James Tissot, “Meal of Our Lord and the Apostles”. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An Advent Inventory

A five-part examination to prevent irritability and promote gratitude

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Because marketers and malls began to hawk Christmas in August, I thought if they could extend the Christmas season back a few months, I could extend Christmas forward a little. So I ask readers to surmise which familiar Christmas character is described. Here are two clues. One: The character acts saintly, but is actually spiteful. Two: Even so-called friends are treated roughly. Any guesses?

Well, it’s someone grouchy; it’s someone grumpy; it’s someone Grinchy. Yes! “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” (Random House Books for Young Readers, $16.99). Recall the Grinch pretends to be a saint: “What a great Grinchy trick. With this coat and this hat, I look just like St. Nick.”

Remember also that he even treated his friends roughly, such as his loyal dog, Max. He’s glum and mean to all because his heart was two sizes too small. The Grinch is gloomy because his heart isn’t roomy. There’s no room in his heart for gratitude because his heart is full of grumpiness. Thus his bad temper ignores a tantalizing winter landscape; his sulkiness snubs spirited singing; his crabbiness flouts feasting. Anyone is gloomy whose heart isn’t roomy.

The real story, however, is not how the Grinch stole Christmas. Rather, the real story is how Christmas stole the Grinch. Now, it’s true, of course, that the Grinch stole all the store-bought exterior trappings of Christmas. However, he reaches a tipping point himself, just as he’s about to tip the toys over a cliff. “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small / Was singing, without any presents at all.”

The Who knew for whom they sang. Christmas carols extol not human presents, but Divine Presence. Songs of gratitude, they say, are what made the Grinch’s small heart grow three sizes that day.

Gratitude always expands our hearts, and the way we know we are grateful is when we respond just like the Grinch. “And now that his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, / He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light.” A grateful Grinch is generous. He spontaneously returns all the gifts. A grateful heart is roomy enough to give without counting the cost and spacious enough to welcome the least and the lost.

We’re always gloomy when our heart isn’t roomy. And we priests have many good reasons to be as gloomy as a soggy Santa. Since my ordination, the number of priests has declined while the number of laity we serve has soared. We may feel we wear more hats than the diocese has vocations. Many of us serve more than one parish and preach in more than one language. Also, our average age has risen and our once untarnished prestige has fallen. So we’re older, busier and less respected than we were when Dr. Seuss first created the Grinch.

However, Dr. Seuss also wrote, “When something bad happens you have three choices. You can either let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.” That is why I now turn from his children’s story with an adult message, to an adult researcher who helps us become more childlike.

Promoting Gratitude

Brené Brown describes what might be called five temptations against wholehearted living, or what we might call degrees on the Grinch gauge. With prayerful effort and presbyteral support, we can choose gratitude over grumpiness despite all the reasons that tempt us toward half-hearted “Grinchisms.”

I present a five-part inventory of self-awareness we may use individually, in a priest support group or with our spiritual director to prevent the grumpiness of a beastly heart and promote gratitude, which elevates a priestly heart.

First is a sin of omission — namely, a lack of empathy. Grinches may speak pity, but do not feel with you as if they’ve been there, too. However, grateful priests acknowledge the elders who supported them and are happy to help their juniors who need them precisely because they’ve been there, too. Pity looks down at you; regret looks up at you; empathy looks you in the eye and stays with you.

Second is the sin of selfishness. If you do share something too close to their own experience, Grinches will push back by minimizing your feelings or completely ignoring them. However, grateful priests are like the psalmist who does not ignore his feelings and is comfortable with others’ emotions. A selfish priest by definition is self-referential, and by default self-reverential; a sacrificial priest allows another to vent without self-pity because he knows that, because he’s not the center of the known universe, he is not the eye of the storm in another’s emotions.

Third, Grinches are judgmental. They kick you when you’re down by explaining how it is all your fault. However, grateful priests have fallen themselves, and upon rising thank God for progress while accepting imperfection. Grumpily judgmental priests bluster to appear brave. Grateful priests show bravery without bravado.

Fourth, Grinches are quick to blame, scold or express disappointment, even anger. However, my spiritual director extols his bishop (who was a grateful priest) because he never shames but always expresses gratitude and never forgets the birthday or anniversary of his clergy. People rarely recall our preaching, but they always remember which priest was sulky when they needed succor, and which was benevolent when they were most bereaved.

Fifth, when trying to act saintly, Grinches give unsolicited advice. This is an example of unhealthy competition because they want to demonstrate how much more they have it together than you. However, grateful priests do not compete but rather cooperate because, like a jigsaw puzzle, none of us have it all together until we welcome the unique piece each brings to the table. If each is unique, we may regret expressing advice that turns out to be unfit, but we never regret having expressed appreciation unaffected. Perhaps the best advice is a good example.

Appreciating Our Savior

We’re all somewhere on the halfhearted Grinch gauge, but the song of the saints, like the carols of Whoville, reminds us that Jesus is always wholehearted. Jesus never disparages an honest emotion. Children swarm him; adults beg him; Martha upbraids him; Peter rebukes him; Thomas doubts him. And yet Jesus is not easily irritated and never sulky.

Jesus gives many excellent, human examples of health and happiness. Jesus exercises (he’s always walking). Jesus spends lots of time with his friends and even seems to eat right (when he cooked, he made grilled fish). He took naps (recall the cushion in the boat barely afloat).

All of this may sound more like merely secular health and wellness, rather than priestly spirituality. However, grace builds on nature. That is why Pope St. John Paul II made his greatest contribution to priestly formation by requiring human formation. We are not angels. Of course, there are times of penance and situations requiring sacrifice. However, if we chronically rest poorly, eat unhealthily, disengage emotionally or atrophy physically, we suffer. And a hurting priest is more likely to hurt others. A grateful priest is more likely to appreciate others. Which is likely more effective in ministry and growing spiritually?

Jesus was not Iron Man, and we need not be a man of steel. But as we see in the conclusion of the finding in the Temple, even Jesus had to grow in grace and wisdom. Integrating the intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions as humans creates a healthy foundation upon which grace builds. A grateful priest cares for his integrity precisely because he appreciates the gift of his humanity.

My brother priests, like you, I’m older, wearier and busier than I’d like to be. If the lay faithful could hear how often I curse my computer or that company I call that only employs bots, they’d turn red with anger or embarrassment. So do I. Even my students relish stories of my inadequacy.

However, I remind myself that empty optimism is what the malls and marketers make of Christmas. Christ’s Mass is not the optimism that grumps at sacrifice, but is gratitude for our consecrated life. Optimism and pessimism are subjective statements of fact. Hope and gratitude are receptive statements of faith. During Advent, the Scriptures speak of the vigilance necessary to grow in hope, faith and love. When we are grateful is when we are thus most wakeful. 

FATHER KENNETH G. DAVIS, OFM Conv., has published and taught extensively on many aspects of ministerial formation. He is currently prefect of formation for his province.

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The ‘Grinch’ Gauge Inventory

We’re all somewhere on the halfhearted Grinch gauge. Thus I suggest an Advent inventory as part of your Christmas preparation.

•  Do I demonstrate empathy rather than pity?
•  Do I attempt to appreciate the feelings of others even when those feelings make me uncomfortable?
•  Am I judgmental?
•  Am I quick to blame, shame or scold others?
•  Am I often impatient or even angry?
•  Do I ask for the grace and look for the support I need to consistently choose gratitude over grumpiness?

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