I don’t know about you, but every time I get to this part of the year, I seem to go through a spiritual and emotional slump. Everything in the city seems to be either brown or grey. The days are getting longer, but I still only get the briefest glimpse of daylight as I leave work at 5 o’clock (if I get out on time, that is!). Caught between the joy of Christmas and the penitential focus of Lent, I find it hard to get motivated to stay (or get) spiritually fit.
This year I thought I’d make an effort to think up some simple things I can do to improve my spiritual situation during this stretch of Ordinary Time so I can, hopefully, start Lent with a bit more energy.
Here are some ideas I came up with, and I thought I’d share them with you.
1. Leave up some of your Christmas decorations
Ok, I probably should have mentioned this one a couple of weeks ago, but there’s still time for a little January Christmas cheer – or just keep it for next year.
Technically, we’ve left the Christmas season far behind with the Baptism of the Lord and are now in Ordinary Time. Our churches are full of green altar cloths and vestments. The poinsettias have become decrepit and have been banished from the sanctuary.
Now, I’ve often heard it said that before Vatican II the Church had a Christmas season running until February 2nd, which is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas (because it’s the traditional day for blessing the candles to be used in the coming year). But according to this very insightful article
, that is all a myth.
Nevertheless, it makes you think. Why not keep a few reminders of Christmas around – just until that other, smaller feast commemorating the otherwise mysterious infancy of Christ? It could help you stay a little more focused and brighten up your bedroom or living room.
I’m not saying you should leave up your Christmas tree. After all, you’d get some funny looks from your neighbours when you put it out on the curb in February (if you care about that kind of thing). But a couple of lights or a pint-sized Nativity on a shelf might be beneficial to your mood and your prayer life. (Disclaimer: The way we decorate our churches is pretty well regulated, but you can be flexible with your personal devotions.)
2. Pray with your New Year’s resolutions
How are those New Year’s resolutions going? Maybe you started off really well for the first couple of weeks but they’re becoming a bit of a struggle now. Or maybe you didn’t even get this far. Or maybe you didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions because that’s such a secular thing to do and you’d rather wait for Lent.
The beginning of a new year is a natural time to think about new beginnings and fresh starts in our lives as well – whether they are resolutions to improve something in our physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual lives. But it can also be a difficult time of year to feel motivated to make changes, when the weather is miserable (if you live in Toronto, anyway) and the joyful momentum of the holiday season turns back into the daily grind.
Have you ever thought about turning your New Year’s resolutions into a source for prayer? I’m serious. Let’s take a common example to illustrate how this works. Let’s say you want to improve your physical fitness, so you’ve resolved to go to the gym for half an hour every weekday after work. The first week goes well. The second week isn’t bad. But by week three, you’re feeling less motivated: By the time Friday rolls around, it’s cold and snowy and you’re tired. No one would blame you for just going straight home to rest. But for the sake of your health and to improve your self-discipline (which will increase in other aspects of your life, too), you really should go to the gym. If you go when it’s a struggle, you can offer the sacrifice to God. Really. It counts. And not only will this add to your prayer life, but somehow it’s just that little bit easier to make the effort if you’re doing it for someone else.
And the great thing about offering up sacrifices is that the harder it is, the more you hate it, the less motivated you feel to do it, the greater efficacy it will have as a prayer. And you can even offer it for a special intention.
3. Pick up a book
Spiritual reading is an indispensible staple for a healthy spiritual life. Scripture, of course, is a must. But then it’s also a good idea to have other books that expand, inform, and inspire our life of faith. And there are so many to choose from: Starting from the earliest days of the Church until the present moment, the flood of theological and spiritual writings shows no signs of letting up.
But where to start? If you want an understanding first of what you’re trying to accomplish with your spiritual reading, I would recommend reading Chapter 9 (“Seeking Christ by Reading”) of an excellent book by Eugene Boylan, OCSO, called This Tremendous Lover
. In fact, I recommend the entire book. But Chapter 9 is a useful introduction to the idea of spiritual reading.
What you read will depend on many factors, like your education level, your personal tastes, your particular spirituality, and your present mood. And leave room for the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s time to open that book your aunt gave you last year that’s been sitting on your desk gathering dust. Don’t overthink it.
And if you’re new to spiritual reading or you’ve been letting the practice slide lately, let yourself work up to the heavier material – because you do want to get there eventually. Remember: at the moment we’re thinking up “easy” things we can do. So start off with something that’s a little easier to read, and by the time you reach Lent, you might be ready for something a bit deeper.
If you need some suggestions, try looking at Allyson Kenny’s “What I’m Reading Wednesday”
blog series, or our television series Subject Matters
, hosted by Sebastian Gomes.
4. Join (or start!) a prayer or book group
Now, if you’re an introvert like me, this doesn’t necessarily fall into the “easy” category. But I recognize that not everyone is like me (and thank goodness)!
We all know that sometimes the best way to get motivated to do something is to find someone to do it with. There may be a group you can join in your parish, or maybe you can start one. (Most pastors I’ve known have been happy for parishioners to organize special-interest groups, but make sure you check with yours first.) Or even just getting together regularly with a like-minded friend or two is all it takes.
However you decide to do it, make sure you leave enough time for socializing. Quite apart from motivating you to find time to pray or read, the great benefit of meeting up regularly with people who have a similar interest in their spiritual life is that it can help you feel connected. This is especially important if you live alone or you regularly interact at home and at work with people who don’t share your spiritual interests.
Isolation can be hard. It can kill a spiritual life. Knowing that you have the friendship and support of like-minded people can be all it takes to keep you going.
5. Meditate on death
I know that sounds morbid and depressing, but really it’s not. What’s depressing is walking through a steel and concrete city on a grey, slushy day, when all the trees lining the sidewalks and standing in the parks are bare.
Why not turn those barren trees into a subject for fruitful meditation?
Those trees, which have all the appearance of death, really contain within themselves life. And when the warm weather comes again, that life will burst forth once again. In a similar way, our bodies will die and be buried and will decay, but at the moment which God has ordained and which only He knows, those bodies will rise again with new life and be reunited with our souls – in the same way that Jesus received his body again at the Resurrection.
Meditating on death is a good old Catholic tradition. The purpose is to help you remember that this world is not all there is and that it is really only important in the sense that it prepares us for Heaven. But because we are of this world, it is so easy to forget that and get caught up in all the concerns of this life and the vanities of this world. Meditating on death, rather paradoxically, helps to lift your mind and your spirit above such petty things and remember the glorious end for which you were created.
6. Identify your quiet moments
We live in a society that values busy-ness. Even if you have nothing to do, you often feel like you have to find something to do – at least to give others the impression that you’re busy (and consequently important and valuable). How exhausting! And on top of that, many of us are genuinely busy, and it can be hard to find time to pray.
While it would be nice to stop all of our work several times a day to pray the Divine Office, like priests and religious do, the fact is that lay people have worldly responsibilities, and prayer has to fit in with those responsibilities – not the other way round. The key to a healthy spiritual life is making God an integral part of your entire life. Finding time to pray is not like finding time to go to the gym. It’s easier.
First, remember that all you need is the mental space to point your mind in God’s direction, to talk to Him, if that’s what you want, or just to rest in His presence. Then start to notice all the quiet minutes you have throughout the day. You might think as you read this that I’m talking nonsense. But I challenge you: take just one day and notice how much time you spend sitting on the bus or the subway, waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting for the kids to come out of school. Perhaps you spend that time looking at your phone or listening to music or thinking about dinner.
What if you spent that time instead just being quiet or telling God how things are going?
7. Eat some chocolate
When all else fails, there’s always chocolate!
I’m only half joking. We’re only human after all. Many of us spend much of this time of year trying to change the things we think are wrong with us. And even if they are valid desires, this initial phase of acquiring new habits and starting new routines is the hardest period and often feels endless – and is consequently the point at which most people fail. Be gentle with yourself. And don’t underestimate the benefit of occasionally indulging in some (morally licit) pleasure.
There are no known direct spiritual benefits to chocolate – at least as far as Christian spirituality goes. (Confused by that qualification? Google “chocolate spiritual benefits”.) But if there’s some small treat you can give yourself to raise your mood (it doesn’t have to be chocolate), that can bolster you emotional state and help you feel more motivated. Sometimes we just need a little help through a slump so we can keep going.
Don’t be so hard on yourself. Have some chocolate.