The Advent season in the United States is typically ransacked by shopping, parties, visits with family, and the like. Perhaps worst of all, it can seem impossible to avoid the bombardment of holiday and Christmas-themed advertisement. People work overtime in order to earn a little extra to buy gifts for friends and family (and themselves). The ethos of the season can seem to be emite et labora, buy and work. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to affirm the understandably natural, knee-jerk condemnation of busyness as such.
Drawing upon the story of “difficult Father Nathaniel” from the recent Russian bestseller, Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon, I describe how, though busyness can be a spiritual distraction, “sometimes busyness itself can be askesis.”
Busyness can be the adversary of Advent, but it need not be. Instead, the Advent season can be a time for us to examine and practice how our busyness itself can be transfigured by the life of the Church, how our worldly work also may be liturgical labor, how when transfigured by the kingdom of God our busyness can also serve the common good.
The story of difficult Father Nathaniel, however, is worth visiting in further detail here as well. Hand in hand with complaints about the busyness of the season come complaints about the business of the season.
On the one hand, I am sympathetic to these complaints too. Should stores really open for shopping on Thanksgiving? Shouldn’t this time be one of rest and contemplation for workers? No doubt there are some excesses.
On the other hand, excesses or not, many people must work overtime this time of year in a condition of heightened stress. Difficult Father Nathaniel was not only busy at the Pskov Caves Monastery, he was busy with business:
How Father Nathaniel, all by himself, without assistants, without computers or accountants or calculators, was able to deal impeccably with these numerous financial problems was something that no one could understand. Furthermore, he alone was responsible for all the many businesses conducted by the monastery, and all their paperwork.
Many of the common complaints about business this time of year seem to presume that business dealings are of no spiritual good. Certainly, they may be void of spiritual value, even detrimental to one’s soul, but ultimately, like busyness, they are as good as their use.
Why do stores stay open longer during this season? Because people want to shop. Why do they want to shop? To buy gifts for other people, even sometimes for the sake of charitable organizations like Toys for Tots, for example. Hospitality, giving, and almsgiving, practiced for purity of heart, are virtuous endeavors, and at its best the business (and busyness) of the season serves to enable these things.
Business, too, can be an extension of one’s ascetic practice. Christians have acknowledged the good of human labor consistently since the beginning of the Church as well. This time of year, and the business of it in particular, does entail a heightened level of stress. But our perspective on that stress matters: will we see it as a spiritual challenge or just another reason to complain? Certainly, even granting the legitimacy of all complaints, the former is far more beneficial to one’s soul than the latter.
In the end, what makes the biggest difference, what makes business into askesis, is that, in addition to proclaiming “Glory to God in the highest,” we must seek “on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14).