Between Amens — Advent is now: Urgent spirituality

Dr. Karen Shadle

By Dr. Karen Shadle

It is late afternoon on the day this column is due. Come, Holy Spirit.

Whenever I find myself racing against the clock to complete an important task, I recall a lesson learned in high school. My class read Stephen Covey’s popular “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.” I have effectively forgotten much of the book, except for the “time management matrix,” which impacted me so deeply that I literally draw it on a sheet of paper almost every day.

The time management matrix is a two-by-two grid that plots importance against urgency. In Quadrant 1 are things both very important and very urgent, such as projects due today, a car breakdown or a family crisis. Quadrant 2 houses things that are important but not so urgent, such as projects due next week, strategic planning, exercise, recreation and home maintenance. Quadrant 3 is for things that are urgent but less important, such as interpersonal drama, interruptions and a good number of meetings. Finally, Quadrant 4 is for things neither urgent nor important, such as excessive social media or trivial busy work. I plot my daily tasks on this matrix.

The idea is to spend as much time in Q2 as possible, focusing on important things long before they become urgent and veer into Q1. We know that some interruptions and emergencies are inevitable. Indeed, a lot of ministry is done in Q1. Clergy and lay ministers are very familiar with the kind of pastoral crisis that can quickly overtake a to-do list. This is an unavoidable and important part of the job. But the preventative care work of Q2 in our physical, professional, and interpersonal lives can often help us avoid future emergencies. Again, I say this as a person who horribly procrastinated and is at this moment firmly in Q1.

You might think that the spiritual life also belongs in Q2—very important but not too urgent. I would generally agree. Prayer is a type of preventative maintenance of the soul. Attending Mass is important, but it is not a three-alarm fire. It ought to be part of our routine, slow and steady.

Maybe that is why I find the Advent readings so challenging each year. These scriptures make the case that faith is, in fact, an emergency. In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist preaches haste: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Paul warns the Romans with similar urgency: “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep; our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” These words are a shot of adrenaline for the spiritually lethargic and complacent. If you have procrastinated in your spiritual life, get busy. Q1 is at hand.

Urgent spirituality is countercultural. It seems bizarre, overzealous, even obsessive. But if the asteroid or the black hole or the nuclear bomb comes as you read this sentence, are you ready? Pray today. Grab the keys, start the car and get to Mass or adoration or confession like it’s a Black Friday sale. Advent is now.

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