An exhortation to develop an interior life or to deepen one’s relationship with Jesus—is, in and of itself, good. Yet, simply attempting to persuade someone to pray or develop a deeper, more routine prayer life is not enough. For example, the regional leader of a Catholic lay organization recently made a routine visit to a local affiliated group. The leader asked the participants to develop and keep up their interior life. He got up, made a brief comment to that effect, and then he went back to his seat—and that was the end of it. It would be interesting to know how many of those hearing that suggestion actually followed up on it. And if they did follow up, how much progress did they make?
In another location, each participant at an adult religious education meeting received a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Occasionally the instructor directed them to certain sections or paragraphs in it during their classes. No one actually walked the participants through the use of the Catechism as the powerful resource that it is, however. Will they end up really using it to strengthen their knowledge of the faith?
Modification of Behaviors
Over the last several decades, the field of organizational behavior has generated some robust models for leading others. These models offer insights into how to lead people in such a way that they successfully adopt new behaviors. Some of the basic but often overlooked principles that apply to secular matters can help us, and others, in our spiritual lives. These same principles can help in areas such as the modification of prayer habits, or learning to use the Catechism for research, and more. For example, under one model, if we want to help set someone up to effectively carry out an activity, we need to understand a couple of different things about them. We need to identify what they already know about the activity, and we need to understand how they feel about doing it. Then, we need to provide them with more than exhortations in most cases.
Consider the example mentioned above, of the leader’s exhortation to more fully develop one’s prayer life. First of all, what does that really mean? If you or I make that suggestion, what it means to you can be quite different from what it means to me. On top of that, there’s a good chance that without some discussion and clarification, the people hearing from either of us can each have a vastly different understanding of what we mean. To me, a deeper prayer life may mean just having a prayer life beyond weekly Mass attendance. For you, it could mean adding the practice of periodically praying with sacred scripture (lectio divina). To yet another, it might mean an hour of lectio divina daily, plus weekday Mass, together with praying more hours of the Liturgy of the Hours. None of these are “right” or “wrong” answers. They are just different.
Even if we take the time to make clear what “developing the interior life,” or “deepening our prayer life” means to each of us, much remains to be done if we intend to make that exhortation actionable. One of us may be interested in pursuing this idea—in doing something to ramp up our prayer life. In fact, we may have thought about doing so multiple times in the past. We just never “got around to it.” We never actually made it happen. We put it off—we procrastinated.
Very often, procrastination is due to not knowing how to actually get started, or what specifically to do. In other words, I may really, really want to fire up my spiritual life, but I don’t know how. Exhort, encourage, harangue me all you want. I still don’t know what specifically to do or where to begin. This is why it’s helpful to understand what someone knows about how to do what we’re suggesting they do.
Because I don’t know exactly how to carry out what you’re urging me to do, I need more than abstract encouragement. I need specific instruction in “how to.” Take for example, lectio divina. Some Catholics already practice this form of prayer. Others may want to take it up, but don’t know exactly how to do it. Thus, they may be quite uneasy about the whole thing. They might be worried about “getting it right.” They may have heard about what seem like conflicting accounts of how to approach it. Perhaps they perceive it to be so daunting that they believe it is beyond them. The source of anxiety doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that someone show them how, giving them some instruction in the process. Something as simple as a step-by-step outline and explanation of what to do may be all they need to get started. It could include a short demonstration of how one might pray with scripture, together with guided lectio divina. Although this involves far more than simply than providing an exhortation for them to pray, it still is fairly straightforward and easy to do.
In a similar way, just giving students paragraph, section or page numbers to look up in any reference source, including the Catechism, doesn’t build research skills. It doesn’t help them grow in self-reliance. On the other hand, walking them through examples of how to look up topics and find answers to their questions may create the desire to learn more and go deeper into the rich deposits of the faith contained in the Catechism.
Any time a person takes on a new activity, it can help for them to have someone to talk with and help them stay accountable—someone to “coach” them through the rough spots and encourage them to continue. This applies not only to tasks like learning to use the Catechism for all it’s worth. It can also apply to beefing up one’s prayer life as well. For example, having someone to help hold them accountable for sticking with a prayer plan can make a big difference. Something like this might come from a spiritual director, or from a confessor with whom one has a regular relationship. Regardless of the source, with the grace of God, having someone come alongside of them can help them build and maintain momentum.
So go ahead and exhort–but also explain, demonstrate, clarify, coach, and remain available for help. Provide the tangible assistance that they need to grow in their faith. After all, Our Lord wants a closer relationship with each of us. Isn’t it time that we did something concrete about it—for us, and for others who could use a hand?