Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Living or Just Surviving (as a Catholic): Part II

In Part I of this article, we talked about the difference between living and merely surviving.  Motivational speakers often encourage us to truly live, making the most out of life, rather than just coasting along from one day to the next.

The same is true of our Catholic faith.  It is easy to just coast along in our spiritual lives, doing the bare minimum our faith requires of us but not really advancing in holiness or growing any closer to God.

In our last article, we talked about the Precepts of the Church as a sort of "Bare Minimum List" for Catholics; things the Church requires us to do to remain Catholics in good standing.  That list included attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, going to Confession at least once a year, receiving the Eucharist at least once during the Easter season, observing the Church's rules about fasting and abstinence, and contributing to the needs of the Church.

The Precepts of the Church can be found in almost any Catholic prayer book, including the Handbook of Prayers: Student Edition that we make freely available to students at Catholic Campus Ministry.  But why be satisfied with the bare minimum?  God made us for greatness, not mediocrity.  It is important to ensure that we stay minimally connected to God through His Church; but that's the starting line, not the goal.

The same prayer book has a section entitled, "How to be a Better Catholic," which contains some wonderful -- and practical -- advice on how to grow in holiness.  If you are not content with merely surviving as a Catholic, and want to start really living your faith, you can find some great ideas here.  One of the ideas is to adopt a Spiritual Game Plan.  Other prayer books and devotionals may call this adopting a Rule of Life.

We frequently associate Rules of life with monastic communities.  Monks and nuns living together follow a common Rule, often given to them by the founder of their order.  This Rule not only stipulates how members of the community are to get along with one another, but also establishes the guiding principles of the spirituality of the religious order.

As lay Catholics living in the world, we cannot be expected to live by the same monastic Rules as cloistered monks or nuns.  But that does not mean we cannot have a rich spiritual life.  Adopting a personal Rule of Life, appropriate to our individual needs and circumstances, can enrich our lives and help us to grow in holiness.  Here are some suggestions given in this "Spiritual Game Plan" that you can start doing today to draw closer to God.
  • Offer each day to God.  Start off your morning with a simple prayer offering both your work and your leisure this day to God's glory, and asking Him to keep your thoughts and actions pure.
  • Sanctify your work.  Your faith is not just for Sunday mornings.  It should infuse all you do.  That includes work and study.  Approach them with piety and a desire to praise God by doing well.  Set realistic goals for yourself and organize your priorities into a practical daily schedule.  Here's a great line from the Handbook of Prayers to remember: "Sanctifying ordinary work is the goal of our life."
  • Attend Mass more often than you have to.  As we mentioned in the last article, we are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.  But why settle for the minimum?  Is it possible in your schedule to attend Mass on other days during the week?
  • Don't just "attend" Mass; assist at Mass.  Although we frequently speak of "attending" Mass, we should not approach it as if it were a spectator sport.  We are called to involve ourselves in the Mass through prayer.  Past generations would speak of "assisting at Mass."  This is a helpful way to approach our participation at Mass; we are assisting the priest and the rest of the congregation by offering our prayers to God.
  • Develop a daily prayer routine.  There are so many ways to do this.  There is always room for prayer in your day -- find it.  Mother Theresa once said that you should pray for at least an hour every day, unless you don't have time; then you should pray for two hours.  If you sacrifice time in your day for prayer, God will bless the rest of your time.  Don't be afraid to experiment with different forms of prayer and different times of the day until you find something you can stick with. Some suggestions:
  • Engage in Spiritual Reading.  You can start with one of the gospels or epistles in the New Testament.  Just read a little bit each day and pray with the readings.  You can use the daily Mass readings, or any other reading from scripture.  You can also read spiritual classics such as The Practice of the Presence of God, The Way of the Pilgrim, the Diary of a Soul, the lives of the saints or a daily devotional based on the writings of the saints.  
  • Make an examination of conscience at the end of the day.  Just a few minutes is all it takes. The Handbook of Prayers has a short examination. There are many others to be found.  (Just google "catholic examination of conscience.")  These are essentially lists of questions intended to help you reflectively examine how you have grown in vice or virtue and identify any sins.  Essentially:
    • Humble yourself before the presence of God.
    • Pray, "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean."
    • Ask for light to acknowledge your defects and virtues.
    • Reflect back on your day to discover where you may have sinned or missed an opportunity to love.
    • Ask for repentance, amendment and encouragement.
  • Go to Confession at least once a month.  Going even when you have not committed a mortal sin helps to keep your soul clean of any venial sin and prevents you from descending to a place where mortal sins are likely.  Even the pope goes once a week!
  • Seek out a spiritual director for guidance in the spiritual life.  This can be a member of the clergy, a professed religious, or a well-formed lay person.  The point is to find someone who is both more advanced than you in the spiritual life and whom you can trust to be honest with you.
  • Spend time in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and pray about how you are directing your life toward God.
  • Attend a spiritual retreat at least once a year to renew and re-energize your faith.  Just like your body needs a vacation from stress every so often, so does your soul need an occasional pampering.  Give yourself an annual opportunity for deeper conversion.
  • Always stay mindful that you are in the presence of God.  And remember that He loves you. :-)
  • Always remember to thank God.
  • Always do everything for the love of God.
  • Live as you would like to die.  None of us is guaranteed our next breath.
Some of the above ideas are general while others are specific.  Some will be easy for anyone to start doing immediately.  Others may require more effort.  You may not be able to do all of the above (in fact I would not recommend you start trying to everything at once), but you will be able to do at least some.  Start with one or two things and add more as time permits and the Spirit moves you.  Remember, these are only suggestions to help you begin to put together and live out your own Spiritual Game Plan or Rule of Life.  

It is also a good idea to every so often reexamine your Spiritual Game Plan and adapt it to your changing circumstances. The daily realities of life as a college student are different from a single professional young adult, a young married couple, a parent of a toddler, parents of teens, empty-nesters and no on.  Just like you change up your exercise routine from time to time to keep it fresh, you will find you need to change up your spiritual workout regimen, as well.  

One thing you will note about all the suggestions on this list: you don't need to be part of a group, club, or support group to start doing them.  Only YOU can start doing these things, and YOU can do them on your own.  This does not mean that having a group of friends who are also committed to growing in their spiritual lives (as you would find at a campus ministry) is not helpful.  Surrounding yourself with good pious friends can make a world of difference.  But it does mean that when it comes to advancing in your spiritual life, the onus is not on your friends but on yourself.  Even if you do not participate actively in a campus ministry or a social group at your parish, you can still grow closer to God through Christ in His Church.

This is the adventure set before every Christian, to grow in holiness with the help of God, and so grow into your complete self, a self that has been made new in Christ.  May God bless you on your journey.

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