Here’s a fact that always shocks people: I don’t enjoy building gingerbread houses.
Why this is so surprising to people, I’ll never know. It leaves me wondering what about my general way of life screams,
“There’s a guy who loves assembling stale cookies into a vaguely house-like structure! Quick! Get him a bowl full of candy no one will ever eat and a container of white slop that is decidedly not meant to bind pieces of infrastructure! Look at the fun he’s having as he watches another gumdrop slowly slide down the side of that cookie!”
Anyway. It’s not my favorite holiday activity. I’m not what they call crafty. This is known.
Which is why my wife was, dare I say, flabbergasted when I returned home from the grocery store a week or so ago with a gingerbread house kit in tow. My girls were ecstatic, and the next night, while my wife was at work, we opened that box up and started our little construction project.
Just me, my girls and whatever gods the gingerbread people pray to.
Did it go well? Look at the photo above. I mean, we ended the evening with a gingerbread house. I wouldn’t insure it, and it’s not going to win any award. But you know what? We did it. And the girls were pleased. Christmas activity success.
There’s a phrase in the Ignatian tradition that flies under the radar: agere contra. It doesn’t get quite the same amount of press time as magis or contemplatives in action or discernment or people for others. But it’s an essential spiritual practice, one that Ignatius himself writes about in the Spiritual Exercises.
Quite simply, agere contra means to act against. Ignatius invites us to identify those points of vulnerability in our spiritual lives — patterns of behavior, bad habits, personal insecurities or doubts — to name them, and then to, in short, overcompensate in order to strengthen them. For example, if we find ourselves constantly falling asleep during our time of prayer, Ignatius might recommend we double our prayer period and do so standing up.
We act against that which prevents us from encountering the joy and delight God desires to shower upon us. We act against those pernicious tendencies through which the enemy of our human nature might sow seeds of darkness.
Throughout Advent, our community of writers reflected on ways to encounter God in simple, ordinary holiday activities — the Christmas prep, if you will. Whether it was through putting up the Christmas decorations, writing out Christmas cards or listening to “The Little Drummer Boy,” God made Godself known in these seemingly secular, mundane activities.
Because, of course, God is in all things. All things have the potential to reveal to us something of God’s great delights.
Which is why, despite all historic evidence to the contrary, I wanted to build that gingerbread house with my girls. I knew that, though I might dislike the activity, most people do not. There is joy to be found here and, more importantly, joy to share here, covered in icing and gumdrops and sugary-shaped animals. But I needed to act against my own tendencies in order to experience it.
Building a gingerbread house isn’t essential to the spiritual life. But in everything we do, we have the opportunity to train those spiritual muscles. We can see God’s Spirit hovering just there, amidst the unwashed dishes and unfolded laundry and pile of unopened mail.
As we continue our journey through Christmas and into a new year, what might you consider acting against in your own spiritual life? What simple, ordinary ways might you choose to train this spiritual muscle? And how might God be trying to shower you with joy and delight as a result?
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more. His next book, My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, is due out in February 2024 from Loyola Press. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.