An Advent reflection from author Judith Valente: ‘What star am I following?’

A view of our home, the Milky Way.

Where is my star leading me?

Editor’s note: Western Christian Advent runs from November 27 through December 24, 2022.

Author of the recent How to Be

Winter is a time for us to slow down, take stock, refocus on what matters to us and seek “the real behind the real.”

Perhaps like me, you dread the coming of December. We have a lot to contend with at this time of the year: shorter hours of daylight, added layers of clothing, snowstorms, trickier driving conditions, not to mention the frenetic pace of preparing for the holidays. Perhaps worst of all is the melancholy that sets in when we realize that another year is about to end and there is so much we had wanted to do that remains undone.

That’s when the liturgical season of Advent comes to the rescue. There it is—smack-dab in the midst of Doorbuster Days and the darkest evening of the year. Advent arrives as if on tiptoe to remind us to slow down, to refocus on the things that last, the things that matter.

As Benedictine author Joan Chittister has written, “Advent asks the question: What is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now? And where is that star in its present radiance … leading you?”

The liturgical readings in Advent plead with us to “wake up,” to “prepare the way” for deeper compassion in our hearts. It’s a shame that the word “woke” has recently taken on a negative connotation. It’s an example of religious terminology being usurped to score cheap political points. To become “awakened” is what every spiritual traveler seeks. It means being attentive to the presence of Christ in creation, and especially in our hearts and in those we encounter. In that sense, we do well to be “woke.”

Winter is a tough season, but it spurs us to look more deeply for what St. Bernard of Clairvaux once referred to as “the real behind the real.” When the last of the autumn leaves fell in November, I felt sad to see those brilliant colors go. Without their multi-colored coat of leaves, the trees seemed naked, compromised even. Then, I began to look more closely. I saw that each tree has a hidden architecture, a spare beauty that becomes visible only in winter.

I could pick out sights through the bare branches that were previously obscured: a crow’s nest, a rooftop in the distance, a squirrel jumping from limb to phone wire. The real behind the real.

True, we lack the pinks, yellows and violets of summer flowers. Yet, driving home to Illinois from Minnesota recently, I was struck by how many different shades of pale green and brown there are in the winter landscape.

You just have to look harder for this brand of beauty.

This Advent, this winter, can we look more deeply for the “real behind the real?”

Can we resist the temptation to shop until we drop, and focus instead on giving of ourselves this holiday season—to family, to friends, and even to strangers who might need us?

Can we seek winter beauty wherever it is found?

Questions for Contemplation:

As this year comes to an end and a new one begins, how would you answer Joan Chittister’s questions, “What star am I following? Where is it leading me?”


To learn more about the work of journalist, author and poet Judith Valente, please visit her website. This column is reprinted from one of Judith’s occasional emails to her subscribers, used with her permission. If you want to reach Judith, there’s a convenient “contact” form at the bottom of her website’s front page.

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