ALLOUEZ — Like many Catholics, Fr. Joel Sember uses an Advent meditation book each year. Even with the meditations as a resource, prayer can be difficult during this busy time, he said. So he decided to write a book to help people learn to pray or pray better.
“Instead of just having an Advent book that has some nice meditations in it, why not have an Advent book that shows you how to meditate?” said Fr. Sember, pastor of St. John and SS. Mary and Hyacinth, Antigo, and St. Wenceslaus Parish, Neva. “I put together Scripture passages that tie in together with the different feasts and the themes of Advent and Christmas to provide a little guidance for people each day; how to step by step pray with that passage, some journal questions, a space for journaling. It’s a mini-retreat.”
Fr. Sember added that he called on his silent retreat experience and his spiritual director training program through the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Neb., to write “Oriens, a Pilgrimage Through Advent and Christmas,” published by Our Sunday Visitor (OSV).
“I use a couple different prayer forms that I was taught,” he explained. “One is Lectio Divina and the other is imaginative prayer. Also, for everyday experiences, we use that relational prayer form (action, acknowledge, relate, receive, respond).
“For those who are familiar with (these prayer forms), they can use the suggested Scriptures every day and maybe the journal questions and get a lot out of it,” he added. “For somebody who is a total beginner who has never really prayed in these ways, there’s lots of guidance there. I wanted to create the right balance between providing you with little tips, pointers and direction, and kind of allow you to do your own thing.”
The idea for the book began around Christmas of 2018. The following month, Fr. Sember put together an outline and produced a few chapters which he shared with authors Fr. Edward Looney, pastor of St. Francis and St. Mary Parish, Brussels, and St. Peter and St. Hubert Parish, Lincoln/Rosiere, and Julianne Stanz, director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay.
“They thought it was good,” said Fr. Sember. “Fr. Looney suggested OSV as a publisher, so I reached out to them.”
The OSV catalog was already set for 2019, but they wanted the book for 2020. The book covers 10 weeks from the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29, through Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
“That’s on purpose,” said Fr. Sember about continuing into February. “I’ve always felt that it’s so hard to pray during Advent and Christmas, then you get to the lull in January and you’re like, ‘What are we going to do?’ Why don’t you keep praying? If you are so busy that you don’t pick it up until after Christmas, you still have half of the book left. It will help carry people through that down time in January.”
It’s OK if people who use the book miss a day, he added.
“I don’t want people to think, ‘I have to do every single day to get something out of this,’” he said. “Just do today well and that will be enough.”
The pilgrimage connection in the book is from Fr. Sember’s experience with walking pilgrimages. When he was a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, he walked the Camino Portugues, one of the spiritual routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. While serving in Oshkosh, he did a walking pilgrimage with students from the UW-Oshkosh Newman Center, along with Fr. Quinn Mann of Catholic Youth expeditions, to Holy Hill in Hubertus. For 10 years, he led a five-day walking pilgrimage from Oconto to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion.
“I love the walking pilgrimage. You are on your feet, you are out in nature, you are with a group; you sort of enter into a different kind of pace,” said Fr. Sember. “It’s a different way of living life than you do on a bus pilgrimage.”
He explained that, on a bus pilgrimage, people anticipate that “aha moment” when they reach their destination.
“It feels to me, that’s how we approach Christmas,” he said. “You do Advent well, then (expect) there’s going to be this aha moment at Christmas. We are often disappointed. With a walking pilgrimage, the shrine isn’t necessarily the high point. It’s the whole journey. It’s walking with each other. It’s learning to walk with the Lord, the little moments along the way … little moments where you know God is with you, where you get strength and healing. My hope, with this book, is it will turn people’s daily routines into a pilgrimage. They will begin to realize that God is with me.”
“Oriens” is available through Catholic bookstores, all major book retailers, osv.com and Amazon. In connection with the book, Fr. Sember will lead a weekly virtual Bible study through Our Sunday Visitor. For information, visit his website, pilgrimpriest.us.
Fr. Sember hopes to see some tattered copies of his book by early February.
“I hope the ink doesn’t bleed from one page to another,” he said with a laugh. “This is just for 2020. It’s a journal, so if you use it well, it’s going to be all used up.
“Next year you can pull this journal off the shelf and see how Jesus spoke to you last year,” he added, “where he’s been and where you’ve been since then with the Lord.”