"Seeking Union with God"
Personal Spiritual Formation Program
Developing Your Own Spiritual Rule of Life
Goal: Make prayer and spiritual practices a regular part of your daily life.
St. Benedict (480-547)
(detail of fresco by Fra Angelico)
|Prayer of Benedictine Oblates:
"O Loving God, I ask your blessing this day on all the Oblates of Saint Benedict and those with whom we are affiliated. Help us to become people of prayer and peace. Though scattered far and wide, help us to be together in the spirit of your love. Give us hearts wide enough to embrace each other as well as those whose lives we touch. Enable us to listen and to learn from each other and those around us each day. May we be models in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities of wise stewardship, dignified human labor, sacred leisure, and reverence for all living things. Above all, O God, may our presence among others be a constant witness of justice, compassion, and hope to all. Amen."
We have been studying prayer and how important it is. In this lesson we will look at having our own spiritual rule of life.
How are we personally called? How are we going to incorporate prayer, spiritual practices, and apostolic works into the daily fabric of our life? As we continue on the spiritual journey and come closer to God, we pray that God will show us His particular will for our lives and what He would like us to do. Many of us feel led to join specific church organizations for fellowship, growth, and service, from the Knights of Columbus to the Legion of Mary. Some of us are also called to become members of various religious orders or congregations either as a religious or lay person. For myself, I felt God (and the Blessed Mother) led me step by step over the years to become a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. I can look back and see very clearly the path that brought me to this religious order for lay people. We need to let the Holy Spirit be our guide.
Deciding whether or not to develop your own spiritual rule of life, or joining a group with a ready-made rule of life, is different for each person. Most groups have periods of discernment so a person can visit and experience over time the community and way of life before actually joining. I feel God confirms a calling to belong to a special group with sense of being at home there in some way and often a sense of joy at finding your calling.
Sometimes we are led to one group and are a member for a while and then to another in our journey. Even a brief visit or time spent can be part of our journey of growing closer to God. For example, God might call someone to a monastery or convent for a while, and then call them to be married or someplace else later. An example is "the call within the call" of Mother Teresa. While a religious sister in the Sisters of Loreto as a teacher in India, Mother Teresa felt God calling her to leave the convent she was in and to establish a religious order serving the "poorest of the poor", which she did with permission.
One might note here that God doesn't call someone to do something without providing a way, and if there isn't a way then it isn't a real calling. For example, someone might feel called to be a nun at a certain convent and is not accepted. This is a way for God to say He has something else in mind for them, or at least for the time being it isn't right time yet. Or if a young man asks a girl to marry him and she says "no", we can know that God is not calling him to be engaged to her at that moment and might have someone or something else in mind at least for now. Discernment is a critical issue. A Religious Ministries website has a short article on discernment of vocations here if interested.
In this lesson, we will take a look at some possibilities and consider reorganizing priorities if necessary to incorporate prayer, spiritual reading, and other religious practices into our life. Before we do that, we'll take a look at some spiritual rules of life to become acquainted with various ways people can do this. Let's consider first of all some wisdom from a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila.
"In this matter beware of a grave error into which pious persons sometimes fall. Deriving much profit from certain means, many imagine that there are no others which lead to God. Consequently they would enforce the same methods upon everyone, and think all in error who follow a different path. Thus, one who gives himself wholly to prayer thinks it the only means of salvation. Another, given to fasting and corporal mortification, sees no merit in any other practices of piety. Those who lead contemplative lives imagine that all who are engaged in an active life are in great danger, and even go so far as to hold exterior virtues in contempt. The followers of the active life, having no experience of all that passes between God and the soul in the sweet calm of contemplation, do not sufficiently appreciate its value, and approve it only as far as it includes the practice of exterior works. One who gives himself exclusively to mental prayer is very apt to think any other form of prayer unprofitable; and, on the contrary, he who has devoted himself to vocal prayer will often argue that it is more meritorious because it is more laborious. Thus each one, impelled by ignorance or unconscious pride, extols himself by commending the practices to which he is most given."
So how is God leading us individually? Often when God calls us to a prayer form or certain spiritual practice, He will provide the inner energy and attraction to it at least initially. But sometimes also it can be a matter of trial and error and seeing what works for us.
Developing Your Own Spiritual Rule of Life
As a lay person a spiritual rule of life can be very simple or more complicated. The idea is to get a routine into your life for prayer and spiritual reading just like you take time to work, eat, and sleep. Prayer should be a priority and regular part of our life and not left to when we have extra time. If God is a priority for us we will make time for Him in our daily routine, but even deciding that daily routine should be done prayerfully.
One possibility is to start with something simple. For example, if you are not currently doing anything and are away from the practice of your faith, start by making it a #1 priority to go to Mass each Sunday (as this is mandatory for all Catholics) and say some simple prayers each day and/or read some verses from the Bible each day.
Once you get something manageable for you as part of your routine, then you can discern adding more elements as time goes on. We don't want to bite off more than we can chew to start with as we might give up, so being sensible in incorporating new things in our life seems important.
For myself, at least, it was a gradual process over the years that eventually led me to join a religious order and take on the rule of life of my religious order as a lay person. Perhaps for others it is less gradual, and they have a more regular routine more easily. I think it is like exercising and getting into shape physically, we start out with a routine that is manageable for our physical condition and build up over time. We can't be a marathon runner while we are still learning to walk.
Everyone taking this course is at a different place in their spiritual life from beginner to advanced, so I'm including many possibilities to look at below. I don't know if everyone is as slow as I was in incorporating religious practices into my life, but I remember when I came back to the practice of the faith that it was about all I could do to just get to Mass on Sundays, and I had to almost plan it a week in advance and write it on the calendar.
Then over time I became accustomed to this and started to pray the rosary at one point daily. Also I was reading the Bible and spiritual books as I liked to read. Then maybe 20 years later when my kids were getting a little older, I started to go to daily Mass most of the time. Everyone's path is different though, I just wanted to acknowledge that at least for myself, it was a slow process to get to a point where prayer was a regular part of my life, and at times it is still a struggle but less so than initially. So don't be discouraged, but, like St. Teresa of Avila says, have a "very determined determination" and move forward at least to begin incorporating some prayer and spiritual reading as a routine part your life.
St. Frances de Sales, in The Introduction to a Devout Life, has much good advice. One thing he says is that we should not want to practice many good exercises at the same time and all of a sudden. He says it is the enemy who often tries to get us to attempt many projects so that we will be overwhelmed by too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished. And at the same time he tells us that if we are not moving forward, we are falling behind.
Some Examples of Rules of Life
The following is put together from some suggestions by Fr. Christopher La Rocca, OCD, Rector of the Carmelite House of Studies, Mt. Angel, OR.
Besides participating in the sacrifice of the Mass on Sundays and Holydays (and possibly daily Mass if you can make it) here is a suggestion on a simple way to order your day to include prayer:
1. Begin your day with a "Morning Offering" to offer the day to God linked to www.catholic.org.
2. Live in the presence of God during the day by calling to mind that God is always with you. (For further information online read The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection)
3. Meditate on the Word of God. One idea is to choose a Scripture quote to meditate on during the day, for example, something that stands out to you from the Readings for Daily Mass listed on the U.S. Catholic bishops' website at www.usccb.org.
4. Pray before meals in your own words or use a traditional prayer at the www.catholic.org website.
5. End the day with prayer and a General Examination of Conscience by Fr. John Hardon, S.J. at the EWTN.com.
Here are some writings from St. Alphonsus Liguori who founded the Redemptorist order:
|A Christian's Rule of Life
by St. Alphonsus Liguori
THE MEANS OF PRESERVING THE GRACE OF GOD.
We must be fully persuaded, that in order to obtain eternal salvation, it is not sufficient to wish to be saved; but we must further use the means which have been left us by Jesus Christ. Otherwise, if we commit sins, it will not avail us in the day of judgment to excuse ourselves by saying that the temptations were great, and we were weak; because God has given us the means, through his grace, to conquer all the assaults of our enemies: if, then we do not take advantage of them, and are overcome, the fault will be our own. All men desire to be saved; but because they omit to employ the means of salvation they sin and are lost. [2Cor. 12:9
but he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.]
1. To Flee from the Occasions of Sin.
The first means is, to avoid all occasions of sin. It is impossible for any one who does not endeavor to flee from the occasions of sin, especially in the matter of sensual pleasures, to avoid falling into sin. St. Philip Neri said: "In the war of the senses, the conquerors are the cowards who fly." The occasion is like a veil put before our eyes, so that we can see nothing else - neither God, nor hell, nor the resolutions we had made. The Scripture says, it is impossible to walk on burning coals without being burnt: Or can he walk upon hot coals, and his heel not be burnt?
So it is morally impossible for any one to put himself voluntarily into the occasion of sin and not to fall, although he may have made a thousand resolutions and a thousand promises to God. This is clearly shown every day by the misery of so many poor souls who are plunged into vice for not avoiding the occasions. Any one who has had the evil habit of sins of impurity must know that, in order to restrain himself, it is not enough merely to avoid those occasions which are absolutely proximate; for if he does not also flee from those which are not altogether proximate, he will easily fall again. Nor must we allow ourselves to be deceived by the devil into thinking that the person towards whom we are tempted is a saint; it often happens that the more devout a person is, the stronger is the temptation. St. Thomas Aquinas says, that the holiest persons attract the most. The temptation will begin in a spiritual way, and will terminate carnally. [One example of what he could mean here is the danger of having close ongoing friendships with the opposite sex when marriage isnt the goal of the relationship, because men and women are attracted to each other and this attraction can manifest in close friendships and there needs to be good boundaries in place. And if someone is married it is often best not to seek close relationships with friends of the opposite sex, as it is too easy to shift our focus to this other person when our marriage is having problems and/or compromise our marriage or in the case of religious, their vocation.] The great servant of God F. Sertorio Caputo, of the Society of Jesus, said that the devil first induces one to love a person's virtue, then the person, and then blinds one and brings one to ruin. We must also flee from evil companions: we are too weak; the devil is continually tempting us, and the senses are drawing us to evil; the slightest suggestion of a bad companion is only wanting to make us fall. [In modern times we could also include TV, books, media, internet etc. with bad morals.] Therefore the first thing that we have to do to save ourselves is to avoid evil occasions and bad companions. And we must in this matter do violence to ourselves [I would guess that by violence, he means being very strict on ourselves in this regards], resolutely overcoming all human respect. Those who do not use violence to themselves will not be saved. It is true, that we must not put confidence in our own strength, but only in the divine assistance; but God wills that we should do our part in doing violence to ourselves, when it is necessary to do so, in order to gain Paradise: The violent bear it away. (Matt. 11:12)
2. Mental Prayer.
The second means is mental prayer. Without this, the soul will find it almost impossible to remain a long time in the grace of God. The Holy Spirit says: In all your works remember your last end, and you shall never sin. He who often meditates on the Four Last Things, namely, death, judgment, and the eternity of hell and paradise, will not fall into sin. These truths are not to be seen with the eyes, but only with the eyes of the mind: if they are not meditated on, they vanish from the mind, and then the pleasures of the senses present themselves, and those who do not keep before themselves the eternal truths are easily taken up by them; and this is the reason why so many abandon themselves to vice, and are damned. All Christians know and believe that all must die, and that we shall all be judged; but because they do not think about this, they live far from God. Without mental prayer there is no light; we walk in the dark; and walking in the dark, we do not see the danger which we are in, we do not make use of the means we ought, nor pray to God to help us, and so we are lost. Without prayer we have neither light nor strength to advance in the ways of God; because without prayer we do not ask God to give us his grace, and without so praying we shall certainly fall. It was for this reason that Cardinal Bellarmine declared it to be morally impossible for a Christian who does not meditate to persevere in the grace of God. Whereas he who makes his meditation every day can scarcely fall into sin; and if unhappily he should fall on some occasion, by continuing his prayer he will return immediately to God. It was said by a servant of God, that "mental prayer and mortal sin cannot exist together." Resolve, then, to make every day, either in the morning or in the evening, - but it is best in the morning, - half an hour's meditation. In the following chapter you will see briefly explained an easy method for making this prayer. For the rest, it is sufficient that during that time you should recollect yourself by reading some book of meditation - either this one or one of the many others; and from time to time excite some good affection or some aspiration, as you will find pointed out in the following chapter. Above all, I beg you never to leave off this prayer, which you should practice at least once a day, although you may be in great aridity, and should feel great weariness in performing it. If you do not discontinue it, you will certainly be saved.
Together with prayer, it is of great use to make a spiritual reading, in private, out of some book which treats of the life of a saint or of the Christian virtues, during half, or at least a quarter of an hour. How many by reading a pious book have changed their way of living and become saints! Like St. John Colombino, St. Ignatius Loyola, and so many others. It would also be a most useful thing if you were every year to make a retreat in some religious house. But at least do not omit your daily meditation.
3. The Frequentation of the Sacraments.
The third means is the frequenting of the sacraments of confession and of Communion. By confession the soul keeps itself purified; and by it not only obtains remission of sins, but also greater strength to resist temptations. For this purpose you should choose a director, and always confess to the same, consulting him on all more important matters, even temporal ones; and obey him in everything, especially if you are distressed by scruples. He who obeys his confessor need not fear to go astray: He that hears you, hears Me. (Luke 10:16) The voice of the confessor is the voice of God. [I would question this when confessors nowadays may give advice contrary to what the Church teaches but perhaps he means if we are truly in doubt and have no other method of finding out the truth on the matter, then we can rely on the confessors advice.]
Holy Communion is called heavenly bread, because as common bread preserves the life of the body, so Communion preserves the life of the soul: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man . . . you shall not have life in you. (John 6:54) On the other hand, to those who often eat this bread eternal life is promised: If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever. Therefore the Council of Trent calls Holy Communion "the medicine which delivers us from venial sins and preserves us from mortal ones." You should, then, resolve to go to Communion at least once a week, being determined not to give it up for anything in the world; as there is no affair of greater importance than that of your eternal salvation. Indeed, the longer you remain in the world, the greater need you have of assistance, because your temptations are greater. [Today a person is urged to go to communion at each mass attended, even daily (see CCC 1388 and 1389.] To make a good confession, as also a good Communion.
4. To hear Mass.
The fourth means is to hear Mass every day. When we attend Mass we give more honor to God than all the angels and saints in heaven can give him, because theirs is the honor of creatures; but in the Mass we offer to God Jesus Christ, who gives him an infinite honor.
The same action is performed in the Mass as was accomplished on Calvary, except that there the blood of Jesus Christ was really shed, while on the altar it is shed mystically; but in the Mass the merits of the Passion of Jesus are applied to each one in particular. To hear Mass, therefore, with great fruit, we must pay attention to the ends for which it was instituted, namely: 1. To honor God. 2. To thank him for his benefits. 3 To satisfy for our sins. 4. To obtain grace. For this reason you may use the following prayer during Mass.
Eternal Father, in this Sacrifice I offer to You Your Son Jesus, with all the merits of his Passion: 1. In honor of Your majesty. 2. In thanksgiving for all the favors You have hitherto shown me, and for all those which I hope to receive for all eternity. 3. In satisfaction for my sins, and for those of all the living and dead. 4. To obtain eternal salvation, and all the graces that are necessary for me to gain it.
At the elevation of the Host: My God, for the love of this Your Son, pardon me and give me holy perseverance.
At the elevation of the chalice: By the Blood of Jesus, give me Your love and a holy death.
At the Communion of the priest make a spiritual Communion saying: My Jesus, I love You, and desire to possess You. I embrace You, and I will never more separate myself from You.
5. The Visit to the Most Holy Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin.
The fifth means is to make a visit every day to the Most Holy Sacrament in some church, and to the Divine Mother before some devout image. Jesus Christ dwells on the altars of so many churches in order to dispense graces to all who come to visit him; and thus the souls of those who practice this beautiful devotion receive innumerable benefits from it. At the end of the next chapter you will find the prayer which may be said when visiting the Most Holy Sacrament, and the Divine Mother. The graces you ought especially to ask for, both from Jesus and Mary, are, the love of God, and holy perseverance till death.
The sixth means which I recommend you above all to put in practice is holy prayer. It is certain that without the divine assistance we can do nothing good for our souls.
God also has declared that graces are granted to those only who ask for them: Ask, and it shall be given you. (Matt. 7:7) Seek, and it shall be given you; therefore, as says St. Teresa, he who seeks not does not receive.
Hence it is a common opinion of the holy Fathers, with St. Thomas, that without prayer it is impossible to persevere in the grace of God, and to save one's self.
But he who prays is sure of the help of God; we have his word for it, which cannot fail, repeated so often in the sacred Gospels:
All things whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive, and they shall come to you. (Mark 11:2)
Every one that asks receives. (Luke 11:10)
Amen, amen, I say unto you, if you ask the Father anything in My name, He will give it you. (John 16:23)
God grants everything that we ask him for in the name of Jesus Christ.
If, then, we wish to he saved, we must pray, and pray with humility and confidence, and above all with perseverance. And this is the reason why mental prayer is so useful, because then we are reminded to pray; otherwise we forget to do so, and so are lost.
St. Teresa says, that out of her desire of seeing every one saved, she would have wished to go to the top of a mountain and then to cry out, so as to be heard by all men, nothing but these words, "Pray! pray!"
The ancient Fathers of the desert in their conferences decided that there was no better means of saving ourselves than by continually repeating the prayer of David:
Incline unto my aid, O God! O Lord, make haste to help we!
So let us also try to say. Or else let us make use of the beautiful ejaculation of the Blessed F. Leonard of Porto-Maurice: "My Jesus, mercy! And the two principal graces which we must always ask for (as I have said before), are the love of God and holy perseverance. We must always ask the same graces from the Most Holy Mary, who is called the dispenser of all the divine graces; and when we pray to her, she will certainly obtain them for us from God. Therefore St. Bernard thus exhorts us: "Let us seek grace, and let us seek it through Mary; for what she seeks she finds, and she cannot be disappointed."
From St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Preparation for Death, Rev Eugene Grimm Trans., Redemptorist Fathers Brooklyn Publishers (1926) p. 407-414. Imprimatur +Patrick Cardinal Hayes, 1926.
These are just a sampling of the third orders and religious groups for lay people in the Catholic Church. If you want to grow in the spiritual life, it is often a good idea to do this in conjunction with others in a group or community beyond just Sunday Mass participation. We are not all called to be a member of a religious order, but we can all benefit from personal relationships with spiritual people including a good spiritual director, spiritual friends, small groups, bible study classes, and other ways to interact personally with those seeking to grow in the spiritual life. If a group isn't available in your area that interests you, it is not that difficult to start a small group of some sort from Bible studies in a parish or home, to a Catholic book club where you read a spiritual book, papal encyclicals, the Catechism, etc. and discuss it. Get to know the others in your group by sharing your questions and insights. Sometimes starting a group is as easy as putting a notice in the parish bulletin to find other interested people.
Practical Tips on Incorporating Spiritual Practices into your Life
For busy people, it is often a challenge adding something new to their schedule. However with a little planning it can be done. Most people watch TV on a daily basis and skipping one program would allow plenty of time for dedicated prayer and/or spiritual reading each day. Perhaps take a look at your schedule and see what you might be able to cut back on. With young children it is more of a challenge, but some time can often be found before the children get up in the morning or after they go to bed at night. I was always impressed by the story of Susanna Wesley (mother of John and Charles Wesley who founded the Methodist Church) who had 19 children. The story goes that to pray she would sit in a chair and put her apron over her head. This was a signal that her children were not to disturb her during her prayer time, which was often for over an hour a day. If the children are older and fine for a while by themselves, something like a "Do not disturb (except for an emergency), mother is at prayer" sign on the bedroom door might work too.
Morning Prayer: To focus our day on God and serving him, it is good to say a prayer or some prayers in the morning to offer our day to God. We can use our own words, or a morning offering prayer, or "Morning Prayer" from the Liturgy of the Hours, and/or spend a longer time in prayer. One of my friends tells me if she doesn't say her morning prayers before getting out of bed, they just don't get done. I've noticed that sometimes about myself also, that if I get up and start doing other things that sometimes my morning prayer is being done at noon, which I don't recommend. So my suggestion is not putting off at least a short morning prayer after waking up.
Prayer during the day: The Bible says we should "pray always". It is good to keep our mind and heart on God throughout the day and to add short prayers or conversations with God as we go about our daily tasks. Some people incorporate prayer into a daily walk or say a rosary while driving to and from work. While it is good to pray as we can throughout our day, it is also important to set aside a dedicated time to prayer as well, even if it starts out to be a very short time. I don't know about you, but when I go for a walk I tend to look at the scenery and get distracted. Also while driving in the car there are a lot of distractions. So to me while it is good to pray always as we can, we also need to set aside some time for just prayer as well.
Jesus mentioned in the Bible to go to our room and close the door to pray. Scripture also records Jesus getting up early, even before dawn, to go to a quiet spot to pray. Some of the Saints also rose early to pray. I've tried this, but if I don't get a certain amount of sleep, I can't make it through the day, so getting up before dawn doesn't work very well for me. However I think the point is that where there's a will there's a way, and we have to find something that works for us. It doesn't really matter when we pray, as long as we do pray, and whatever time works best for us seems like the best time to pray for us.
Evening or Night Prayer: For me personally, right before I go to sleep at night is a good time to pray as I can set aside all the concerns of the day and focus. I like to pray and do some spiritual reading before I go to sleep. Some people are best in the morning and others a night. Taking some of our best time and giving it to the Lord is a good idea.
Spiritual Reading: St. Jerome said that, "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." Reading Scripture is so very important and also other good Catholic books. If you don't have these types of resources there are some available online including here: www.catholicspiritualdirection.org/catholicbooksonline.html
Spiritual Reading Alternative: Even though I highly recommend spiritual reading especially from Scripture, for those who learn better by listening and aren't readers, I'd suggest listening to good Catholic TV programs, podcasts, CDs, tapes etc. The Bible is available on tape and CD.) There are also podcasts online that you can listen to.
| "The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love is not great delight but the desire to please God in everything." St. Teresa of Avila
The goal of our spiritual life is to love God above all things. What spiritual practices (such as prayer and spiritual reading) will best help you personally to know God better and love God more? Take a look at your own spiritual life and make some decisions and/or resolutions. Maybe just add one or two new practices at a time to help avoid discouragement. As a Carmelite formation director said, "You don't want to get spiritual indigestion" by trying to do too many things all at once. Or if you want to try adopting an already made spiritual rule of life, you can try that too.... and if it seems like too much all at once, you may just want to incorporate some elements or make it more simple at least for a while. If you have a problem area you might want to get some help or a good book that addresses solving it. Most people are not called to be a member of a religious order, but all are called to pray and have a relationship with God (i.e. a personal relationship with Jesus Christ). Having a spiritual rule of life helps us to form good spiritual habits.
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