Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Rule of Life

Any advice on the liturgical and spiritual life for a confused convert layman? – such was the burden of an email I received this morning. Now, as a confused convert layman myself, I will dare to tender such advice as I may have to give; though I am very conscious that in doing so I may not be very helpful at all, at least thinking about this question has reminded me to lift my own game and try harder.  After all, as St Augustine notes, if we do not ever strive harder, we begin to fall backward.  The way to heaven is narrow, though it is a sure way, for Christ is our Way, our truth, our life.

First, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” and again, “For freedom Christ hath set us free”.  Therefore as regards the spiritual life, there ought be a great spirit of Christian freedom, but of course guided by the Holy Ghost “into all truth”, that “Christ may be all in all”.  Remember, sin is mean and repetitive and numbing and enslaving – while grace gives the power freely to do all manner of good things, just as the Spirit suggests to true, free, Christian men.

Hence, when a layman considers what steps he may take when seeking how better to live a spiritual and liturgical life, he must be guided in his counsels by the virtue of prudence (his baptized mind being secretly enlightened by the Holy Ghost, of course).  When doing so, he will happily and freely conform himself to the wise guidance of Holy Mother Church – particularly in the matter of liturgical worship.  But of course there are many Rites throughout the Church, and within the one Roman Rite, the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms…

That said, I can only speak from my own experience, and recommend what seems to me sensible – let readers draw from it whatsoever may help them, being guided by the Spirit to wisely discern what is useful.  Hence, I must begin at last to make suggestions, explaining that, while at University, in a first flush of convert enthusiasm, I drew up a list of religious exercises to undertake, from which I draw what I am writing now.  Any such a rule of life provides a useful reference whereby to measure one’s fidelity to prayer – certainly each man should compose his own, wisely and prudently.

It goes without saying, of course, that first and foremost one must strive to live a moral life: every man must ever attend to that duty, and hie him to the confessional when he fail in it, honestly and frankly telling all, and trusting in the priest to assist him with ghostly counsel.  (I recommend frequent and regular confession: fortnightly or weekly.)  But related to this is the need seriously to reflect upon one’s behaviour, and more particularly at the close of each day: this is the so-called examination of conscience, which is undertaken, liturgically speaking, at Compline, just before saying the Confiteor (and likewise, though perhaps with not so much time to reflect, at the outset of Mass).

Mention of Mass reminds me of an adage I learnt long ago: “I will always be thankful for the Mass, and put the Mass first in my life.”  If only I had ever heeded these words!  The Mass is Calvary made present, in all its power: at Mass we assist in offering up the Sacrifice of the Divine Victim, “for all the living and the dead, / for our poor lives so badly led”.  As the fruit of the Sacrifice we receive the Sacrament, His very Body and Blood, uniting us to Him Who is the Food of life eternal. As if this were not enough, at Mass one also hears the Scriptures read and sermons preached, commemorates the saints, and lives out the liturgical year.  It is indeed the “source and summit” of the spiritual and liturgical life.  Any pretended devotional life that is not focussed on the Mass is vain.

Therefore, while of course always attending Sunday Mass and Mass on Holy Days of Obligation, we should make a serious effort, according to our state of life, our abilities and obligations, to attend Mass also on weekdays, at least on the greater feasts and during Lent.  (I am aware that not every Mass is so conducted as to be entirely and perfectly beautiful in its revelation of its inner mysteries: let a choice be made, where possible, of the most devout celebration thereof, that attendance may edify, not dishearten, the congregant.)

I can testify to the blessings accruing from frequent attendance at Mass. To arise early and attend Mass before work (or better still, being able to sleep in and hear Mass after work!) really does pay off.  Quite apart from anything else, to have a quiet half-hour or so to focus on the “one thing necessary” is a blessing that very few in our manic age ever get.  Never underestimate the good that comes simply from such peaceful time in church with the Lord, in Holy Church assembled.

After Mass, for such as wish to conform their devotion to the Sacred Liturgy, comes recitation – or, better, participation in the public celebration – of some portion of the Divine Office.  Prudence is required in determining what is feasible and of spiritual benefit: for nothing is truly beneficial if it interferes with the duties of our life, or is too difficult given all the circumstances: so if saying the Office privately is difficult or a strain, at least attend its solemn public celebration when offered.

Of course, all things being equal, attendance at Vespers (and Benediction) is most uplifting (two saints as different as St Ignatius and St Philip Neri agree on that); but likewise privately praying some part or form of the Hours is essentially to pray the Psalms, those divine compositions of the Holy Ghost whereby God praises Himself and teaches us how to pray, oft-times setting before us the very sentiments of Christ (as proven by the references He made to the Psalms, and the way the Psalms are very often rightly understood as being His own meditations or illustrations of His life, death and resurrection).

A truly lucky soul is he who lives near a monastery, who can visit there and assist at the Office; but even a man alone, reading some of the Breviary or Little Office or whatnot, is participating in the liturgical worship of the Church.  I have in the past lived where I could participate in the Hours even daily, lucky me; nowadays, I sing and serve at fortnightly Compline and Benediction – or sometimes, as on my recent weekend in Sydney, attend solemn Vespers.

Some people find praying the Office much easier than others, of course: and if this form of prayer seems difficult and unhelpful, one should change to some other.  But, given the email I received about how to cultivate a liturgical and spiritual life, I assume that such as would ask such a question will have some impulse toward use of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours.  Learning how is of course a more complex matter!

Given work commitments, I must confess that at present I usually say Lauds, and that’s about it; when my devotion and discipline have been stronger, I have been able to recite the Day Hours of the Breviary; and in former times, when I prayed in English not Latin, for some years I read the whole modern Divine Office daily, changing over eventually to the Roman Breviary (but after all, I was a student, with plenty of time on my hands – what Dominicans call “sacred leisure”).

[Selecting and buying a useful edition of the Office is another matter again: luckily, these days several forms are available online.]

If I were married, let alone had children also, I suspect that I would have even less time to spare: but then again, I know an older couple who have been Franciscan Tertiaries for many years, and certainly say Vespers together every evening, if not more also.  In any case, how good and pleasant a thing it is dwell in unity, and to sing God’s praises: let each man determine what he may be capable of in this respect, and strive with a glad heart to do so.

Leaving aside the Office, let us never forget to turn to Holy Mary: and at the least I would most strongly recommend invoking her by saying the Angelus, a good, short devotion that contains an abundance of treasures (as I once wrote about at some length on this blog).  If one is also able to say the Rosary, then do so, Amen!  After all, to meditate on the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and on the life of His Holy Mother, is surely a most excellent undertaking, very meritorious and very fruitful.

As a priest I know (now Bishop of Bathurst) insisted, devotion to Our Lady is not an optional add-on extra, but an essential part of the Christian spiritual life – for did not Christ love His Mother?  And did not he commend us all (in the person of the Beloved Disciple) to her, as he hung dying on the Cross?  Therefore ought we entrust ourselves to the Blessed Virgin, for she is closest of all the Saints to her Divine Son, and most intent upon aiding all those her children to come nigh unto Him.

To other aspects of one’s day: dedicate oneself, one’s life and labours to God, as by saying the Morning Offering or any other such prayer, just as, at eventide, we should cast our eye back over the day, examining our conscience and asking forgiveness for aught done amiss.  What the Morning Offering?  Simply the dedication of all one’s thoughts, words, works and sufferings to God, through, with and in Christ – with the attached intention to “gain every virtue and merit [and indulgence] I can”, “in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world”.  For such as pray Prime, the Collects Domine Deus omnipotens and Dirigere et sanctificare equate to this Offering (both being in fact indulgenced separately, even to-day).

Whether we eat, whether we drink, we ought do so to the glory of God, and begin with grace, that is, a prayer of blessing, “for all things are sanctified by the word of God and prayer”, and likewise end with thanksgiving, giving thanks, gratias agens.  For all is grace, as St Thérèse avers.  I still remember the late emeritus Archbishop of Hobart, Dr D’Arcy, teaching me the short forms Benedictus benedicat (“May the Blessed One bless”) and Benedicto benedicatur (“May the Blessed One be blessed”) for grace before and after meals.  In his immortal words, “Benedicere takes the dative”…

In sum, I suggest daily, inasmuch as one can do so, to attend Mass, pray some part of the Office, say the Rosary and the Angelus, say grace before and after meals, start the day with the Morning Offering, and end it with an examination of conscience.

Pepper one’s devotions also with whatsoever other prayers appeal: I could suggest all manner of such, but for brevity merely refer to making Acts of Faith, Hope, Charity and Contrition (the latter in particular whenever conscious of sin), lifting one’s heart and mind to God in short aspirations (“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”), and saying the De profundis daily for the dead – plus the Miserere for one’s sins.  Worship the Sacred Heart!  Invoke one’s patron saint!  Say litanies!  Meditate!


The danger with giving advice is that one doesn’t know when to stop.  But I feel I must also offer the following counsel: one must feed one’s faith, and not be an adult with but a childish grasp of sacred doctrine – yet one must also remain childlike in one’s absolute faith in God.  Hence, spiritual reading is most necessary – by which I refer to all sorts of reading about true orthodox religion: reading the Bible, reliable works of theology suited to one’s comprehension, spiritual writings, saints’ lives…  St Philip Neri in particular recommended that his penitents hear many sermons and read many accounts of the lives of the saints.

There are good Catholic periodicals that one can subscribe to also.  And of course there are any number of worthy blogs, ahem, to ever read for one’s spiritual profit…

But beware, and flee like the plague, bad books!  St Alphonsus tells us that one bad book can ruin a monastery: how terrible it is, then, if an innocent layman should take up a heterodox tract, and have his mind polluted.  Having a strong grasp of the faith includes having the sense to fly heresy, and not to tolerate it even for an instant.


On Fridays, do penance (pray, give alms, abstain from fleshmeat) – in England and Wales, the traditional discipline has been restored, but those in other countries (such as Australia) can choose for themselves, always remembering that the responsibility to do penance is not light, even according to modern Canon Law: I would certainly confess it as a sin if I omitted to do so on Friday.  How convenient, then, to make sure one customarily goes to Confession on Saturday (the usual day priests make themselves available to hear confessions).

If possible, find a congenial prayer group to attend: for “it is not good for man to be alone”.  It is hard indeed to live a Christian life in this scoffing age; we all need to support each other in our life of faith.

Once a year or more, strive to make a retreat, or in some other way to intensify one’s spiritual life.  For instance, I have walked the Christus Rex pilgrimage from Ballarat to Bendigo for a few years now (while the Paris to Chartres proved a little too taxing for poor old me).  Unfortunately, I haven’t made a proper retreat for too long…

Finally, in all these matters, find if at all possible a wise and trustworthy priest to consult.  I am but a confused convert layman myself, after all.

No comments: