It’s only natural, as Christmas draws closer, to contemplate Christmases past. I remember that, as a child, I found Advent excruciatingly long and unbearably exciting.
One of my most vivid memories of school before Christmas is of studying A Christmas Carol. We seemed to be assigned Charles Dickens’s novella at the same time every year – because our teachers either loved it or were too exhausted to think of an alternative Christmas read.
Today A Christmas Carol’s prose style seems remarkably old-fashioned. If the book were adapted to a modern setting, in a misguided appeal to today’s youth, Scrooge would have many more mechanisms for shunning the outside world. He would ignore emails and his smartphone would never bleep. If he were on Facebook, he would have a waning number of “friends” and spend Christmas Eve scoffing at their “Merry Christmas” statuses and wishing there was a “dislike” button.
Although as a teenager I doubted anyone could become as intolerant and lonely as Dickens’s most famous protagonist, I now find myself asking if I have become the Scrooge of Facebook. Nothing aggravates this niggle more than the season which precedes the one of goodwill.
There are a number of reasons for this: primarily, because in Advent Facebook becomes a gallery of premature Christmas celebrations. From December 1 Facebook users proudly post their decorating efforts, littering timelines with tinsel, trees and superfluous exclamation marks and I find myself muttering: “It isn’t even Christmas yet!” Admittedly, it’s sometimes a hypocritical complaint as I ruefully nurse my head from the “Christmas party” I attended the night before.
Going on Facebook during Advent gives you the feeling that everyone but you is either in love, recently engaged, just married, incredibly sociable or too successful to be sociable. The most obvious course is to boycott the site. But what else can be done to cultivate a state of mind fitting for Advent and avoid descending into a Scrooge-like mentality?
The moral of A Christmas Carol is, of course, that we have a propensity to place ourselves at the centre of the universe and stubbornly cling on. We sometimes hear people refer to a “selfie culture”, based on the fad for sharing close-up self-portraits via social media. But there is a discrepancy at the heart of this culture: we love to zoom in on ourselves, yet there is one angle we dare not even peep at. The Church invites us during Advent to reflect and prepare. Essentially, it is encouraging us to think about ourselves, to zoom in on our inner lives, to take a selfie of the soul, through contemplative silence and prayer.
This does not sit well with the selfie culture. We live in a society that seeks to annihilate boredom at every turn. Just look at a typical bus, which is likely to be crowded with people with earphones clamped to their heads or eyes glued to their iPhones (and often both at the same time). To shun distraction is madness and to seek silence is boring. And it’s true: silence is boring.
A few years ago, when life seemed particularly bleak, I decided to spend 15 minutes a day in silence for every day of Advent. I was horrified where my mind wandered to. What would I have for dinner? Would I suit a fringe? Should we make pigs in blankets this year or just buy those mini ones from M&S?
But the daily silence was fruitful, because I came to understand how frivolous my worries were. I realised eventually that if these questions were so high on my thought list then God had been extremely good to me. Silence is a form of self-absorption that, paradoxically, makes us less selfish, because we appreciate what we have, especially in comparison with others who are suffering.
So I will force myself again to spending 15 minutes in silence everyday during Advent. To borrow a phrase from another timeless figure in our literary heritage, “silence is the perfectest herald of joy”. It seems fitting that the season of joy follows a prologue of silence.