Practice Makes Perfect
By Dr. Jeff Mirus | March 07, 2011
The alarm clock sounds. A young man rises and makes a morning offering to his Lord and Savior. He will mark the rest of the day with remembrances of God: Mass in the morning, the Angelus at noon, grace before each meal, a brief prayer whenever it is time for a new appointment, or whenever he goes out or comes in. He will do some spiritual reading after dinner, and say a Rosary as well. Before retiring, he will examine his conscience and offer some final prayers. He has not only habituated himself to certain devotions at certain times; he is also practicing the presence of God.
Or take another image. A mother of three young children tries occasionally to take them to Mass, and she makes a point of her daily Rosary too. But she has also developed a number of “holy tricks” that help her keep a proper spiritual focus throughout the day. Each time she is interrupted, she uses it as a reminder to invoke God’s blessing. As she attends to her children’s needs, she asks Mary to help her to respond in union with her Immaculate Heart. When the phone rings (always at the worst of times) she prays for patience. At nap time, she takes a few moments deliberately to recollect herself, placing herself before the infant Jesus at one with her child, and gazing on Him with love.
Or perhaps each time a plumber is called to a home, he prays that the grace of baptism will reach and cleanse each member of that household. A loan officer at a local bank may ask God on behalf of each new client for the wisdom to use resources prudently and for His glory. A road worker might offer quick petitions for the safety of the motorists who must navigate the work zone. An elderly man could choose to invoke Saint Joseph every time he feels his age in the pain of muscle or joint.
Few of us live in religious communities in which the hours of the day are marked by calls to prayer, or in small villages in which a church bell reminds everyone of the divinely ordered passage of time. The rest of us need to do things all on our own. First, we must schedule certain regular patterns of prayer and meditation, set periods in which we deliberately place ourselves in the presence of God in an extended way. Second, we must take advantage of little things that occur in the normal flow of our day and make them “Church bells” that remind us to raise our minds and hearts to God.
As the examples above suggest, these little things can be anything we want to use—small triggers to which, with some effort, we can learn to respond by emerging from the business at hand to acknowledge God. Some people set regular alarms on their computers, cell phones or wrist watches. But others use the normal pace-changers of the day: Opening or closing a door, getting up from one’s desk, going to a meeting, shifting from one task to another, and so on. The key is to let something pull us out of our normal concentration from time to time so that we can take a moment to offer everything to God, ask his blessing, pray for any special intentions, or simply reaffirm our wish to live always in His presence.
When such calls to honor the supernatural world come to us from some source that affects everyone within a larger group—a family, a club, a company, a political entity, and above all the Church—they have an added value. The preeminent traditional example is the ringing of church bells. These bells are associated with God’s work, and so they have a special power to remind all willing hearts that this temporal order is subordinate to a higher order. When the bells toll, we pause to acknowledge this deeper reality in prayer.
A truly rich and healthy culture will have such signs, such symbols of and occasions for the impenetration of grace into our daily round of duties. But amid the flat secularity of our own day, the traditional signs have largely been lost. It is up to us, then, to restore or reinvent such signs in the institutions over which we have some influence—in private schools, to take just one example—and also, again, to arbitrarily designate certain spiritual triggers in our own daily activities.
These inventions and designations may not carry the full power of inculturation. They may not serve for anyone else as potent signs of the primacy of the life of God in all human things, but that does not make them unworthy. For no matter how wonderful it is to live in a culture marked by widely-understood reminders of God, the more important purpose of such particulars is to help a person form the habit of practicing the presence of God. That is, they serve their best purpose, no matter what they are, when they enable us to remember God’s active presence in our own lives, so that we might live at every moment in accordance with His will—and in continual supplication, gratitude and love toward Him.
Practicing this awareness of God’s presence is always a work in progress. How easily are we distracted from our loving Father by responsibilities or even flights of fancy! How hard it is to be aware of Our Lord’s role in all that we are and do! Because of our tendency to forget, we may make a firm resolution to remember God at the start of our day, and then become so immersed in the requirements of our occupation that we emerge at the end of a hectic and taxing day only to realize we have not turned toward God even once.
But it is precisely the purpose of these seemingly artificial “tricks”, this selection of specific triggers, at intervals to lift us out of our mundane absorptions and awaken us to opportunities to turn to God. It really does take practice to make these things work, lest we too frequently fail to notice the signs we have chosen, and so only rarely pause in moments of deeper recognition and simple prayer. We must habituate ourselves to the stimulus and the response, so that whether by pre-programmed alarms or other tokens randomized by the changing events of a busy day, we may be always ready to turn toward the One who made us.
This effort never ends, but it does grow easier. Gradually we learn to focus frequently on the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, whether directly or through the intercession of Mary or one of the saints. This is a school of sanctity. In this school, we become ever more perfectly oriented toward God, and ever more finely tuned to His will. In the end, we become almost continuously aware of God’s presence, providence and love. The distance between earth and heaven grows short. We become ready, at last, for something more.