The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter XXIII: Suggestions for a Marian Rule of Life"
IT IS DESIRABLE that one should formulate, with the help and approval of his director, a daily program, a general rule of life to be followed. This rule makes for perseverance, and tends to prevent us from doing or omitting things merely on the whim of the moment. It is obvious, of course, that such a daily program will vary widely according to the state in life and work of each individual. It is true that sanctity-growth in sanctity-does not consist primarily in a certain set of devotions; holiness consists in perfect love of God. But it would be a mistake to suppose that we can reasonably hope to grow if we do not make use of various spiritual exercises. Hence we shall suggest a sound spiritual program for a normal day. Priests, seminarians, and religious will find that their normal obligations amount to much the same thing as the proposed schedule. Lay persons will be able to approximate this scheme more or less closely. All will do well to remember that the chief difference lies in the amount of love that we devote to what we do. A modest program carried out with persevering, fervent love is worth much more than a packed and elaborate list performed in a perfunctory fashion.
A fixed hour should be chosen for rising. It should be early enough to allow ample time for washing and other natural needs, as well as for the essential spiritual exercises. It is bad for spiritual morale, and a sign of self-indulgent softness, to remain in bed for some time beyond the previously fixed time of rising Those who live in the same building in which Mass is celebrated will find one hour before the time of Mass to be about the right amount to allow.
Even before actually arising, we ought to say some short prayer containing a brief offering of the day-e.g., the indulgenced prayer: "I am all thine, and all I have is thine, O most loving Jesus, through Mary thy Holy Mother."1
Since emerging from bed is for many persons one of the more difficult acts of the day, we try to put more love into it by means of some such short offering.
After dressing, many persons think it well to recite a few private morning prayers, even though they are going to attend community prayers. This is not necessary, if group prayers are to follow, but it is commendable. Whether alone or in a group, however, we should be sure to recite, among other things, a more complete form of morning offering The one of the Apostleship of Prayer is excellent and widely used; and it is worth noting that if one interprets the words of that offering in the strongest sense, they could mean precisely the same as does the De Montfort consecration.2
We should also form the intention of gaining all the indulgences that will be available to us during the day. Most persons are in a position to gain many plenary indulgences on various days, through various titles-e.g., the indulgences of the Scapular, of the Rosary, of various pious associations such as the Propagation of the Faith Society. To keep track of all days on which various indulgences are to be had on these varies titles would be somewhat difficult, but there is a simple way to insure gaining at least the majority of the plenary indulgences available to us (only a little additional care would be needed to gain the others). In addition to the intention of gaining the indulgences, and the state of grace, a set of stipulations known as the "usual conditions" are required for most plenary indulgences. It is a simple matter to insure that we are fulfilling these "usual" conditions at all times if we go to confession at least twice a month;3 receive Holy Communion at least once a week (the Communion required for an indulgence may be received from one day before, up to eight days after, the date on which the indulgence is to be obtained; therefore if one receives Communion at least once each week, he will automatically fill this condition); and make extra "pop-in" visits to the Blessed Sacrament whenever possible, and at each one say once the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory for the intentions of the Holy Father. Thus the third (and fourth) of the "usual conditions" will be assured.
One who is in earnest about his spiritual advancement will try to go to confession at least every two weeks, or better, every week, and will also endeavor to obtain at least some spiritual direction. Although it is not necessary that the same priest be both confessor and director, many advantages are gained thereby. Since direction is a normal and very effective means of spiritual growth, everyone should try to obtain at least occasional direction, according as the need arises.4 Such help is especially needed in forming a private rule of life, and thereafter, in making any changes in our program of mortification, in difficulties in mental prayer, in the choice of spiritual reading, and, in general, whenever any decision of considerable importance is faced. In order that the director may know us well enough to be able to give helpful advice, we will need to open our soul as completely as possible to him; this means more than a mere impersonal recital of venial sins. If direction is sought in the confessional, it will be necessary to make oneself known to the confessor in some way (not necessarily by name) so as to insure continuity of direction.
Most persons will make their meditation best in the early morning, after their morning prayers. It is not strictly necessary that the morning be chosen for meditation, but there are certain advantages: there are likely to be less distractions in the early hours, and there is great danger of omitting meditation entirely if it is postponed until later in the day. Furthermore, meditation made in the morning serves as a good preparation for Mass. If one finds, however, that he actually does meditate better at another time of the day, and also if there is no serious danger of missing meditation by choosing a later period, there is no objection to such a change, unless, of course, one lives in a community where the rule fixes the hour.5 Everyone should be able to find time for at least fifteen minutes of meditation, and preferably thirty.
By all means, Mass and Holy Communion should be included in our daily program if at all possible. In order to assist most fruitfully at Mass and Holy Communion, we need to recall the principles explained in chapters XVI and XVII. We ought to try to realize that the Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. In the original sacrifice, Mary had an important role of co-operation as the New Eve. Hence she can help us greatly to join in the offering that her Son makes on the altar. We should also spiritually renew this oblation of the Mass many times during the day, thinking not so much of our own biding gifts as of the priceless merits and sufferings of Jesus and Mary which are ours to offer, with which we "pool" our own infinitesimal offerings.
When Mass is finished, we should remain for some time in thanksgiving For lay persons, this ought to amount to at least fifteen minutes from the time they actually receive Holy Communion until the time they leave the church. It is lamentable that the pendulum today has swung so far in the direction of laxity towards Holy Communion. Before the time of Saint Pius X, the Jansenistic ideas then widespread exaggerated the dispositions requited for frequent or daily Holy Communion. The saintly Pope required only the state of grace and the right intention for daily Communion.6 But he surely did not envision the neglect of proper thanksgiving which is becoming commonplace. In our thanksgiving, let us not forget the suggestions given in chapter XVII on the way to ask Mary's help in welcoming her Son.
Once we have left the church after Mass, we will go to our daily work. Let us not forget during the day to try to live in the presence of Mary, and in a spirit of union with her and dependence on her so that she may keep us close to her Divine Son. We should remember also that even the ordinary acts of our day provide opportunity for merit. The more love we put into them, and the more we learn to see them as part of God's plan for us, the more valuable they will become. It is possible to grow in holiness by doing merely ordinary things with really great love. Hence we ought to renew the morning offering fervently many times during the day. Even recreations and the pleasure we find in our work can be means of merit. In taking pleasure in any of these lawful things, it should be in this spirit: "O my God, you have placed this pleasure here for me as a part of your plan. I accept it with thanks from your hands. O Mary, help me to use it without attachment, and in such a way that it may be for me a means of serving God better." But we should not forget to practice at least a little mortification every day, especially at mealtime.7 For, as we noted in chapter XV, some persons who practice mortifications well in other respects, make of eating and drinking a compensation for the sacrifice of other pleasures, though they probably do not realize that they are doing so. Eating and drinking are not inspiring means of recreation for human beings.
At any opportune time in our day, in addition to our brief visits we should try to get in one longer visit, of at least fifteen minutes. It is best not to fill this time, at least not entirely, with prayers from a book It is good to make it an informal conversation like the colloquy in meditation (it may be mental or vocal prayer). We begin much as at meditation, realizing where we are, before whom we are, thinking of our nothingness and sinfulness. Therefore we should ask Mary to help us to speak to her Son, and to offer her own love and adoration to supply for our deficiencies. But we should also offer our own small love. Then we might tell Him of our daily affairs, both pleasant and unpleasant, and offer the acts of the day to Him through Mary. We should express our sorrow for our defects, ask for needed help, and give thanks for favors received.
We should pause occasionally, not expecting a voice from the tabernacle, but hoping for a response in the form of ordinary actual graces of light and strength (being careful to avoid mere emotional self-deception). If at times we are too dull to converse in this way, we may use vocal prayers, or may use a book to help us, or we may choose a familiar prayer, and say it slowly, pausing to let every phrase sink in. And, of course, we need not go through all these steps on each occasion; sometimes we may spend the entire period on one phase-e.g., on adoration. Something very much like the prayer of simplicity8 easily develops during visits. At least once a week we should make a complete Holy Hour.
Outside the time of our daily visit, we will be sure to accommodate at least five decades of the Rosary. If time allows, we will recite the complete fifteen decades. While it is desirable to recite it in church, we will find opportunity to manage an extra Rosary now and then-e.g., en route to work.9
So far as time permits, we will do some spiritual reading. Some days may permit only five minutes, other days much more. The important thing is to see that over the space of a week we average a respectable amount of good reading. This reading may be done in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (but should not be counted as our visit) or in any other place. There are many kinds of suitable books for our reading The rate of speed at which we read and the general attitude to be taken will vary with the book and with ourselves. Obviously, some writings should be read very slowly, so as to apply them to ourselves, to remember all we can of their content. In this class fall especially the more solid works containing much systematic information about the spiritual life-e.g., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, by Garrigou-Lagrange, or St. Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life. Books such as these should be read very slowly, no more than a chapter a day, and should be taken as seriously as though the author were speaking personally to us about our own souls. Some other works are not so packed with information, but are useful for providing spiritual stimulation and inspiration; such are the various lives of the saints, or some lives of Christ. According to the character of each, we may read in larger or smaller doses. And of course the most basic spiritual reading is Holy Scripture; one should read at least a chapter of it daily. As souls grow spiritually, their love and appreciation of Sacred Scripture increases.
It is not good to read too many things at once; dissipation of energy might result, and we might not finish anything Yet it is profitable to read parallel treatments of the same subject at the same time; e.g., while reading the Introduction to the Devout life of St. Francis de Sales, we might read the writings of others on the same subject as the chapter we have just read in the Introduction. But this parallel method should not be attempted until one has first carefully covered one general treatment of the area to which this topic belongs, in a standard work. It is good also to vary the diet, remembering that some books provide inspiration, some provide information-both types are needed; and we should avoid making one type our exclusive fare for long periods. Our director should be consulted on this matter. All our reading should be prayerful, and done in the presence of Mary, to whom we ought to feel free to comment on the reading. We should not forget to begin with a prayer for light.
Finally, we have our private night prayers, which should include, among other things, thanksgiving for the blessings of the day and a diligent examination of conscience. In this examination, after an opening prayer for light and contrition, it is very beneficial to make not only a general survey, but also what is called a particular examen.10 In the latter, we concentrate, for many consecutive days or even weeks, on some one special fault of ours, noting carefully whether or not it is becoming more or less frequent and studying the causes and occasions that led us into each instance of it. St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests keeping a written record, by means of check marks on a paper, of the varying frequency of the fault. He would have us make this particular examen both at noon and in the evening. By concentrating on our principal faults, one at a time, over a long period, it will be possible to eliminate out fully deliberate faults, and reduce the faults of frailty and surprise. We should carefully distinguish our fully deliberate faults from faults of frailty and surprise. For fully deliberate sins, even though slight, are incompatible with perfection, and, if we allow ourselves to commit such sins out of affection for them or habit, they block our progress.11
In particular, we should seek out the one fault called the dominant fault, the one at the root of most or all of our sins. There are many vices that may serve as the dominant fault; it varies with the individual. Some of the more usual dominant faults are sloth, gluttony, sensuality, anger, pride. Some persons, after looking for a time to find their dominant fault, prematurely decide that it is pride. But by the dominant fault we mean something a bit less deep; we might say that pride is, as it were, the sub-basement in all of us; whereas the dominant fault is nearer the surface-it is the basement. In some persons pride may serve on both levels; this is not rare. It is not too difficult to find the dominant fault in beginners; later it may hide under the appearance of virtue. We ought to study every sin we commit-even slight ones, and ask ourselves: What tendency helped lead me into that sin? It will be found that the dominant fault underlies most if not all our sins. We may find clues by asking: What is the thing that most generally motivates me, gives me sadness or joy? where do my thoughts drift when I am free? Our close friends and our director probably know what the fault is, if we ask them. And, of course, we must ask Mary to obtain for us the light and strength of the Holy Spirit, so that we may not only find this fault, but conquer it.12
In our general examination of conscience, we will do well to be constantly on guard for the appearance of any signs of the terrible spiritual disease called lukewarmness, of which the Spirit of God says in the Apocalypse:
Lukewarmness is a kind of spiritual languor that lays holds of a soul that once had been making progress. The soul allows itself to fall into sluggishness and a slackening of effort. The performance of spiritual exercises is merely routine: they are overrun with distractions which it makes little if any effort to banish. In time this leads to shortening, and then to suppression of many exercises. The soul no longer makes progress: it moves backwards, and conscience is blinded and the will is weakened. We must carefully distinguish this state from mere dryness, for in lukewarmness the soul is not merely dry, but practically gives up all effort. Lukewarmness is extremely dangerous and hard to cure, for it creeps on gradually, almost insensibly;14 but if we are loyal to Mary, always trying to serve her well, she will guard us against this, as well as against other dangers.
The best act of contrition we can make should follow upon our examination of conscience. It will help to recall, in a general way, the worst sins of our past life, so that we may use them as a stimulus to greater sorrow and to humility. Of course, this remembrance should be cautious in the case of certain sins, lest we bring on fresh temptations thereby. A firm resolution of amendment, and a prayer for help to carry it out, should be added.
Last of all, we should have an approximately fixed time for retiring. We ought to retire in time to obtain sufficient sleep, considering our hour of rising. The amount of sleep needed varies with the individual and with his age and state of health.
Priests and religious still will have the Office to recite. Not that they should leave it until the last thing. It is far better, for those who do not recite it in common, to divide it into two or three portions, well distributed throughout the day. After the Mass, the Office is one of the most powerful of all prayers; one who is assigned by the Church to recite it does so in the name of the Church, even though he recites it alone. His is a weighty obligation, not to be treated lightly. Furthermore, practically all of the Office is taken from Holy Scripture, and hence is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The psalms, which Mary herself so often said, provide excellent food for meditation, sometimes on the subject of the text, sometimes on other fitting subjects; i.e., we may use them like the Aves in the Rosary, and meditate while saying them. Many lay persons today are taking up the Office, either the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, or the Divine Office. This is to be encouraged.
This list of suggestions may seem formidable at first sight It is not necessary, however, that everyone adopt every practice suggested: there will certainly be variations according to one's state in life, spiritual attractions, and other individual differences.
But the means suggested are among the most basic and valuable; they include chiefly those exercises that the Church suggests or prescribes for priests and religious. Even persons living in the world, if they sincerely try, will find it possible to carry out a great many of these suggestions. Of course, all these things are but means to growth in the love of God and neighbor; it is love that makes the great difference. But to pretend to wish to grow in love, while neglecting the normal means that are readily available, is to deceive oneself.
Thus we have come to the end of a day with Mary. We have much cause to be thankful for our Faith, for Mary. The words of Our Lord certainly apply in the fullest sense to us: "For I say to you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them; and to hear the things that you hear, and have not heard them."15 of all men of all ages and even of those alive today, few have been or are privileged to live so close to Jesus and Mary as we are able to do. Great should be our gratitude, and our sense of unworthiness. Great too and constant should be our joy, a joy that earthly troubles, shallow as they are, cannot destroy. Hence it is that St. Paul, in enumerating the fruits of the Holy Spirit, mentions joy, but not gloom or sadness.16 Hence it is that the same Paul writes to the Philippians: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice."17 Let us respond to the divine generosity by joyfully giving to God all that we can through Mary.