One of the concrete manifestations of good will towards God, a desire to grow in holiness through prayer and living out an attitude of magnanimity in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises is by formulating and writing out in a clear, methodical and practical way a “Plan of Life”. The variety of ways to hammer out a Plan of Life are limitless; the one proposed in this article focuses on the various areas in life and on how we can improve and make our life a fragrance pleasing to God. Let us make the Psalmist’s prayer our prayer: “O Lord give success to the work of our hands.”
A well-formulated Plan of Life seeks to bring order to whatever is disordered in our lives. Due to Original Sin and actual sin, our lives are marked by upheaval, confusion, and disorder. The Holy Spirit is a God of order. Our Lady of Guadalupe gently arranged in an orderly way the roses in the tilma of Saint Juan Diego. From this order comes peace of heart, mind and soul. The Augustinian definition of peace is “tranquility of order.”
Before writing out your specific Plan of Life, why not give the spiritual project a specific theme, motto, or emphasis for the year? Some suggestions:
Choose a corporal or spiritual work of mercy that you feel God is challenging you to embrace and live out this year. Maybe you prefer to take one of the 14 Stations of the Cross and that can be your motif. Or else you can choose one of the 8 Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:1-12 and strive to live that out with the help of your Plan of Life. Perhaps you would like to have a Marian theme; choose one of the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary as your guiding star for the year. Finally, you might prefer choosing a Biblical verse or scene that captivates your attention: Jesus walking on the water, or one of his words from the cross, “I thirst…” or in this Year of Faith, “Lord strengthen my faith…” It could even be the heart of the Divine Mercy devotion in the simple words painted in the image itself: “Jesus I trust in you.”
Now we will proceed into the Plan of Life and give various specific areas that we want to examine honestly and make a short, practical proposal so as to improve in these areas. Much better to formulate proposals that are practical and realistic then idealistic proposals that go up like smoke before the 1st week of January has transpired! Remember the words of Jesus Himself: “He who is faithful in the small will be faithful in the greater.” The essence of the spirituality of St Therese is to do the ordinary things of one’s daily life with extraordinary love. There we have the secret and key to holiness!
PLAN OF LIFE PROPOSALS: SPECIFIC CATEGORIES….
I. PRAYER LIFE. Examine seriously the tenor and tone and present status of your prayer life and pray about how you can make improvements. Suggestion: Why not decide to give just 5 extra minutes of prayer every day?
II. CONFESSION/RECONCILIATION. By birth we are all sinners. Until our dying day we must fight fiercely, but trusting more in God’s grace, to overcome sin in our lives. Sin is mortal enemy number one. One of the most efficacious means to conquer sin is through the reception of the Sacrament of Confession. God’s healing touch and grace manifests itself most abundantly through this Sacrament. Proposal: Go to confession more frequently (you can decide). Also prepare yourself better the night before you confess and trust more in God’s mercy! Victory through God’s mercy!
III. HOLY MASS AND HOLY COMMUNION. Our eternal salvation depends on allowing Jesus to save us. The name “Jesus” means Savior. Jesus outlines a clear and concrete plan of action to be saved in His “Bread of Life Discourse” (Jn. 6:22-71). Read it and meditate upon this Word of life. To sum up Jesus’ message in a few words, the salvation of our immortal souls depends upon eating and drinking. Adam and Eve ate and they brought death to the world. Jesus promises us eternal life through eating and drinking His Body and Blood through reception of Holy Communion. He states clearly without stammer or stutter: “I am the Bread of Life, whoever eats my Body and drinks my Blood will have everlasting life and I will raise Him up on the last day.” Action point: aim for daily Mass and Holy Communion! If this is already your practice, come ten minutes early before Mass and offer your own intentions, depositing them on the altar. The graces that flow into your heart are in direct proportion to your preparation and disposition. One Holy Communion could transform us into saints! Fantastic!
IV. APOSTOLIC LIFE. To be a follower of Christ is to be a missionary. The last words of Jesus before ascending into heaven were, “Go out to all the world and teach them all that I taught you and behold I will be with you always even until the end of time”(Mt 28). In this year of faith we are challenged to grow in our faith, but also to share our faith with others. Indeed one of the best ways to fortify one’s own faith is to share it with others! Try it! What might be a concrete way? In the family, suggest the daily recitation of the Rosary. Outside, invite a fallen away Catholic back home to the Catholic Church. If we love God we should love what God loves—the salvation of souls!
V. PERMANENT FORMATION. In this Year of Faith the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has exhorted us to read the documents of Vatican II, most specifically the four Dogmatic Constitutions: Dei Verbum(on the Word of God), Sacrosanctum Concilium (on the Liturgy), Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium (Documents on the Church in the modern world). Catholic Christians today must make a concerted effort to learn their faith more deeply; our Catholic faith is a fathomless ocean in its depth and width. Set aside at least 15 minutes every day to apply yourself to a serious study of your Catholic faith.
VI. PENANCE. To take flight a bird needs two wings. So as to soar high in the spiritual atmosphere the soul needs to apply itself seriously to two practices: prayer and penance. Our Lady of Fatima who appeared to the three little shepherd children insisted that they pray— especially the most Holy Rosary—but also that they offer up sacrifices for the conversion of poor sinners. Jesus expressed this bluntly: “Unless we do penance we will perish.” Here is a suggestion: since Friday is the day that we are obliged to do penance, why not choose one of the following: no meat, give up sweets for the day, fast from watching television, eat less, make the Way of the cross, do not complain the whole day!
VII. WORK. All of us are called to work. God said to Adam that he would earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. St. Paul exhorts us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We also all know probably from personal experience that idleness is the workshop of the devil. Examine carefully your daily work and see areas for improvement. Proposal: be punctual in starting, hard in working, and honest in the hour you leave. Remember that you are working for the Lord. As St. Paul reminds us, “Whether you eat or drink do all for the Lord!”
VIII. VOCATIONAL CALL. Most are called to the life of marriage; some are called to the priesthood and religious life and others are called to the single life. If one is called to the married life then a clear examination of conscience and concrete proposals can be made with respect to one’s plan of life? Examine and respond to these questions: How can I be a better wife/husband/ son/daughter? How can I improve as father/mother? Pray over this and the Holy Spirit will inspire you with a concrete proposal.
IX. SPIRITUAL DIRECTION. In addition to frequent confession, spiritual reading, and serious theological studies, those who are pursuing the path of perfection should have some form of periodic Spiritual Direction. St. John of the Cross put it bluntly: “He who has himself as spiritual director has an idiot for a disciple.” In other words we all have blind spots and need someone other than ourselves to help us on the demanding and rigorous path to becoming a saint. Advice: pray that God will help you to find this guide. If you have already discovered one be thankful humble, docile and obedient!
X. MARY: OUR LIFE, OUR SWEETNESS, AND OUR HOPE. A successful plan of life would be incomplete if Mary were neglected. As St. Louis de Montfort asserts with the utmost conviction: “The quickest, easiest and most efficacious path to holiness is through True Devotion to Mary.” In other words, she is the shortcut to God! Proposals: The Daily Rosary, Consecration to Mary through True Devotion, reading about Mary, living in the presence of Mary and imitation of Mary’s virtue. Choose your weakest virtue this year and beg for Mary’s intercession to conquer yourself! Mary is the weak point of God. He can never resist her prayers!
Let us conclude with the words of wisdom taken from Adolphe Tanquerey in his classic “The Spiritual Life”:
“The man who holds to a well-defined rule of life saves considerable time: 1) He wastes no time in hesitation. He knows exactly what he is to do, and when he is to do it. Even if his schedule is not mathematically detailed, at least it sets off time-periods and lays down principles with regard to religious exercises, recreation, work, etc…2) There is little or nothing unforeseen, for even should the unusual occur, he has already provided for it by determining beforehand exercises that may be shortened and the manner of making up for them. At all events, as soon as these exceptional circumstances cease to exist, he immediately comes back to his rule. 3) Inconstancy likewise vanishes. The rule urges him to do always what is prescribed, and that every day and at every hour of the day. Thus the habits are formed that, give continuity to his life and assure perseverance; his days are full days, teeming with good works and merits.” (# 560)