For many, celebrating the start of a new year is one of the most exciting times on the calendar: the shimmering prospect of a fresh start, frothy glasses of champagne, an excuse to wear a sequined dress and stay up past midnight. Personally, I spent my time curled up on the couch with a journal, reviewing the past 365 days in all of their peaks and valleys.
But since childhood, the real thrill has come for me in the turning of the liturgical year, as the feast of Christ the King gives way to the slow and sacred days of Advent. Back then, my love for the liturgical year was something I nurtured alone or alongside my parents and siblings. Now, however, “liturgical living” is very much en vogue.
The growing awareness among Catholics of the liturgical year’s rich offerings can be, at least in part, credited to the work of Catholic writers like Kendra Tierney and the emergence of companies and subscription models that make it easy for anyone to “access” the activities of liturgical living. But the last few years alone have seen a marked increase in attentiveness to the concept of seasonality.
What is it about the current moment that inspires a renewed focus on the feasts and festivities of the liturgical calendar? And how can we incorporate “liturgical living” in our own families in a way that aids the spiritual development, both of ourselves and of our children?
It should be emphasized that the term “liturgical” cannot be properly applied to most of what is referred to as “liturgical living” on social media and in casual conversation. Liturgy consists of the rites and rituals of the Church; but when we talk about the ways in which the liturgical year seeps into our daily lives as the laity, we are actually talking about paraliturgy. I will continue to refer to “liturgical living” throughout this piece, as it has become the dominant colloquial phrase, but I do think the distinction is worth making.
Paraliturgical practice left a lasting imprint on my imagination and spiritual practices as a small child, and I will be forever grateful to my own mother for all she did to make this happen. When I consider how exactly it shaped my approach to religion and to ordinary life, a few things stand out: a deep awareness that my Catholic identity exists even outside the walls of a church, an appreciation for the temporal and corporeal aspects of worship, and a sense of wonder even amidst the mundanity of ordinary life.
Each aspect of my own appreciation for the paraliturgical has, I think, become more significant to the general population since the COVID-19 lockdowns. Clinging to the traditions associated with the Church calendar gave me a sense of the passing of time, even as my day-to-day life slowed to a halt in the midst of lockdowns. I found myself even trying to replicate practices that traditionally took place in the liturgy itself, such as lighting a bonfire after dark on Holy Saturday. Cut off as most of us were from liturgical worship, it was comforting to mark liturgical time, even just within my own home. And, as my daily work took place increasingly on a screen, these observances regrounded me in the physical world, whether I was frosting a lamb cake for Easter or taking a nature walk in honor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
Most of our lives have returned to some sort of normalcy since those days — and yet the fascination with the liturgical year persists. Though some of this can surely be attributed to the far-reaching mental and emotional marks left by the pandemic, I think a generational explanation is worth considering, too.
The media age
The generation that entered adulthood alongside Instagram and similar social media outlets is also the generation currently embracing the changes of new motherhood. Though the heyday of the “mommy blogger” was before my time, I would hazard that it is perhaps easier now than ever to find reflections from real women on the intersection between prayer and raising small children. While the celebrations and activities of “liturgical living” are for everyone — not just children and parents — I think they hold a certain appeal for women in this stage of life (I have certainly noticed an increased appeal for me!).
Though the wrangling of children makes it difficult for many of us to pay attention to the readings at Mass, and their nap schedules and energy levels make regular adoration a virtual impossibility, commemorating the liturgical year with activities in our homes is one way of staying tethered to the Church calendar in a new stage of life. I would hazard that this realization lurks behind the explosion of new books and newsletters and social media accounts centered around the liturgical year. Many liturgical living activities can be enjoyed by a mom and a toddler alike, side-by-side on the couch or in the kitchen … while the Mass sometimes ends up as a wrestling match with a promise of donuts afterwards.
However, the prevalence of social media depictions of liturgical living can quickly cause problems. Instead of using the liturgical calendar to inspire us in celebrating our Catholic identity amidst our ordinary tasks and routines, we can easily feel burdened by the thought of yet another thing on our to-do lists. I have recently read two of this year’s liturgical year releases, and I believe that their authors have valuable insight on maintaining the approachability of liturgical living — especially for young families.
Avoiding the pitfalls of ‘Liturgical Living Culture’
While there are many fruits of living in tune with the liturgical calendar, it would be foolish to ignore the pitfalls posed by the prevalence of “liturgical living” ideas today, especially on social media and especially for mothers. In a parenting culture that often pressures moms to optimize every aspect of their kids’ lives and development, paraliturgical activities can easily feel like something else to squeeze in between basketball practice and speech therapy appointments and dusting the baseboards.
One of this year’s new books about the liturgical year is “Living the Seasons” by Erica Tighe Campbell, the founder of the popular Catholic gift shop Be A Heart Design. Campbell strikes a good balance, offering an abundance of activities and ideas while cautioning readers against the possibility of overwhelm.
“My husband and I both have vibrant careers, and juggling the demands of family life leaves me feeling exhausted with little space for crafting and cooking extravagant meals,” she writes in the introduction to the book. “However, I see the beauty of the centuries-old traditions and the real benefits of celebrating the feast days set out in the Church calendar. I want both to live them for myself and to teach them to my daughters.”
Campbell encourages her readers to start small, focusing on the feast days that already have an impact on their lives and takes care to include crafts and recipes that require only easily accessible supplies and ingredients.
I read Campbell’s book in light of what she has written elsewhere, such as in a recent newsletter from Be a Heart Design. As Advent approached, Campbell offered advice that might seem counterintuitive for someone who has written a book filled with liturgical living activities. “Where can I let go of what is not necessary to create more space and ultimately more presence during Advent?” she invited us to consider. “What can I skip this year so that I can arrive [at] Christmas with more peace?” We would do well to incorporate this attitude as we learn to live in tune with the liturgical calendar, remembering at the end of the day that the most ornate saint-themed crafts mean nothing if they are made in the absence of love and peace within our homes and our hearts.
The other big potential pitfall of liturgical living, of course, results from the general cultural embrace of consumerism. It troubles me when social media is leveraged to make women believe that they need the latest subscription box or expensive piece of jewelry in order to live in accord with the Church’s feasts and seasons.
Therefore, I am especially appreciative of approaches to celebrating the liturgical year, which emphasize resources and activities that are accessible to nearly everyone. You don’t need new stuff to mark the feast of your favorite saint! Take advantage of your local library instead of feeling compelled to buy books for every season (and for those whose library systems have a dearth of religious books, be aware that you can request that your library purchase specific titles). Learn the hymns and folk tunes associated with different feasts (even if you, like me, cannot sing particularly well).
One such accessible resource is the natural world itself. I am not particularly skilled in the arena of plant identification or floral arrangement, but I have been drawn to cultivating a greater awareness of the seasons in this way since reading the most recent installment of the Theology of Home series (“Theology of Home IV: Arranging the Seasons” by Emily Malloy). There are, of course, particular flowers that are associated with particular saints. Many, for example, are drawn to the practice of cultivating a Marian garden that features flowers associated with different attributes of Our Lady or different events in her life. But more broadly, living in tune with the cycles of the natural world is one way in which we can cultivate a love for God as creator.
Malloy intersperses theologically-inspired musings with practical instructions for those of us who are intimidated by the prospect of picking and displaying fresh flowers and greenery in our homes. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we must have luscious blooms and crystal vases in order to incorporate flowers into our celebrations, but I came away seeing that even the humble dandelions picked for me by my toddler are one way through which I can worship God in each and every season.
As we dive deeper into a new liturgical year, I find both the pressures and the delights of the call to “live liturgically” increasingly on my mind. I desire to create for my own children the same magical sense that my mother created for me — the knowledge that I was a part of a Church with centuries of traditions and scores of saints, a Church that welcomed celebrations and observances that incorporate all of our senses. But even as I plan out my St. Nicholas-shaped gingerbread and my Epiphany king cake, I will strive to keep my eyes on Christ — who is the reason, after all, for all the seasons.