Post 48

Make Your Day:
Reflections on Having a Spiritual 'Game Plan' and a Prayer for an Agnostic

It takes me forever to write a blog post. I’m used to that. But this time around, it took me forever and a day because I was going in the wrong direction for weeks.

You see, I was questioning the entire idea of schedules and plans and all kinds of regimens, especially spiritual ones. Should we even bother with lists for our spiritual lives? What if it’s harmful?

And in thinking about this, I divided the world into the easy-going types who didn’t follow a schedule, and the methodical types who did follow them.

But of course, that also wasn’t quite right. Everyone is following some sort of schedule or daily plan. It might not be written down, but it’s there, in the form of habits. A percentage of today is a repeat of what we did yesterday or the day before. We don’t reinvent the wheel every day, living an entirely new kind of existence.

Yet we don’t think of these habits as part of our daily plan because in most cases we didn’t plan them – they just developed, and now they’re so internalized that we don’t think about them at all. You deal with meals and clothing, for instance, in certain ways that feel, to you, entirely ‘normal.’ You wake up and you’re on auto-pilot as you open the curtains, check the weather or your emails.

(Wouldn’t it be quite interesting to compare an excruciatingly detailed list of those first five minutes after waking? How much of a person’s priorities are revealed by those minutes? The beauty queen is looking in the mirror to study a new wrinkle on her face while the bird-watcher is looking out the window for signs of bird activity.)

But of course there are the things which we do need to stop and put deliberate thought into – those things on our external schedule. We add into our calendar the activities that we don’t want to forget, whether it’s a couple of things for the week or a couple of things or more for the day. We do this for all those things that aren’t automatic for us. After all, we aren’t animals who can operate on instinct almost all of the time.

So I couldn’t actually condemn the idea of a schedule in and of itself – we all have one, in the form of a set of habits supplemented by a set of external reminders. It’s part of human life; to criticize it would be to criticize living.

No, I realized that my challenge had to be narrower than that. I was challenging the notion of adding a pre-meditated list of spiritual practices into our schedule. I didn’t like the sound of this, so I began thinking and blogging my way through the notion. I was going to argue against this approach, which struck me as so mechanical and artificial, and not at all like the relationship or romance that the Christian life is supposed to be.

Why can’t we all just love God and do whatever we want – you know, in the spirit of ‘love God and do as you will’? Look at Chesterton, I said to myself. He wasn’t very disciplined, but he was so good! He didn’t rise early (“Daybreak is a never-ending glory, getting out of bed is a never-ending nuisance” is one of his quotations and “The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning” from Chapter IV of Orthodoxy is another) but you can’t convince me that this defender of the faith wasn’t saintly. (I hope he’s canonized one day.) And Pope St. John Paul II was always late for everything when he was a priest; people teased him about running on “Wojtyla time.” The world is filled with so many different types, is it not? I was thinking of this quotation too:

People have very different and sometimes conflicting temperaments and ways of seeing things, and that is something to be recognized and accepted cheerfully. Some love to have everything in order and are upset by the slightest disorder. Others feel stifled when everything is overly organized and regulated. Those who love order feel threatened by anyone who leaves the smallest object out of place; those with the opposite temperament feel they are being attacked by anyone who insists on perfect tidiness. We are quick to attach moral judgments to such behavior, calling what pleases us ‘good’ and what doesn’t ‘bad.’ Examples abound. We must be careful not to turn our families and communities into permanent war zones divided between defenders of order and defenders of freedom, partisans of punctuality and partisans of easy-goingness, lovers of peace and quiet and lovers of exuberance, early birds and night owls, chatterers and taciturn types and so on. We need to accept other people just as they are, understand that their approach and values are not the same as ours, and to broaden our minds and soften our hearts towards them.

– Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, pg 62

So that’s the direction I was heading. If you have an authentic and strong love for Christ, then do you really need all these regimens? What about ‘love and do what you will’? What if you’re not the scheduling type? I looked at one list of spiritual practices (divided into daily, weekly and monthly items) and when I saw that it was called a “Spiritual Game Plan,” I felt confirmed that I was right in challenging the entire notion. Game Plan? Is the spiritual life something you ‘win,’ like a football game? Is it a matter of checking off a list and tallying up points? Certainly this wasn’t the correct spirit. It sounded cold and calculating, and I could imagine a Pharisee-like smugness associated with it.

And it didn’t help that I could easily bring to mind list-oriented religious people who seemed to have forgotten how to laugh. They’re the ones who are quick to scold a group of women if they become too chatty at an evening meant for reflection. They’re the ones who suppress a smile when you joke, and hastily move to get the discussion ‘back on track.’ What’s wrong with laughing? Is mirth a sign of spiritual immaturity or weakness? What about all the saints who used to play practical jokes?

Chesterton was always having to defend his use of humour. He was witty, so some people thought he was being flippant or insincere. Yet he argued (especially in his chapter against McCabe in Heretics) and demonstrated that good ideas and goodness in general don’t have to be wrapped in grim packaging, nor should they be. A holy person should be a joyful person, not a miserable one. Chesterton wrote, “seriousness is not a virtue.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter 7) Amen to that. A solemn demeanor is appropriate for some occasions, but it’s not a virtue in itself. It’s not the same as taking an issue seriously or serious thought.

So I was putting on one side the uptight rule-keeper scheduling types, and on the other side, the easy-going types who were like Chesterton. I was in the mood to condemn (or at least criticize or limit) this goodie-two-shoes list-keeping and spiritual scheduling, in favour of something more romantic and fuzzy, more spontaneous and from-the-heart.

I wrote a lot of paragraphs in that vein. But I couldn’t get proper traction. I’d write for a while and then I’d find myself going off a cliff. So I’d start again, and I’d go off another cliff. To give an example of what I mean, I’d say you can’t earn your way to heaven by checking practices off a list, and I’d want to talk about Pelagianism, a heresy which said you could. But when I kept going, I found that I was nearly saying that ‘works’ (i.e., good deeds) don’t matter, and all you need is grace. What? What did I almost just say? Another cliff!

So I’d start again, but this time I’d say, well sure, this intentionality might be great for some of the expressions of Catholicism, but Catholicism has all kinds of spirituality in it. Not everyone is going to be another St. Josemaria Escriva, in the same way that not everyone is going to be a St. Francis. And I was ready to tell you about how the Church had to rein in the Fraticelli, the extreme Franciscans who wanted everyone to adopt that spirituality to the exclusion of all others. The world is full of different folks, was my point. As Chesterton says, “No men are more different than saints; not even murderers.” (Saint Thomas, Chapter IV “A Meditation on the Manichees”). I said to myself, that St. Josemaria Escriva, well, he was Spanish, so he couldn’t help himself. But it’s not for everyone, is it?

But aside from the fact that I was starting to sound like a fan of relativism, I had to admit that St. Josemaria Escriva wasn’t just about scheduling. He cared about everything that related to a person’s relationship with God and with other people. And I know that he was so incredibly lovable and cheerful. He had a twinkle in his eye and always a fresh and inspiring insight. He had so many people eager to vouch for his sanctity after his death. Sure, he wrote about being faithful to your daily plan, but what about everything else he wrote? He wrote so much else, and if you want humour, he had it in spades! And what an encouraging person he was – hard on himself, but forgiving of others.

I just couldn’t pigeon-hole him in order to discount what he said about scheduling. And I guess it shows you how anti-schedule I was, that I was even looking for an angle to use in order to set aside St. Josemaria Escriva’s advice on the subject. (“Virtue without order? Strange virtue!”) But my point is that I couldn’t pull it off. I had to accept that he was someone very much in love with Christ and yet very scheduled, and those two things could be successfully linked together. You could be cheerful and scheduled at the same time. And, truth be told, I could easily bring to mind religious people who were following daily plans and yet were very joyful. Hmm. So perhaps following a spiritual schedule wasn’t the issue, but rather, the method of implementation was the issue. Maybe if you did it correctly . . .

So I kept tripping myself up. For another instance, I’d want to say things like, surely when someone is in love, they don’t make a list of to-do items. Instead they just go ahead and do loving things almost as second nature without planning, right? Hmm, wait a minute. That looks like another cliff in front of me.

After all, a wife might well make a to-do list of ideas to make her husband happy and vice versa. I like Chesterton’s quotation that he never met a husband and wife who were ‘compatible.’ Men and women are so different (it was meant to be that way), that if someone offers tips about how to speak the language of the other gender, that’s very helpful! Didn’t I once read an intriguing list from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? John Gray had two fairly long lists of thoughtful deeds – one list was what women appreciate, and the other list was what men appreciate, and it was a good and insightful list; the suggestions were amusing because they were so accurate!

So was I really going to criticize someone who might jot down some ideas after reading such a list? Of course not! Such thoughtful behaviour deserves praise, not criticism. What woman wouldn’t be thrilled to discover that her husband was looking for new ideas on how to ‘keep the flame alive’? And if a husband makes plans to treat his wife to an evening out at a restaurant, wouldn’t many of those steps (checking restaurant reviews, Googling the address, phoning in a reservation, etc.) look strategic and ‘mechanical’? Romance in fact does look like that from backstage, and a woman would be really pleased that her husband felt that she was still worth all that effort.

The last straw was when I pictured myself going to heaven to take a quick survey.

“Okay, folks, so we’ve ruled out the ‘bucket list’ – but now we’ve got a new topic. We want to know how many of you followed a daily plan or schedule for your spiritual life. Raise your hands please!”

All of those who lived in convents and monasteries would raise their hands. That would be a lot of people.

And so many of the saintly clergy who didn’t live in community also were very deliberate about their spiritual practices, and so they’d raise their hands. They’d build schedules for themselves which involved very early mornings and hours spent in prayer, for example.

And then of course there’d be all the lay saints who did the same. They came up with ways to weave their devotional practices into each day of family life. When they weren’t peeling potatoes for the love of God (looks like multi-tasking to me) they were faithful about doing certain spiritual things at certain points of the day.

“And how many of you didn’t follow one? Please raise your hands.”

Now of course, hands would go up. And I have a feeling that a lot of these ‘easy-going’ non-planning types would come from the group of martyrs.

(Aren’t martyrs often the ‘last-minute crammers’ of the saint world? Some led really saintly and structured lives, of course, like St. Thomas More, but others I think were full of good intentions and love but didn’t commit to an intentional daily plan of good spiritual practices. Then the circumstances lined up so that they had to make a choice in that terrible all-or-nothing phase of their life. They sprung for it: strengthened by the Holy Spirit, they chose heroically, and they became our martyrs. Their heroism is all bunched up at the end of their life, like the soldier on the battlefield who suddenly astonishes everyone with his bravery and self-sacrifice. You can’t always see it coming with those martyrs. And as a matter of fact, they often didn’t see it coming.)

I know it’s just imaginary, but I couldn’t help but picturing an ocean of raised hands upon asking how many followed spiritual routines. Whenever you read the life of a saint, it’s so common to read that they woke up really early and prayed; it’s so common to read that they ‘never missed’ such-and-such a holy practice, such as attending Mass or spending time in adoration before the Eucharist; it’s so common to find out that they always did such-and-such on the first Friday of the month, or something like that. This faithfulness to daily activities that kept the relationship with Christ alive seems to be the rule when you read about them, not the exception.

So finally I did a 180-degree turn, suspecting that the truth about spiritual plans or routines was in the opposite direction, and as soon as I turned around, I found plenty of manifestations of this truth.

(Chesterton says “a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.” (Orthodoxy, Chapter VI) Indeed, that’s true too! When you hear something new, you compare it to your own life experience across a wide variety of contexts. When you see that it’s true in several instances – lining up with what you already know, confirming and explaining the patterns you’ve already observed – that’s when you buy into it.

And of course there’s the opposite of this. When you hear something new that just doesn’t sit right, it might take a moment, but you’ll be able to think of a couple of examples of how it’s wrong. And with more time, you’ll have more examples. And by the time that conversation is a week old, you’ve got even more reasons, “Wait a minute, come back here! I’ve thought of another counter-argument!”)

As soon as I acknowledged all the fruitful results of this deliberateness and intentionality, I found not only many happy instances of success in all manner of worldly pursuits, but I also found a family of words and values that I already cherish. Here next to Planning was Responsibility and Reliability, here was Diligence and Duty, and Constancy and Care. I found Loyalty, and I also found Love.

I found Love – and I finally had to admit that one expression of love was the plan, even “The Spiritual Game Plan.”

Of course.

Of course! (What took me so long?)

Of course a person in love would make a commitment of himself and his time. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health . . .

It is in fact the nature of love to be willing to promise to do certain things, to promise to be faithful in this way and in that. The greater the love, the longer the list of things that the lover is ready to offer.

And as time goes on, this list of devotions will, if faithfully followed, sustain the love, long after the honeymoon feelings have faded. I once heard Fulton Sheen, I think it was, remark that when people get married, they think their love will sustain their marriage, but in fact, it’s the marriage that sustains the love.

And how wise, in fact, is the person who makes such commitments to these practices. Such a person acknowledges his weakness. We get distracted, lazy and sloppy with all our relationships. It’s how it goes. It’s the way we are. We become neglectful, and we’re so neglectful that we don’t realize that we’re being neglectful. We’re just not keeping track; we don’t remember how we used to be.

By making a list, the wise person will be able to maintain at least a minimum standard for the relationship. And if good practices are kept up during the periods of ‘dryness,’ the relationship will be able to flourish again.

Last night I was skimming through Maisie Ward’s biography of Chesterton. She described how he was determined to not slip into a zone of mere ‘comfort’ with his marriage. He wanted to keep alive the ‘ecstasy’ of it, so he continued to lavish attention on her, writing poems and so on. It was very pleasant to read about his efforts in this way.

And, speaking of Chesterton, it’s difficult to know what all his habits were, but we know that he tirelessly worked to defend what was right while at the same time being very warm towards everyone who opposed him. Those who argued against him found that they really liked him, because he never meant to attack them, but rather, only the ideas themselves. He died without enemies; he died without resentment. He was a forgiving and extremely humble person, who loved his wife tenderly and showed so much kindness to the poor that they crowded around him knowing that he’d give away whatever money he had at that moment. I’ve heard that he did have spiritual practices that he incorporated into his daily life (such as making a sign of blessing upon entering a room), but don’t know much about these, because it’s not something that he wrote about.

But as for what I do know, I know that we should carefully consider what spiritual practices we could incorporate into our day, and then we should add them.

I do think it’s a mistake, however, to find a list of good practices and then dive in and try to do them all, even if the list itself is good. It would probably backfire because the list would outstrip our level of devotion. Instead, I think it would be wise, initially, to have the practices reflect the current state of our love. St. John Bosco, when advising young St. Dominic about attending Mass, suggested that he gradually work up to attending daily Mass. This is in line with what WiseOne had said – she was saying that you should begin by being able to attend the Sunday Mass well, before you start making yourself attend every day.

And as it happens, I recently heard a priest speak about how difficult it is to go to Mass and get anything out of it when you haven’t done anything spiritual the rest of the week. You arrive at Mass in a very distracted and ‘frozen’ state. How different it is if you’ve done a bit of preparation before arriving – you’ve ‘thawed’ yourself out a little ahead of time. He said that the loss of the practice of the family rosary is terrible, because it means that people are attending Mass and getting nothing out of it – you can attend Mass like a stone or like a sponge, he said.

So attending Mass every day would be one of the ‘biggies’ and not an easy entry point. By contrast, some very good devotional practices are really short, taking only about 20 to 60 seconds, but if they were done daily with a half-decent effort, they’d have a surprisingly big impact, in the same way that a kind smile from a spouse goes such a long way.

And speaking of ‘a long way,’ I certainly have come a long way from where I started. I started out very determined to criticize having a schedule of spiritual practices, but now I am convinced that having daily spiritual practices is a part of an authentic human life. Daily spiritual practices are for everybody, not just for religious people. After all, we’re not animals, just gathering our food, eating, mating and sleeping.

No matter what our current religious views, isn’t it good and right for everyone to have some sort of deliberate and planned ‘interruption’ of the day, to rise above the immediate life circumstances? What about, at minimum, the idea of an intentional pause, to momentarily consider and appreciate, what a wonderful thing it is to be alive?

The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.

— G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter IV “How to be a Lunatic”

It’s a duty of every person to continue to think about bigger things (i.e., the spiritual questions) as long as he has the power of thought. It’s not enough to question everything (or to say it can all be questioned) and leave it at that. It’s time to make decisions about the answers. Choose a side; where do you stand? To paraphrase Chesterton, has your open mind found something solid to close itself upon? And I like this section too:

We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.

— Orthodoxy, Chapter III, “The Suicide of Thought”

And if finding answers is something we should do, as a duty of human existence, then we need to give ourselves predictable and reliable slots of time in which to do such things. We need to commit to having these moments. We could read some good books, for example. (In a book club?) (Chesterton, anyone?)

After all, there might not be any culpability in not knowing the answers, but there is culpability in not even trying to find them. In other words, it might be accurate to label oneself an agnostic, someone who does not know, but then the search should continue, and hopefully the search will go beyond the confines of one’s own being, or ‘the God within.’ As Chesterton puts it, “Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within … That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones” (Orthodoxy, Chapter V). To prevent that, here’s a prayer for an agnostic: “O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!” (Prayer of a common soldier before the battle of Blenheim, 1704, quoted in John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua of 1864 and paraphrased by Robert G. Ingersoll)

We can’t just let our time slip away while we are distracted with all of life’s ‘practical’ things. We need to have a bigger vision than that. A day is a symbol of a lifetime; it’s a little lifetime contained in itself, with a birth and a death. So let’s make sure (i.e., let’s be deliberate about it) that each day has a decent spiritual component to it, depending on our state in life and our current level of devotion.

And even if we can’t commit to a lot, we need to make sure that at least a touch, a glimmer, a spark, of spiritual considerations and thought has a protected place in each day.

Time given to such reflections or deeds will pay great dividends, because that’s how it is with good deeds and good choices. Faithfulness to even little such sparks will bring increasing warmth and light into the rest of the day.

Indeed, they’ll make our day.