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Advent can be a tricky time with many of us trying to find the correct mix of repentance, joy, preparation, anticipation, and Christmas parties.  Not to mention the question of when it’s ok to throw ourselves into Christmas music.  Should we approach Advent more like a shorter Lent with somber penitence, or more like a really long New Year’s Eve countdown with partying that ends once the ball drops?  As is typical, the Church doesn’t tell us exactly what to do to maximize our Advent experience, but it does focus us on what is the key principle: preparation for the coming of the Lord, the incarnate, present Lord.  

When we celebrate Christmas, we enter into the reality that God became incarnate, that He is actually with us in the real mess and the real beauty of our lives.  Or, at least that’s what we’re supposed to do. For most of us, though, even if we want to be aware of the gift of God’s presence at Christmas, we usually have no idea how to do that, and our minds and hearts are already so crowded by all kinds of little details. If we’re honest, most Christmases end up looking and feeling a little different than the rest of the year, but not by much. Not nearly as much as we need them to.

Smart Preparation for Christmas 

The answer to having a deep and lasting Christmas experience is smart preparation. Smart preparation doesn’t just add more stuff to an already busy schedule, but it takes an honest assessment of the root causes of our inability to enter into the mystery of the Christmas Season. Then, we should focus our energy on one or two simple, concrete ways to directly address those particular struggles. Otherwise, we usually end up sputtering through random, half-focused Advent practices.    

This Advent, I suggest focusing our preparation on just two things, which, though simple, will bear much fruit come Christmas time. 

The first is the state of our minds. Our thoughts are typically scattered, and our attention is spread thin leaving our minds hurried and shallow. 

The second is the state of our hearts. Our desires for love, unity, belonging, and purpose are constantly being offered fulfillment from what seems like an infinite number of sources, though we are usually left unsatisfied and grasping for something more. When our minds and hearts get used to frantically responding to needs and constantly groping in the shallows for something new, our ability to sink into the depths of a beautiful mystery becomes greatly handicapped.

In order to tackle the issue of our frenetic minds, we need to take steps to control that constantly repopulating to-do list we carry in our pockets (and maybe even on our wrists). When it comes to our phones, we all fall into the trap of thinking, “Right after I handle this one thing, then I can stop and be present, rest my mind, and enter into what’s really important.”  

The problem, though, is that there is constantly another “thing” or multiple “things” replacing that one “thing” that we just handled. That’s how technology works these days, and that’s how the tech industry makes money. It’s also why so many of us are addicted to the accomplishment of small, easily reached goals (like responding to a text or being “up on things”) to the detriment of long-term, more complex goals (like developing relationships or cultivating prayer lives).     

How To Focus Our Minds

We often assume that because we sincerely want to change the way we do things, we naturally will. But, rarely does this actually happen.

It usually takes a very intentional effort and some sort of accountability to change the way we operate, especially if it’s on a subconscious level, and the way we feel about our phones has a lot to do with what’s going on on the subconscious level. (Just try one of the suggested practices below, and you’ll see what I mean.)  

Here are some simple, impactful things we can do to allow our minds to get better at settling and focusing on what’s truly important:

  • Put your phone in the back of the house when you get home from work, and leave it there. If it’s out of sight, it’s more likely to be out of mind.
  • Set screen time limits on all but the basic applications (like phone and text) at a certain time in the evening to a certain time in the morning.  Or, at specific times during the day when you know your focused presence is most needed (with your spouse, family, and prayer).
  • Set limits to how often you watch movies or videos or surf social media at night once everyone is in bed—never let it be two nights in a row.  
  • Make concrete agreements with your spouse and children about how these limitations will work (be very specific) so you can hold each other accountable.

How to Focus Our Hearts

The second area of focus this Advent should be on our scattered and often shallow desires, our hearts.

These days, the biggest obstacle to our ability to focus our love and attention on those who truly matter to us is pornography. Our exposure to pornography, especially online, quickly hooks us into a frenzied hunger that can never be satiated and is always looking for ways to get more, even if we are not looking at it all the time. This keeps us from being able to enjoy the things in life that are actually fulfilling because neurologically, our brains become fixed on the one thing that caused such a powerful chemical rush. 

This is especially true for young people, and unfortunately, the average age of first exposure to pornography has dropped to about 10, while over 90% of teens have been exposed to multiple hardcore images or videos by the time they reach 18. 

This is especially dangerous because of the shame that naturally accompanies these experiences that keep most young people from sharing with anyone who might be able to help them, especially their parents.  

Safeguarding Our Children This Advent 

This Advent, for the sake of healing minds and hearts or to avoid this kind of hijacking of desires, not only should we set screen time limits, but we should also put serious energy into setting limits on what our children are exposed to as well as to their isolation in these experiences. 

The first step we absolutely must take is to safeguard the internet-capable devices in our home with not only filtering software but also accountability software so that our children and our spouses know that they are not having to fight what is an uphill battle on their own.  

If we can avoid inadvertent exposure to dangerous content through filtering, and if each of us knows that someone else will be seeing the images and sites we view, the natural hunger and curiosity in the face of what seems like an infinite amount of visual content will not be so overpowering. The anonymity, affordability, and availability of online content has an extremely powerful effect on all of us, and no one should have to navigate that alone.

As far as what software to look into, the most powerful combination seems to be Covenant Eyes for filtering and accountability (for web browsing and other apps) and Bark for social media content.  These will catch and send daily reports of any explicit images seen by each user and it will flag any dangerous content in their communication via email, text, or social media. Far from a breach in privacy, these tools are there to help facilitate conversation and to help each member of the family know that they are not alone in a situation in which billions of people have access to them (via the internet) who may not have their best interest in mind.  

Setting limits to our tech usage and safeguarding our devices this Advent might seem like a strange way to prepare for Christmas, but Saint John the Baptist challenges us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths!” If the pathways of our minds and hearts are more like shallow streams running quickly in every direction, the coming of Christ will pass us by like a faint memory.

Resource
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Covenant Eyes: Screen Accountability™

Description

Be the best version of you.

Covenant Eyes Screen Accountability is designed to help you live with integrity on your devices by sharing your activity with a trusted friend.

Audience: Adults and supervised minors 
Language: English
Resource Type: Software 
Cost: $15.99 / month.  

David Dawson, Jr. is the Director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.  He has been married to Kate for 11 years and they have seven beautiful children.