When I was a seminarian, I spent nearly a year at Saint Gabriel Church in the Sunset, learning from a seasoned priest how to serve the people of God. The pastor, Father Tom Hamilton, often put me to shame, although he did so unintentionally. On my first day, I arrived in the sacristy to serve at Mass about five minutes before it began. Father Tom was already there. All the candles had been lit, the Missal and the vessels arranged, the doors opened, and the lights and sound system turned on.
The next day, I arrived ten minutes before Mass, with the same result. In a vain attempt to beat Father Tom to the sacristy, each day I would try to arrive five minutes earlier than the preceding morning, but to no avail. He was always there, fully vested, sitting calmly on a chair in the sacristy, praying, when I burst through the doors flustered and discombobulated. In the nine months that I spent there, I never got to the sacristy first.
I asked Father Tom why he always arrived so early to Mass. He told me that it brought him comfort to be there well ahead of time and, as he put it, “to putter around.” It was a form of prayer for him and a way to center himself before Mass. Indeed, there’s a kind of quiet joy to what I now call “religious puttering.” Perhaps that’s at the heart of what the Saint Brendan Church Altar Guild does. As a 30-year parishioner and leader of the organization, Pura Lippi, put it, “I just love to be at the altar. I meditate while I work, and it gives me consolation.”
The first reading this weekend promises that God’s people will be comforted when they prepare the way of the Lord. The gospel reading similarly reminds us that, particularly during Advent, we should prepare for the Lord by repenting for our sins and returning to him. The stillness of the Advent season should encourage us to slow down and prepare ourselves in every way, including a bit of religious puttering in our own homes.
Last week at Mass, I spoke about a Danish word that has come into vogue recently. It’s called hygge (pronounced hue-guh), which roughly translates to coziness, comfort, or snugness. As one description put it, hygge is a sense of “togetherness and inner warmth, a world lit by candles and snuggled under blankets” (www.qz.com, “Winter Joy”). This Scandinavian “art of creating intimacy” that has led to the highest recorded levels of happiness in the world involves a certain kind of conscious awareness, a slowness, and the ability to recognize and enjoy the present with others.
Advent is the perfect time to hygge your home. Instead of rushing around in a dither to make sure that we’ve put up the tree, assembled the crèche, hung the mistletoe, strung the lights outside, and baked the gingerbread house, this year perhaps consider these tasks to be an act of prayer. Go slow. Make time for it. Dawdle a bit. Drag it out and see how your attitude towards Christmas changes when your home becomes hyggelig through religious puttering.