the Advent list. Advent is a good time to make lists of course (think: shopping lists), because it is the start of a New Year, the liturgical year. As a time of preparation, Advent also invites us to think big, to think outside the box (especially the gift box). So Advent seems a good time for thinking about, let's say, 10 out-of-the-ordinary things we might aim to do in the coming year, which are inspired by our Catholic faith.
I don't necessarily mean pious things, but anything that helps us live a genuinely "catholic" life -- a life which embraces all that is true, good, and beautiful. Such an "Advent list," by its devotion to timeless and non-utilitarian things, would help us break out of the world of Google-Facebook-Twitter-email, which threatens to drown and suffocate all of us.
Here's the sort of thing I mean:
1. Just once in the coming year, clear your schedule for an afternoon, find a quiet place where you will be undisturbed, and read one of the gospels all the way through -- Matthew, Mark, Luke or John--from start to finish, uninterrupted, with your complete attention. (I suggest John.) Allow it to change your life permanently.
2. Go somewhere on pilgrimage, not alone, but with a friend or your family. For example: Auriesville, NY, where one of the greatest saints in the Church was martyred, St. Isaac Jogues, is just over three hours from Boston. Been there?
3. Go to Mass at the cathedral in Boston, preferably high Mass on a feast day, if possible when the cardinal is celebrating. Be sure to dress up in your "Sunday best." Put a generous gift in the collection plate and go out afterwards for brunch. If you make a big deal out of it, you will see every other Sunday Mass during the year in a different light.
4. Pretend you are student or young professional from Europe who has won a fellowship to study in Boston for a year. What areas of natural beauty in driving distance from the city would such a person be sure to see? (Mt. Washington, Franconia Notch, Cape Cod National Sea Shore, Plum Island) Visit one which you haven't seen, or haven't seen in a while.
5. Same as 4. But this time consider historical sites: Bunker Hill, Lexington Green, the Old North Church. You get the idea. There's sure to be one you haven't seen, but if not, then invite a young person with you. Or read the best book about the history beforehand.
6. Same as 4. But this time consider the cultural riches of the city: the Museum of Fine Arts, the Gardiner Museum, a Boston Symphony performance.
("What have these things to do with our Catholic faith?" -- Haven't you heard of "Christian humanism," or of how the Catholic faith is supposed to be the constant source of energy for learning and culture in Western civilization?)
7. Shut down the TV and internet-- in fact, shut off all of the electricity in the house--and, in the evening, by a fire and by candle-light alone (as things used to be), for your evening's entertainment, read aloud and perform with friends and family some great play, such as "Hamlet," "A Man for All Seasons," or "Arsenic and Old Lace."
8. One day during the year keep a vigil, by yourself or together with friends, before the Blessed Sacrament in an adoration chapel. Intend to stay up all night "watching and praying." Bring along the Bible and some good spiritual book. Do this as a gratuitous act of love for Our Lord.
9. Read a spiritual classic from Father Hardon's "Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan." Have you read "The Imitation of Christ"? "The Story of a Soul"? "The Little Flowers of St. Francis"?
10. If you are married, go on a two-day retreat with your spouse (yes, it's worth spending the money), to discuss your marriage and family life, and, at the end, renew your vows. If you are not married: do the same, for purposes of discernment.
That's my Advent list. What's yours?
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and author, most recently, of "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God" and (with Mark Cheffers) "Accounting Ethics."