Advent Reflection - Living Deeply through Penance

Advent Reflection: How to Live From the Heart

Earlier this year I posted the story of a dream and revelation I had in Russia, which shook me out of my distracted, superficial way of living and reminded me why I was really there. It called me down from the noisy shallows into a mysterious “deep life,” something I could sense, but not describe. It simply opened up before me and invited me in.

Ever since, the memory has lingered under the surface of my day-to-day life like an anchor, pulling me back when I drift too far. I’ve wanted to talk more about it here, but how can you elaborate on a revelation you don’t fully understand?

So I’ve been waiting for further light. This weekend, it arrived!

The occasion was a book called Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict, written by the Cistercian monk Michael Casey. While reading the second chapter, Asceticism, I was struck by this passage (emphasis added):

The purpose of a quiet life needs to be clear: It is to facilitate a quiet mind in which spiritual priorities become progressively more dominant. Nor is this withdrawal an invitation to isolation and introspection. It is, rather, a matter of providing the opportunity of entering more deeply into reality and living from the heart.

The line in bold seemed to echo exactly what I was thinking during the “miracle of the sun” experience in Russia. The phrase “deep life” was the only way I knew how to describe it back then — but more specifically, it was a stepping out of the superficial noise of life, a slowing down of the mind’s endless push of desires, imaginings, and impulses, a focusing of memory, a quieting of the heart, and an opening up to the mystery of the present moment. It was living from a deep place, which one might describe as the heart.

Casey writes that the prerequisite of engaging deeply with reality and living from the heart is to foster a quiet life and a quiet mind. I agree. (So, I imagine, would Cardinal Robert Sarah.) But there’s the rub. What does that quiet life look like, and how can we get there?

Casey continues (emphasis added):

Choosing a low-impact lifestyle as a means to living a more intense spiritual life is an option willingly pursued. … A quiet life marked by periods of solitude and silence and characterized by patience and calmness cannot be created by external regulation. It can come only from a heart that has tasted how good the Lord is and how energizing it can be to be still before the Lord. To such a one the renunciation of many fatuous excitements is no hardship, but the highway to inner tranquility.

In all this we are confronted with a choice about whether we live from the heart or allow our lives to be dictated by what happens around us. Fundamental to any serious attempt to live a spiritual life is the priority given to the deep self over the superficial self. Living from the heart means negating self-will, refusing to allow the ego to dominate our affairs. Asceticism tries to put a bridle on the ego’s wild impulses, to reduce the highs and lows of immature desire, and to bring some consistency and gravitas into our search for God.


So it takes grace (“a heart that has tasted how good the Lord is”) … but also a habit of asceticism: self-denial, discipline, resistance to the impulses of our ego.

When our pride, our desire to be comfortable, and our attraction to shiny new things are all reined in by ascetic practices of self-control, we make space for deeper reflection, spirituality, and even joy and creativity.

I have to admit … I’m seeing the effects of a LACK of asceticism in my life: distraction, anxiety, urgency, selfishness, self-pity. I see it in concrete actions, from episodes of road rage to endless, mindless scrolling on social media. I am closed rather than open, up-and-down rather than stable, obsessively hurried rather than patient, anxious rather than calm, sad and worried rather than joyful.

But today is the first Sunday of Advent, traditionally a season of penance and spiritual preparation for the solemnity of Christmas. It’s the perfect opportunity to start anew, to begin curbing some of those impulses through intentional acts of self-denial.

Things like … not passing cars that aren’t moving as fast as me, even when I can get away with it. Things like accepting inconvenience and boredom, and avoiding the Internet and my smartphone in favor of some “empty space” and silent prayer.

These things are small, but they begin to open a space … and once a little space is open and nurtured, it can continue to grow.

What about you?

How could you use self-denial this month to make room for a quieter interior life?

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