The New Year is the perfect time to set goals and accomplish tasks that have been sitting on the back burner of our minds. Many folks want to slim down for the New Year, get control of the physical, mental, emotional, financial, and social parts of their lives. We may join a gym, start a diet, walk instead of sit, run instead of walk. Some may take a course in life organizing or money management. We get excited about a new year and a new self. Maybe there are books to read, letters to write, promises to keep. It is the New Year, there is much to be done.
One area that may be overlooked is that of building our spirit. St Paul writes to the Thessalonians that they be preserved, spirit, soul, and body for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Here are seven ways to get our spirits and souls in shape as we focus on the extra salad rather than the cake.
My wife and I began attending daily Mass last Lent. Our parish priest moved morning Mass from 8 am to 7 am to indulge the sacrificial side of the season. As the weeks passed, we found that our days were wrapped around daily Mass. We never noticed the part of the bulletin that listed the times and intentions of each Mass until we took daily mass-going seriously. We do not have Mass on Monday but attend Mass each other day of the week including the Vigil Mass on Saturday evening. It is a spiritually powerful way to begin each day and helps us to center our day on Christ. Worshipping at daily Mass helps us to maintain our desire to live in the Spirit of Christ. We connect with other parishioners who join us. We build community.
This is a hard spiritual workout that is not for everyone, especially those who are just starting out. It is like going to the gym, bypassing all the easier exercises, and heading into the weight room where the “Arnold Schwarzeneggers” are pumping two-hundred-pound dumbbells. Sadly, if you are like me, you get your coat and head for the donut shop.
St. Teresa of Avila explains that “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2709). To St. John Vianney, contemplation is “a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus ‘I look at him and he looks at me’” (CCC, 2715). Contemplation, then, is hearing God; it is silence.
Challenging is the word for this type of spiritual workout because we live in a very noisy universe. The Catechism points out that “Contemplative prayer is also the pre-eminently intense time of prayer. In it the Father strengthens our inner being with power through his Spirit ‘that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith’ and we may be ‘grounded in love’” (CCC, 2714). It cannot be beat for spiritual growth and strength.
Start small. Practice contemplative prayer for two minutes, or five, gradually building yourself up to longer periods. The Catechism states that the “choice of the time and duration of the prayer arises from a determined, will, revealing the secrets of the heart” (CCC, 2710).
“Contemplative prayer seeks him ‘whom my soul loves.’ It is Jesus, and in Him, the Father. We seek Him, because to desire Him is always the beginning of love, and we seek Him in that pure faith which causes us to be born of Him and to live in Him. In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself.” (CCC, 2709). It states in the Catechism that entering into contemplative prayer is like entering into the Eucharist liturgy:
we “gather up” the heart, recollect our whole being under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, abide in the dwelling place of the Lord which we are, awaken our faith in order to enter into the presence of him who awaits us. We let our masks fall and turn our hearts back to the Lord who loves us, so as to hand ourselves over to him as an offering to be purified and transformed. (CCC, 2711)
Praying the Word of God is a tremendous way to build spiritual muscle and to lose the fat of acedia (the Greek word for “sloth”). There are a few different forms for this prayer, however, it is basically reading a passage of Scripture – the Psalms are great for this – and mulling over the passage. Does one particular word or verse seem to stand out? Think about that word or verse. Read the passage a second time at a slower speed, prayerfully. Now get quiet before the Lord. (I know, the quiet part is like drinking vinegar at times, until it starts to feel good.) There are other methods for praying Lectio. Find a practice that works well for you.
In this powerful form of prayer, we may find ourselves in both contemplation and Lectio. Within the Mysteries we find Scripture bringing us to new heights. Although not all of the Mysteries are strictly scriptural, they are well documented in the teachings of the Church. When we pray the Rosary each evening, we focus on one Mystery while praying each decade, dedicating that decade to a particular prayer need (our son in the Army, people affected by disasters, etc.) We include the needs of our family and friends. Entering into Rosary prayer often leads people to consecrate themselves to Jesus through Mary. Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and St. John Paul are three of the best examples. My wife and I started praying the Rosary daily when we began the practice of regular Mass. It seemed to take too much time at first because we did not know the Mysteries for each day. Yet, when it became a part of our life, we slowed down and the time went faster. It is not always easy to fit it in, but it is like doing sit ups and crunches – worth the effort. It is a real soul builder.
Three Hail Marys
Praying Three Hail Marys devotionally draws people on the periphery of faith toward Christ. It is another tough prayer because it demands commitment. This is a real devil fighter with wonderful promises. Again, start easy. If you are able, pray Three Hail Marys twice, in the morning and at night. If not, pray three Hail Marys once during the day. It is a life changing prayer, attested to by many saints and popes. Research how many saints practiced this simple exercise. Incidentally, I have a reoccurring thought to make small signs, “Pray Three Hail Marys – (phone number),” and staple them on bulletin boards throughout the local colleges, laundromats, diners, public places, everywhere there is a place to put it. Then I would wait to see how many calls I received.
Read the Lives of the Saints
There are many books on the lives of the Saints. Study one saint a day or a week, by yourself, or with family. Look the saint up in the book or go online. Find the saint you most want to emulate. Study the saint’s holy life, and if you have the opportunity to work with youth who are in formation to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, share saints’ stories with them.
Liturgy of the Hours
This is the prayer that the Church requires of its religious and ordained ministers. The most important prayers are the Morning and Evening prayers. It is contained in a bible-sized book that clergy often carry around, but anyone can find a good online source for it at DivineOffice.org. That website offers all seven hours of liturgical prayer each day. It informs you how many people are in prayer with you. You may pray on your own, with family, or listen to the people praying and singing the Divine Office, and you can pray the responses with them aloud or in silence. You may also get Christian Prayer, a one-volume book, or the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours. In the four-volume set they offer the Office of Readings, which offers marvelous readings from Scripture and the Tradition of the Church as an augment to prayer and contemplation. Praying the Hours connects us with the faithful around the world.
Making New Year resolutions is easy, until you start. Go slow, start with easy, and work your way up. Remember that you are building spiritual muscles and, like the physical ones, it takes a lot of effort when we first start. But it does get easier, and, more importantly, we see the changes prayer makes in our lives. As also with physical muscle-building, you cannot look to others to do your exercises. Only you can change you.
Have a blessed and spiritually prosperous New Year.