“A Mind in Good Order”: What Marcus Aurelius Gave Me for Advent

There have been few years like 2020.

I’m coming to the end of the fall semester this week, and I know once I send in my final assignment, I shall flop onto the academic floor in a crumpled, romantic heap worthy of Dickensian applause.

Or I may look more like Baby Yoda falling asleep. Either way is satisfactory. 👌

Ever since the summer semester started, I have been at it nonstop: writing, reading, writing, reading. Writing about reading…and reading about writing. The senior year of an English major is a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” A truer statement has never been said.

I have been kept alive for this long due to the almighty powers of morning devotion and prayer, iron supplements, good books, Bach, excessive amounts of earl grey tea, board game show downs with the fam, hearty doses of The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the snow that makes my life look like powdered sugar, and the reminder that Christmas is less than two weeks away.

I may or may not have also consumed high amounts of Christmas cookies.

But then Advent rolled around on December first, and I could not have been more grateful.

I love Advent. I have always loved Advent. Advent is that quiet, solitary, holy time. It brings me back to longing for Christ, reminds me of how small I am, and gives me the permission to face my subconscious impediments with a teary face and a broken will.

With the year that has been 2020, the constant buzzing in my head has been deafening. Advent’s arrival metaphorically took me by the shoulders and made me face my preoccupations; forced me to put away the unnecessary; cautioned me against slipping into an excessive absence of the mind.

My head needed to be reorganized—redecorated. For so long (too long), I had been covering delicate wounds with wet bandaids. I was plagued by a chronic insignificance and had spent spare time masking my hidden anxieties with trivialities that had no purpose. When I went to be alone with myself, I found that my individual self had almost entirely disappeared: dimmed by the inconsequential presence of my cellphone, an endless stream of subreddits, fanmade vine comps, and memes.

I’m not against them in and of themselves, but they are a truly ineffective way to cope with stress. Eventually, they caught up to my exhaustion of body and spirit.

Lately, with my Advent devotions and morning prayers, I have been journeying through G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, which is an utterly fascinating anthropological romp. But I have also been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which is a strangely tranquil, stimulating read.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher. He is and always will be such a fascinating figure of western history to me, and I have so much respect for him not only as an emperor but as a particularly enlightened man. While I don’t consider myself a stoic in all respects, I have come to love quite a bit of stoic thought, albeit sometimes contradictory in its relativism.

In regard to Advent, Marcus Aurelius’s work has been such a comfort and a refreshment. When read in the quiet after a long day, Marcus really is a joyful, sagacious companion for the weary soul. I feel as though we would have been fond friends, and whenever I pickup Meditations, I enter into a conversation with one of my Roman heroes.

I stumbled across an absolutely breathtaking passage while “talking” with Marcus recently, and it started lathering oil on my mind’s rusted gears, which are currently in Advent rehab.

Retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul, especially when a person has such things within him that he has merely to look at them to recover from that moment perfect ease of mind (and by ease of mind I mean nothing other than having one’s mind in good order).

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.3

Advent, as it leads us toward Christmas, is the time when Christ restores one’s mind to that good order Marcus speaks of.

Advent is withdrawing into one’s own soul and finding what’s accumulated there over the course of the previous twelve months. Advent is the body of Christ coming to the conclusion that our minds and hearts are, quite simply, not in good order. Advent is when we begin to restore those “things within [us] that [we have] merely to look at them to recover.”

We slow down to remember our purposes, the beauty of life, the wretchedness of humanity, the glory of God, and the weighty impact of Christ’s coming on Christmas Day. We weep over our failures and rejoice at the salvation that’s coming for our broken spirits.

Advent forces us to take that retreat into the soul, and when we do—nine times out of ten—we find plenty to be disappointed with. We find plenty to protest. We find plenty at which to shudder.

But that annoyance and disturbance at finding less-than-lovely anxieties, fears, burdens, and sins in one’s own heart is what enables the Christian to consume the things that will mend the brokenness of soul. It calls to us—begs us—to return to the Christ whom we are so vehemently anticipating. It calms the turbulent seas of our weary hearts and soothes our minds that thunder with a twenty-first century preoccupation. It is Christ: calling from within our battered nerves and asking us to refill ourselves with the renewed sense of purpose, reflection, and vision that He so freely offers.

If Christ is what resides within our minds and hearts, then we can indeed dwell upon beautiful thoughts and find Him there. We can, as Marcus would say, take refuge within our souls, because in our souls we have made a place for the One we love most and the One who loves us most: Jesus himself.

While Marcus would say that we must make our own goodness (and purpose) to dwell on, I say that I find goodness to dwell on, for all goodness comes from the ultimate good: Christ. And as I gather His beauty and goodness to my hungry, aching bosom, I painfully shed the impracticalities, I cry over wounds that needed discussing, and I lift my misty eyes to heaven as I find Him draping a new freedom around my shoulders like a fur cloak.

And as the distractions, burdens, and impediments flee my burdened heart, I gather reminders of God’s goodness into my soul. Removing the useless crumbs of what was there before, I am reminded of what it is to have one’s mind in good order. Advent has allowed me to do a plethora of mental housecleaning, which has been a mixture of melancholy mourning over my own inability and a fervent hope as I remember that a Savior comes to remedy my inadequacy. And He replaces the dusty corners of my heart with flowers blooming in His grace and sacrifice.

I need nothing but God, and to lose myself in the heart of God.

St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

As we usher Christ into ourselves and prepare a place for Him in our lives and hearts, we lose ourselves utterly and completely in Him. We cannot escape His vastness, His goodness, or His love. It envelops us and smothers us in a sea of rest, joy, and calm—even in the darkest of times.

That is a mind in good order: a mind that is completely and solely encapsulated by Christ alone. When we close our eyes at night, we can hear nothing but His love singing over us. When we withdraw from this weary world and into the quiet of our minds, we can remember that there is a hope: a constant, never-ending, soul-filling hope to uphold our weary frames no matter what surrounds us.

Are those not beautiful thoughts?

It has been such a joy to reflect upon all of this as Advent came upon me, and I am still so far from finished. There is so much yet to discover this season, and the cleaning in my heart has only just begun. After seeing the fresh blanket of snow that fell over my home as I slept, I can calmly say that despite everything 2020 has been (and believe me, it has been so much), peace reigns within my soul and my home once again. My mind is well on it’s way to that “good order.”

*exhales after approximately 11.65 months of holding breath*

Dear friend, in all sincerity, I pray the same for you. I pray that you would find the Lord’s goodness this Christmas, that you would be able to free your mind of distraction and looses the shackles of anxiety. Remember the beauty, the goodness, and the love of our God for us. Remember the joy of the Christmas message! Remember the purpose and the plan that the Savior has in store for you.

May we all acquire what Marcus so imperially demands of us in all his Romanesque bossiness: a mind in good order.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas! Unto us a Child has been born!

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Emily 😌

P.S. I do apologize for not posting last week. I am swimming in words and papers, and finding the time to update this blog was…scarce, to say the very least. However, I do intend to post once more before Christmas. Hopefully. 😁.

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