Americans today have become health conscious. We are been conditioned by society – and perhaps for good reason – to start ‘working out,’ or at the very least to ‘stay active.’ Daily exercise should be at the very top of our list of priorities!
It seems that no matter what website we visit these days we’ll see an ad for a new exercise device or an article with a headline like: “5 Ways to Stay in Shape!” or “Strengthen Your Body with these 10 Exercises!” or “10 Ways to Stay Strong and Active.”
If there’s one thing we need to make time for today, we’re told, it’s building and maintaining a healthy body.
But what about our soul?
We can get so caught up in the activities of our daily lives that we often forget just how important it is to remain active every day in our spiritual lives. We forget to do the spiritual exercises that our souls need. Most often, we don’t even realize just how “weak” we really are until we have to put our spiritual fitness to the test.
Signs of Weakness
Distractions during prayer and Mass can be signs that we are failing the spiritual fitness test and that our souls need tending to. Maybe the distractions aren’t just due to our minds being on overload from the week’s busy schedule but something more. And when we get to Lent – the ultramarathon of the liturgical season – the overwhelming feeling of burden may be due to more than just human weakness.
If we would put as much effort into exercises for our souls and staying active in our spiritual lives as we do into physical exercise, we might just find ourselves looking forward to prayer, Mass, Devotions, and sacrifices as things we’ve been actively training for instead of as obligations that we dread.
Here are some suggestions for exercising your soul – from beginning to advanced – that will build up your spiritual strength, increase your spiritual stamina, and bring added grace for overcoming those difficult times when you need strength the most.
The Beginner: Start Out with Small, Humble, Honest Prayers
No first-time marathoner heads out on a first run and does 26.2 miles. In fact, no advanced marathoner heads out on the first run of the training season and does 26.2 miles. So, too, we should not try to build our prayer lives by starting out with ambitious and difficult devotions. Devotions are the spiritual equivalent of a 26.2 mile marathon!
The Rosary, novenas, aggressive reading and meditation on Scripture are all wonderful and ambitious prayers and devotions. However, for someone just beginning an active prayer life these can be more troublesome than helpful as a way to grow closer to God.
There’s no requirement that prayer must be lengthy and time-consuming in order to be honest and fruitful. Just turning your mind to God for five minutes a day – whether it’s in the morning while showering, during your lunch break, or right before bed – is the first step in reaching that goal of a stronger spiritual life.
The Intermediate: Continuing Education through Reading and Reflection
Once a “five minutes a day of prayer” regime becomes easier, choosing a book to read or meditate on with prayer should be the next goal. The book doesn’t have to be a long and complicated theological work (I wouldn’t suggest picking up St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, for example). However, a saint’s biography, meditations from the saints, or works defending or explaining the Faith will help in strengthening your spiritual life and will also continue your Faith education, which is something we are all called to do.
In order to grow closer to Christ, we must know Him, know His ways, and know the Truth. The only way to do this is through continuing education. Reading and reflection and by attending parish events that foster further education and a discussion on the Faith are two goods ways to continue our education. Education is such a fundamental part of our spiritual growth that without it our growth stagnates and our spiritual lives fall to the wayside.
The Novice: Adoration and Daily Mass
As your spiritual life continues to grow through short prayer and continual learning, your relationship with Christ should be strengthened through adoration and by receiving the sacraments as often as possible. This increases prayer time and automatically devotes more of our time to Christ. It’s also a chance to put our daily lives on hold and remember Who and What our lives are supposed to be centered around – Christ.
Prayer and continual education can both be done during adoration and even during Mass. This helps build a more prayerful life just by providing more time for both activities. Many parishes offer a perpetual adoration chapel, but if your parish doesn’t have one it may still have an adoration hour. If you can’t commit to a whole hour, even just 15 minutes of spending time with Christ will bear fruit – a necessary exercise to strengthen your spiritual muscle so to speak.
The Junior: Devotionals
Devotionals require great discipline and concentration, along with a great deal of quiet and a lack of interruption. Such a combination though can make Devotionals difficult, and I have to admit that getting the combination right is something I struggle with myself. But as prayer time goes from five minutes a day to perhaps an hour spent in adoration, a Devotional might be a good thing to try – especially during Eucharistic Adoration in church or even as part of family prayer time.
There are multiple kinds of devotions: the Rosary, novenas devoted to the saints or to Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, the Imitation of Christ and other Devotional readings, or even reading Scripture. Loyola Press and other Catholic publications houses are great resources for Devotions: Eucharistic Devotions, praying and reflecting on the rosary, and the Sacred Heart Devotions are just a few.
The Advanced: Active Ministry
Finally, as your spiritual life grows stronger through prayer, reflection, and learning it will be easier to begin acting on it in your daily life. We are all called to serve our Lord and even as part of the laity we can all participate in the different ministries offered in many parishes. There are numerous Catholic societies and groups that devote time and prayer to the Church or that volunteer to help those in need. Taking part in an active ministry brings our spiritual lives full circle and allows us to bear witness to Christ in a way that sets a good example for those in our lives.
Spiritual Growth is a Journey
Spiritual growth is a constant journey that isn’t completed until we reach Heaven. Just as a marathoner is never done training and continually strives for better running times, so, too, should we always be striving for more and better spiritual growth to grow closer to Christ.
Even as we look to improve our physical well-being through an active lifestyle, let’s never forget that God should always be first in our lives.