Exams are over and the students have vanished, which means the first of my annual Christmas presents has arrived here in the last days of Advent: I can now park within a reasonable walk of Grace Hall. Don’t misunderstand me. We adore you, o students, and we bless you, but it’s easier to get to my desk when you’re gone.
Trying to park one’s car in the D2 lots east of Grace Hall is tricky at any time of year. But in December it calls to mind our human need for the Advent season — a time to slow down and hope for salvation, or at least promised relief from the world and its cares.
One reason for the parking problems even on a normal Notre Dame day is what I’ll call the student swerve: Students returning to campus, whether from a semester in France or a trip to Belmont Beverage, are so happy that they sharply arc their car into the first gap they find. No need to straighten the wheel, much less respect lines. Good enough, grab the keys, slam, slam, slam, slam and . . . we’re back!
Exam week introduces a daily student-swerve multiplier of at least five. These aren’t happy swerves. These are T-minus-3-minutes-to-blue-book swerves. The urgency and anxiety are laid bare in every partially open space I pass before turning my car north toward Stepan Fields and Outer Mongolia.
Late last week, though, there was this one space I knew I could fit into if I angled my wheel just right, stopped breathing and flattened my ribs. I muttered something snide and hypocritical, as is my custom, cut the engine and glanced at the offending automobile, a red Pontiac. There, stuck to the driver’s window, was a pink Post-it note with pretty handwriting and a statement of contempt: “You did a great job parking your car.”
I sized up my options. Peel the note and avoid blame, walk off and risk a mistaken retaliation, or re-park. I took option three and found a golden open spot about 20 cars farther down the row.
Red Pontiac with Florida Plates and Pretty Pink Post-it know who they are. And I suppose I chose not to intercept the message because, well, who am I to judge whether a note with mean-girl handwriting is the recipient’s bad day or belly laugh? Clearly everyone around here needed a break.
Silence. Peace. Time to reset and reflect.
Such are supposed to be the fruits of Advent among those who keep the season: A letting-go, an embrace of simplicity and of quiet expectation, awaiting the candle that can dispel the night. A humbling-down to focus on and fan that spark of hope which lives ever in our hearts.
But it never comes soon enough. Instead our lives get busier. Final exams, major deadlines, year-end sales and Christmas programs at work, at school, at church. Lunches with friends and colleagues meant to bring closure to the year. All of it welcome and well-intentioned, all of it a kind of noisy, joyous cluttering of the calendar in tension with the religious imperatives of the season.
We fret as a culture about overdoing Christmas and its tendency to materialism. At my house we’re in danger of overdoing Advent. Dinner begins with the lighting of the Advent wreath and ends with a Bible reading and a child placing a felt ornament on the Jesse Tree banner my wife and some friends made by hand. Grandma 1 sent us a little Advent calendar with Scripture verses; Grandma 2 one with chocolates. I had to create activity rotations so the kids could all participate in rituals we can’t even keep up with anymore, as if Advent observances are like spiritual basketball practice. Enough already.
St. John of the Cross would be the first to rebuke me. At Mass on the morning of St. John’s feast last week, the homilist summarized two questions the 16th century Spanish mystic said we’ll all be asked when we die. Did you listen? Did you love?
Searing questions amidst the hyperactivity, they are the essence of Christian life, certainly the essence of Advent, and our answers may be the best we can offer each other in these days of sleeping earth and darkening skies. I think of my grandfather, my first friend to die, who left this world two weeks before my 17th Christmas. And I think of friends whose imminent deaths I am powerless to ward away. I can offer them nothing more than my company, an attentive ear, a moment of stillness and peace — itself an expression of care.
Still, there’s work in the morning, a tree to decorate and all that shopping to do. So when 5 o’clock rolls around, I’ll walk out to a half-empty parking lot and, making note of my own disregard of yellow lines, steer through traffic toward the mall. There I’ll try to buy the toy school bus my little son admires, though it’s missing one of its figurines and the bookstore has flagged it for return.
Pray without ceasing, Saint Paul admonished the Thessalonians. Somehow on the drive over I’ll figure out how to make a prayer out of asking the aproned clerk to check the back shelves just one more time.
John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.