Even with visions of turkey dancing in your heads, I know many of us in youth ministry are already planning for ways to observe the season of Advent with our students. We will offer a host of ideas over the coming days, starting with a suggestion for combining contemplative prayer with a creative art project (a project that involves painting "what we don't see!").
Though we think of Advent as the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the original observance was something altogether different. In the 4th and 5th centuries, Advent was known as a six week preparation for the season of Epiphany, not Christmas. During this time, much like Lent today, new converts prepared themselves for baptism and faithful believers examined their hearts. Though the focus of Advent is different for us today, the idea of Advent as a time of introspection remains.
The following activity is designed to introduce youth to the notion of Advent as a season of contemplation, preparation, and expectation. In contrast to the rush towards Christmas in the culture around us, Advent offer a real opportunity to slow down and tune into those things that we might miss in our busy lives. Begin by introducing (or re-introducing) your youth to the ancient contemplative prayer practice known as The Awareness Examen.
Opening Up: Invite youth to close their eyes and share with group any observation about the space around them. What have they noticed? What are people wearing? What hangs on the walls of the room? Who is seated next to whom? Now, divide into pairs. Invite each pair to talk about something for a minute or two. Next, have the pairs stand back-to-back and instruct each person to change their appearance in two or three ways. They might untuck a shirt, button the top button, remove a belt, mess up their hair, or take off their glasses. Now, have pairs face one another and attempt to discern what has changed in their partner's appearance.
Reflection: How closely were they paying attention? How aware were they of the details of the room? How easy was it to figure out what changed in their partner's appearance? Use these activities to lead into a discussion of how much we tend to miss in the world around us. The Awareness Examen, an ancient introspective Christian prayer practice designed by Ignatius of Loyola, offers an opportunity to reflect on our daily lives and to attend to the details that we often miss, particularly to those that point to the way God comes to us in the regular routine and habits of our daily lives.
Digging In: Introduce the basic flow of the Awareness Examen. Generally, one will want to set aside at least 10-15 minutes daily or weekly to go through these steps:
- Find a quiet place and take some time to center yourself.
- Think back over the day or week as if you were watching a movie of all that happened. Allow the experiences of that time to flow back to you. Ask yourself: What did I notice? What feelings or thoughts do I associate with this time?
- Think about where you saw God at work during the day/week? Give thanks for these moments.
- Think about where it seemed you were unaware of God's presence.
Think about where you were resisting God's presence. Ask forgiveness for this shortsightedness. Consider where God may be calling you to a new awareness. What new actions/attitudes might God be calling you to in your work/family/ministry/community?
- Close your time of prayer by giving thanks for the time with God and commit to greater awareness of God’s presence in the days to come.
Taking Action: Having explained the process of the Examen and its purpose, invite the youth now to participate in a creativity activity that, like the Examen, asks the participant to attend to details that we generally would miss or ignore. Provide each person with a sheet of paper (preferably watercolor paper) and black paint and brush. Next, give each person a copy of the same photographic image. In the example shown here, we used a photo of a dead tree standing in a field. For the purpose of this activity, you need a fairly simple image with lots of negative space around it, so a bare tree works nicely (particularly if you crop the image so that the branches go right up to the edge of the border).
Next, invite the participants to spend some time reflecting on the image of the tree -- to attend to the details. Ask them to notice what is there....and what isn't there. After several minutes, ask the youth to begin painting, but rather than painting a picture of the tree in the photo, challenge them to paint a picture of the spaces around the tree! Though at first this might be challenging, eventually the brain and eyes adjusts to simply seeing the shapes around the tree, rather than the tree itself. It is these shapes that they are to paint! (Note: another approach is for the participants to first draw the spaces in pencil on paper, then fill in the spaces with paint).
Do this experience in silence, or with quiet music playing in the background. As they paint, quietly lead the group through the process of the Examen, inviting them to think about where they have seen God in the past day/week, where they were inattentive to God, where they resisted God, and so on.
Reflection: As the group finishes, invite them to consider each others paintings. Note how different they are, even though each was painting the same image. What might this tell us about how we perceive the world around us? Invite responses to the painting activity. How could such an activity be an act of prayer? How was painting "what wasn't there" like or unlike the process of the Awareness Examen? Consider as a group how you might be more attentive to the presence of God in the coming days of Advent. Close in prayer.--Brian