Spiritual Fitness Program for Beginners and the Out-of-Shape
Sometimes I'm challenged to define what a Catholic is. To that there is only the answer the Church has always given.
A Catholic (1) has been baptized in the Church, or has been received into the Church and chrismated/confirmed after having been baptized elsewhere, (2) does not publicly and stubbornly deny any of the truths in the Creed, and (3) hasn't left (gone to SSPX, Spiritus Christi, local Buddhist temple, or etc.) and hasn't been thrown out by the bishop.
This definition includes every cultural Catholic and cafeteria picker and "carried in." And it ought to, because they are all Catholics. They may be uninstructed Catholics or mistaken Catholics or Catholics who are bad examples, but they are still Catholic, and they are still our siblings.
Declaring anyone to be "not a Catholic" is way beyond my pay-grade. Only the bishop can define somebody or some group as "not Catholic" --- not any of us in the noisier corners of the internet. Yet even bringing up the definition of Catholic is awfully close to that poor excuse of a question "what is the bare minimum I have to do to be saved?" and none of us should be satisfied with that. What's to be done about it?
First, we admit that our brothers and sisters are our brothers and sisters; even the ones we scream at across the dinner table, or even the holy altar. (Dare I say, even those who've run away from home and are getting lost in the wilderness of places the bishop is not?) We have a duty to care, we don't get an easy out by defining "them" out of the family. They may be prodigals and problem children and pains in the posterior, but they are _our_ prodigals and problem children and pains.
Second, we ourselves set out to live a maximal, not a minimal, Catholic life. Granted, minimal practical Catholicism is likely enough to keep one from eternal exile, but it's husks for food and rags for clothes in comparison of the riches available to any child of God and child of Mother Church just for the asking. We have a rule of prayer we follow every day. We assist at Eucharist as often as we can. We take advantage of Reconciliation frequently. We pay attention when our pastor or our bishop attempts to teach us. We are obedient. We beg the saints to pray for us. We do those "things Catholics do," otherwise known as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We pray for mercy for ourselves, and we do not judge others. And we set out to do this with a joyful heart and all our strength.
Third, we invite others to share in our joy, and to be supported by the strength we are developing. Our lives should show to those we know and meet that the Lord's love is the one thing that really matters in the end, even if we never speak a word. That the Lord's mercy and covenant fidelity are forever, no matter how many times I fail. We bring others to love the same One we love, "who is all-good and deserving of all my love." Learning the ways of the One we love beyond all else and living in a way worthy of one who is loved by Him follow as surely as sunrise follows night.
Now, there are some who say that this is daunting and difficult to accomplish. Maybe I'm just hopelessly naive, but I've always thought it was addictive. The more you do, the more you want, and eventually the more you need.
Maybe the problem is that folk think everything has to happen immediately, or they don't know where to start. But Catholic living is very much like weight training: one doesn't start with the big barbell, one starts with the little two-pound handweights and some sit-ups; after some months of work, doing a little more at a time while one's getting strong, one might consider trying the big barbell.
So, I'm going to propose a starter set of spiritual exercises for the out-of-shape, a place to begin.
Before we begin, if you are not observing a minimal practical Catholicism, start right now --- if you're not going to Mass on Sunday, or you're making a point of going out for steak dinner on Lenten Fridays, cut it out! Go to Sunday Mass, and eat fish fry! It may seem odd or really minor, but it truly does make a difference. You have to have the minimum before striving for the maximum.
Then, first: Pray before doing anything else in the morning. Thank God for another day and give it to Him to use. My grandparents had the "morning offering" prayer taped to the bathroom mirror so they wouldn't forget even if they weren't quite awake yet. A prayer like the morning offering, and maybe the Benedictus canticle [Luke 1:68-79] and, on Fridays, Psalm 51, will start a day off on the right foot.
The morning offering comes in many flavors, composed over many centuries; here are three samples to choose from. After you've had some experience with prayer, you might end up composing your own version, who knows?
My Lord, my God, thank you for giving me another day in which to praise and serve You. I offer this new day and everything in it back to You, my Lord, for Your honor and Your glory, and so You may make me more conformed to You. Help me in my weakness, Lord, that I may be made worthy of the glorious promises You have made. Keep me faithful to You this day, for Your love and Your covenant fidelity are forever. Amen.
version two [I'm pretty sure this was the one on my Grandma's mirror]:
Most holy and adorable Trinity, one God in three Persons, I firmly believe that You are here present; I adore You with the most profound humility; I praise You and give You thanks with all my heart for the favors You have bestowed on me. Your goodness has brought me safely to the beginning of this day. Behold, O Lord, I offer You my whole being and in particular all my thoughts, words, and actions, together with such crosses and contradictions as I may meet with in the course of this day. Give them, O Lord, Your blessing; may Your divine Love animate them and may they tend to the greater honor and glory of Your sovereign majesty. Amen.
version three [short and sweet]:
O my God, I offer to You all my thoughts, works, joys, and sufferings of this day. And I beg You to grant me Your grace that I may not offend You this day; but may faithfully serve You and do Your holy will in all things. Amen.
Second: Do at least one of the "things Catholics do" every day. Here is the list.
Feed the hungry.
The first seven listed are called the "corporal works of mercy" and the other seven the "spiritual works of mercy." I'm going to suggest starting with the "corporal" list, they're simpler and more straightforward. (And if you're spiritually out of shape, you're probably not ready for some of the other ones yet.) What you do does not need to be a great act, even the little things count.
Third: Make prayer a part of getting ready for bed, also. Go over your day with God looking over your shoulder: what was right, what wasn't, where you need help and grace, what you're sorry for. A good Act of Contrition, or maybe Psalm 130, with possibly the Magnificat canticle [Luke 1:46-55] and a Marian hymn or prayer, and tuck yourself in in peace.
Keep these three up every day for a few months. one day at a time.
And, fourth: If you haven't been to Confession in a long time, go! Most priests will be happy to help you if it's been so long you've forgotten how. Larger downtown parishes run by religious orders tend to have more generous confession times, if that's a problem. And if your life's so screwey that you can't be absolved, go anyway, maybe you're wrong; and if there's really Church law tangles to be untangled, the sooner started, the sooner done.
Now, for just why I propose this program, above and beyond "morning offering and night examination of conscience is how Catholics have always done it" --- which is true.
The long-term goal is to become totally in love with the God who never stops loving us. How can we let our love grow for God if we never bother to spend any time with Him? By doing the exercises I propose, what we are doing is establishing a habit of spending time with God. Eventually, we want "offering our day to God" to be just as natural a part of morning as washing face, brushing hair, and starting the coffee pot, and "looking over the day with God" to be as routine as checking that the door's locked and putting on the pajamas. That's why I propose to do it for a couple of months, consistently; so the habit would form.
In the morning, in addition to the morning offering, I suggest praying the Benedictus, and at night the Magnificat. This is a tiny way of being connected with the whole Church that prays. In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Benedictus is prayed every morning in Morning Prayer ("Lauds") and the Magnificat every night in Evening Prayer ("Vespers"). For us to pray them also helps us to be united with everybody else in all the Lord's Church in our prayer. It's also very traditional to close the day with a Marian prayer; the part of the Hours called Night Prayer or Compline ends with a Marian hymn. Plus, it just feels so good to have Our Lady and all the saints looking out for us as we sleep.
Psalm 51 on Friday morning is another tiny reminder of a great truth. Friday is a special day. Our Lord Jesus gave up His life, at our hands, for our salvation, on a Friday. Every Friday can be an occasion to remember that great gift especially.
Just like we are forming a habit of spending time with God, we are also in need of a habit of behaving like a Catholic, which is why I propose a merciful act every day. It is my hope that by the end of two months and the sixtieth day and sixtieth act of mercy, we will have developed a taste for acting mercifully, and be, at least sometimes, doing the merciful thing without planning it or having to think about it. This is a big step toward acting like a Catholic, a state the theologians call "orthopraxy," which is just as important as believing rightly, "orthodoxy." The athletic types have a kernel of truth in their old saying, "Fake it till you make it." We could say, "Behave as though you believed, and you'll come to believe."
And, going to Confession (and getting to Mass on Sunday): We have been given the sacraments for a very good reason.(we need them!) and therefore we ought to be taking full advantage of them and the graces they contain for us. Why spurn such great gifts? Grab them instead! This is one part of life where being greedy can work as a goodness.
Now that you know _why_ you're doing what you're doing, you'll keep it up and get those good Catholic habits well-established, so they can make for the rest of one's life, a solid foundation for an active lively faith.
copyright 2004, Karen Marie Knapp