The O Antiphons reimagined: My interview with Sr. Ansgar Holmberg

Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., 86, didn’t paint her O Antiphon series to edify or instruct anyone. They were meant only for herself.

Ansgar (she likes to be called by her first name) has been with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 67 years, and although she has spent time teaching children and offering spiritual direction, she created these seven paintings over the course of three years as a personal way to contemplate Scripture.

“I had read what other people had said, but I decided to paint them for myself, for me to understand them better. That’s one of the ways I learn,” Ansgar said.

Now the seven paintings, done in brilliant gouache (a kind of opaque watercolor), are gathered in a small book, Praying the Advent Names of God, paired with poems composed by another sister in the community, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J.

The O Antiphons are a series of seven verses dating from the sixth century and prayed during vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is a name of Jesus taken from Scripture, and they are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Ansgar’s images are saturated with color and inhabit a strange space between iconography and myth. Ansgar said she did not set out to express a theological idea with her works; she simply followed her intuition.

“I didn’t have any rules or laws or requests put upon me, but it was my own expression of where I was at that time as I worked with these,” she said. “I put my own spin on it, and it went a bit more cosmic.”

Wisdom, for instance, is frequently portrayed in Western art with symbols like a lamp, a book or a female form enthroned; but in Ansgar’s conception, Wisdom is a figure descending fluidly from the heavens, grasping the sun in one hand, breathing out waters and engraving the bed of a riverbank with the other hand. Wisdom, Ansgar said, is proceeding from the womb of God.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: “O Wisdom” from Praying the Advent Names of God by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Joan Mitchell, CSJ, used with permission 

 

Hush, there’s a baby nearby!

Advent at the Fisher house includes singing, lighting of candles, opening a door on the Advent calendar, reading the passage from the calendar’s matching booklet, picking the appropriate homemade ornament and hanging it on the Jesse tree, looking up and reading the corresponding passage from scripture, and plucking the chocolate out of your own personal Advent calendar, if you haven’t already eaten them all, if you haven’t already brushed your teeth. Well, brush them again, then.

Fisher family Advent has, in short, transcended tradition and achieved rigmarole status. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m happy to be doing special things that we don’t do at any other time of year. It’s a nice combination of scripture and aesthetics and memorable lessons, perfect for children and adults alike. It wouldn’t really feel like Advent without it.

But it would feel even more like Advent if I didn’t yell at everyone the whole time we were doing it. It would feel more like Advent if I focused less on reading the right Bible verse in the correct tone of voice, and focused more on being open to the word of God. If I lit a flame in the darkness and let that symbol speak to the kids’ hearts’ directly, rather than correcting them for pronouncing “Is-ra-el” wrong, or brooding in my heart that I’ve raised them all wrong, and we need to start doing scripture drills every night, and I need to start being a better mother so I will have better kids who do things better. 

If, in short, I prepared a way for the Lord for the sake of the Lord, rather than preparing for the sake of getting preparations done.

Shh, there’s a little baby nearby! 

That’s what I’m trying now to keep in mind. This thought, this image of a newborn nearby, helps make my Advent a little more like Advent. It makes everything a little gentler, a little quieter, a little more slow and thoughtful, just as if there were a tiny baby in the next room, someone I don’t want to disturb, someone I don’t want to grieve. Someone whose world I want to make warm and quiet, soft, welcoming, and kind.

I can’t always control what I have to do during the day, but I can control how I do it. For the sake of the baby nearby, I can take a breath and give a mild answer if someone insults me. For the sake of the baby, I can offer help to someone who’s struggling, rather than waiting for them to ask. I can warmly compliment someone for achieving something small. I can hush my tone of voice; I can apologize sincerely when I screw it up. I can try again without flagellating myself for my inevitable sins. I can skip the sarcastic remark; I can forego the conversation that will only lead to irritation. I can think of the baby nearby, think of the kind of world I want him to grow up in, and I can do what I can to make it a little softer. 

I can recognize that I have been noisy and quarrelsome, critical and demanding, and I can think of the baby nearby, and I can hush.

This is what works for me, since so much of my life has been dedicated to caring for babies. But what about you? What if you don’t have a baby in your life?

Oh, but you do.  You have someone helpless, someone in need, someone who needs patience, someone who is easily frightened or overwhelmed. Someone overlooked. Someone who is just starting out, someone who isn’t getting much done but could still use some praise. Someone whose world would be better if you decided to act out of love. 

The “baby” may look like a snotty teenager, an obnoxious co-worker, or a difficult parent. It may look like a pushy stranger on the sidewalk, or a rude cashier. It may look like a priest who’s disappointed you, or an internet troll who really is out to get you. It may look like someone who never thinks of what you need. 

Or it may even be yourself. We can be so extremely hard on themselves at this time of year, keeping up a constant interior litany of blame and reproach for not doing it right, telling ourselves terrible things that we’d never dream of saying about anyone else. 

This is what people are like: Needy and demanding, fussy and inconveniently fragile. Would we respond any differently if the people we encountered were new babies? Could we be a little more gentle?

What if you remembered that you, yourself, were a little baby once, and even though you can feed and care for yourself now, you still deserve to be treated with gentleness, even if only by yourself? 

At all times of the year, but especially at Advent: It’s always about the person closes to us – or, if you like, it’s all about the baby nearby. And this is how we serve the Person who, liturgically speaking, is nearby, about to be born. We tell our kids that Christmas is Baby Jesus’ birthday, and the kind of presents he wants is for us to be good to each other — and yes, to ourselves. Sometimes the best kind of goodness we can offer is just a little gentleness, a soft touch, a decision not to make noise. A little hush, for the sake of the baby. This is a good way to make way for the Lord: With gentleness.

It’s Advent. There’s a baby nearby. Hush, hush. 

[This essay has been modified excerpted from an essay first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2016.]

Image by Paul Goyette from Chicago, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

THIS IS NOT THE YEAR: A 2020 Advent song for people with good taste

As I walked out one evening
In the dark December air,
I saw my neighbors hanging lights
On trees and everywhere.
My first thought was to chide them
Because Advent’s barely here
But a passing angel thwapped my head
And whispered in my ear…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Juggling, jargon, and the golden ball

Last week, I read Tomie dePaola’s wonderful story, The Clown of God, to my faith formation class. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Before I read the book, I prepped the class a bit. It happened to be my daughter’s birthday, as well as the last class before Christmas, so we talked about birthdays and presents. To my relief, they all knew that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.

And what present does Jesus want for his birthday? We established that he probably doesn’t want a Hot Wheels Ultimate Gator Car Wash play set, and he probably doesn’t want a Barbie Sparkle Lights Mermaid.  So what does he want?

Most of them were baffled. Then a few hands shot up.

“Love!”  said one kid. I smiled and nodded, and wrote that down on the white board.

“Community,” said another. “Respect, service, compassion.”

He laid the words out flatly, like a card dealer mechanically snapping cards out on a table. He had clearly heard them a thousand times before, and knew how to say the thing the teacher wants you to say: Jesus wants us to love one another. Jesus likes community. Jesus likes service. Some of these kids are barely in contact with anything religious, but others have been in Catholic school since they were tiny, and at the tender age of eight, they are full to the brim with jargon.

So I read them the book. The story goes like this . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

 

***

Image: Detail from illustration from Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God

Meaningful Christmas traditions and how to wrangle them

I’ve tried various esoteric practices involving veiled candles, bits of straw, paper chains, acts of service, gift lotteries, medieval anagrams, and every other kind of overachieving cultural what-have-you that caught my eye while I was desperate to make everything Meaningful For The Children.

I remember one year worrying so hard about materialism that I told the kids that one of their presents would be the opportunity to choose a gift for a poor child, and donate it. It wasn’t a bad idea . . . for the older kids. The younger kids, predictably, misunderstood horribly, and it was bloody awful. I only hope they’re so young, they don’t remember the year Mama apparently told them they could pick a toy for themselves and then forced them to dump it into a box and walk away for no reason at all. AT CHRISTMAS.

So. We don’t do that anymore. Through the decades, here is what I have learned about Christmas family traditions . . . 

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

For the rest of Advent, try screen-free evenings

Every year, I threaten it. Some years we actually try it. This year, we’re doing it! We’re screen free from seven to nine o’clock during Advent. 

It may not sound like a big deal, but in our house there are . . . a lot of screens. Phones, tablets, laptops, game systems. It’s really hard to moderate how much time we spend on them, and I’m the worst offender. I won’t bother to go into a long description of why too much screen time is bad for us. Everybody knows this already.

Instead, I’ll describe what happens when 7 PM comes during Advent. I look at the time and start yelling, “SCREEN FREE! SCREEN FREE!” The wifi gets shut off and devices get put away. Everyone is cranky and annoyed. People petition for exceptions. Someone lopes off to the bathroom and stays in there for a suspiciously long time. 

Then, within ten minutes, acceptance sets in, and people find something to do. Sometimes it’s a mother’s dream come true, like yesterday. During the hours of seven and nine, the kids cheerfully played Monopoly together.

One kid sketched, my husband stretched out on the couch and read his book, and a teenager practiced Christmas carols on a ukulele. My daughter brought out her baby parakeet, who sought adventure in her pants pocket.

I called my dad, then I realized I had enough energy to try a stupid craft with those toilet paper tubes I’ve been saving. I poured myself a glass of wine and crafted contentedly in the kitchen to the sounds of gentle music, laughter, and peace under the Christmas lights. 

Sometimes it’s not that idyllic. Sometimes people are mad at me for my stupid Advent ideas, and try to hide their phones under a blanket. Sometimes I’m the one who’s mad about my stupid Advent idea, and I use the time to angrily scrub out the tub. Sometimes people pass the time by kicking each other. Sometimes we decide we just can’t hack it, and we have to put on the TV. The other day, as soon as I put my phone down, I fell into a profound, drooling sleep and dreamt the moon was falling out of the sky. Sometimes Damien falls asleep on the couch and people poke his face. Sometimes the kids just pull a solid two-hour mope and then leap back onto their phones like they need them to breathe. 

Nevertheless! It works out well more often than not. People are reading more, spending more time making things, and spending more time together. We really do like each other, overall, and when we’re deprived of our electronics, we remember how to spend time together again. We’re getting to bed on time more often. I can put music on in the living room, because no one’s playing Mario Kart or Just Dancing to something loathsome. Sometimes people pick out songs on the piano that usually gets ignored.  And then, as I mentioned, sometimes we just nap. It’s just quieter and nicer, a good way to make the season stand apart from the rest of the year. 

There’s still some Advent left. You should try it!

That’s it. That’s the post. 

Oh, wait, here are some pictures of my stupid crafts. They are pretty self-explanatory. These are made of toilet paper tubes, stapes, and gold spray paint:

I guess they will go on the tree? Or I can just hang them from threads from the ceiling. Shiny! This one stands up by itself.

and these are made of foam-core board cut with a kitchen knife.

If you make two of the same shapes, you can cut one halfway up and one halfway down, and then fit them together to make three-dimensional shapes.

Well, obviously they were already three-dimensional, but you know what I mean. They didn’t turn out like I hoped, but I invested too much time in them not to follow through, so I hung the damn things on the porch and I expect they’ll be there until June. I did spray them with something that called itself “clear glitter sealant,” which turned out to be just plain clear, and not glittery in the slightest. Probably glitter would have just made the porch look more squalid anyway, if possible. 

Oh, the other evening, we just made paper snowflakes out of coffee filters. They are already round, and you can fold them in half, then into wedges in thirds, so they come out as hexagons when you unfold them.

There are a lot of things I feel like we don’t have time and energy to do, but it turns out I’m usually just too distracted to get around to them. Anyway, Happy Advent, you miserable old building and loan. That’s it. That’s the post. 

Advent is time for silence, but don’t get too comfortable

I have not lived an especially tragic or dramatic life. But like everyone, I have suffered losses and privations, and I have also had burdens lifted and obstacles removed. Strangely enough, the latter—the lifting of burdens and the removal of obstacles—was often more violent and painful and less welcome than the overt trials. Why? For so much of my life, oh how badly I have simply wanted to be left alone, undisturbed. I have wanted to live out my days among the familiar highs and lows of my familiar life, suffering comfortably, crumbling slowly, resisting disruption, wincing at the very thought of change. Slowly eating little chocolates as I count down my days.

But to meet Christ is to be disrupted.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: The Last Angel by Nicholas Roerich

 

Advent resources cheat sheet!

Advent is coming up! Here is my basic list of Advent resources. These are all things you can do quickly and easily, if you stay calm. Remember, nobody does everything! It’s okay to say, “That looks nice, but I know I’ll make everyone miserable if I attempt it, so we’ll skip it this year.”

Advent chains to print out, designed by my sister, Abby Tardiff. Cut them out, make a paper chain, and cut one each day of Advent and read what’s inside. See the chains of sin and death getting shorter and shorter until Jesus comes! Kablammo! You can tape them to purple or pink strips of paper if you like. (This version starts on Dec. 1, so you’ll have to fudge a tiny bit. We never manage to do this every day anyway, so I figure it will even out.)

Jesse tree ornaments and scripture readings. This could be a very quick project if you have low ambitions and energy. Just cut out a bunch of cardboard discs and draw a simple picture on each one, then hang them with a paper clip.

This year, I was feeling more ambitious, so we used paint markers and capiz shells to make Jesse tree ornaments, and they turned out pretty good. Yeah, I splurged on something with pre-drilled holes, and that has made all the difference.

We make Jesse Tree ornaments the day after Thanksgiving (which is just a few days before Advent starts this year). This is officially the first day I allow kids to play Christmas music in the house. My favorite album is A Medieval Christmas by The Boston Camerata; the kids generally favor Christmas songs sung by goats.

When we can manage it, we take turns reading the appropriate reading and hanging an ornament each night before Christmas. I think we have a pre-lit fake miniature tree in the attic, but if not, we can probably find an evergreen sapling and stick it in a bucket of rocks. Some years, I lopped off a bare tree branch and hung that on a wall. You could also make a paper tree poster.

More nightly advent stuff: 

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, words for all eight verses I don’t want to hear any grousing! It’s a good song. We start out singing two verses, then add two verses each week.

Sunday prayers for the Advent wreath

Advent candles.

Today is probably the last day to order, if you have Prime. You can sometimes find pink and purple candles just in the regular candle section of Walmart or whatever, not specifically packaged for Advent, of course.

If you don’t have colored candles, you can use regular candles and tie purple and pink ribbons on, or even make a colored cuff halfway up with construction paper. Do not attempt to dye white candles with melted crayons. I beg of you.

How to make a good-enough Advent wreath because it’s gonna be dark anyway:

Buy a cheapo twisted twig wreath at the dollar store, then use about forty yards of thread to strap evergreen branches down thoroughly. It’s hard to attach candles to they stand up, so you can find glass candle holders and the dollar store and set inside the wreath.  Put the whole thing on a pizza pan, so you can easily move it off the table and store it in a safe, unpunchable place when it’s not in direct use. Little berries and pinecones and bells and doves are nice, but so it just plain greenery: Green for hope, round for eternity.

You can also just sort of heap evergreens in a bundle or in a basket, but then you’ll miss the imagery of the circle. But green is good.

Another very easy Advent tradition that we manage to keep as a family most years: “fast” from dessert except on Sundays. I take what money I would have spent, and buy extra food for the church’s food pantry.

And finally: Get to confession. Here are a few different examinations of conscience. Do that during Advent, and you did Advent right. Ta dah!

Who’s got other resources to share? Feel free to leave links to anything relevant in the comments.

2018 Magnificat Advent Companion app giveaway!

Advent is almost here! Some years, I have to persuade myself to get into the spirit of this season of penance, purification, and preparation, but right now I’m like YES PLEASE NOW PLEASE ALL THE ADVENT NOW PLEASE.

Happily, I have a little giveaway to get you going! Besides its excellent and gorgeous spiritual guide that comes out every month, Magnificat puts out an new Advent Companion every year, and I have four codes for the digital version to give away.

Here’s their description:

Welcome to the Advent Companion App, a perfect way to live Advent to the full this year.

Presented in a day-by-day format, the Advent Companion App contains:

– LITURGY – daily Mass prayers and Scripture readings
– PRAYERS – a cycle of prayers for morning, evening, and night inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours
– MEDITATION – daily original meditations on the Gospel reading by twenty-four gifted authors

Each issue of the Advent Companion contains these one-of-a-kind extras that you won’t find anywhere else:
– a variety of beautiful blessings and essays
– an Advent Penance Service
– specially-commissioned poetry
– a unique feature: the Advent Stations

Prepare your heart to welcome the Prince of Peace!

I’ll keep it simple: Just leave a comment here (not on social media!) saying if you would like the version for iOS (iPhone, iPad, or iPod) or Android (phone or tablet), and you’ll be entered. I’ll randomly choose two winners for each platform.

Of course, you can also buy the app yourself for $1.99, or buy the 96-page paper version, which is $3.95. Good luck! I like Magnificat a lot. It’s really helpful to have a concrete, day-by-day guide to set your day on the right track.

Mary’s downward gaze

This is the conversation she wants to have with an archangel: Let’s talk about my Son, because it’s personal.

There’s that downward gaze. So much better than rolled-up eyes! It’s a good look, on Mary and on all of us: that personal, intimate, “You’re real and so am I” connection. That would be a good posture for all of us to adopt for the rest of Advent: Look to the ones who are closest to us.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]