Paste your Google Webmaster Tools verification code here
Sign Up for our Free Daily Email Updates
Catholic Spiritual Direction

What is a “program of life” and why is it important to my spiritual progress?

June 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Program of Life, Spiritual Direction

mapDear Father John, what is a “Program of Life” and why is it important to my spiritual progress and Spiritual Direction?

One of the enemies of good spiritual direction is excessive subjectivity.  We all have urgent personal issues that come and go; they occupy our attention and energy intensely for brief periods, but they really don’t touch the deeper regions of our character and personality.  When a child is sick, it preoccupies us.  When someone at work is having problems that affect the rest of us, it preoccupies us.  Sometimes issues like this are important enough to deserve ample attention during spiritual direction, but not usually.  And yet, because they are on our mind, we will naturally tend to let them dominate our conversation during spiritual direction.  This can inhibit us from the kind of deep, systematic, and structural work that spiritual direction is really designed to foster.  The headlines of our lives change every day, just like the news headlines.  But headlines are by nature superficial.  We need to make sure that we don’t waste all of our spiritual direction talking about superficial headlines. This is where the Program of Life comes in; it helps us to keep our ongoing spiritual work objective and profound.

To understand how it does that, we only have to understand what it is.  The term Program of Life has some siblings: Rule of Life, Reform of Life, Plan for Spiritual Growth, Game Plan for the Soul, Business Plan for the Soul… In all cases, the core meaning remains the same.  The Program of Life is a tool that helps us personalize the principles of spiritual progress:

Prayer - Everyone needs to pray, but how often should I pray, what type of prayer should I focus on, what factors are making prayer hard for me?  Every individual person, because of their life-situation, background, education, and temperament will find individualized answers to those questions.

Virtue - Likewise, everyone needs to become more Christ-like through the practice of Christian virtue.  But which virtues do I most need to develop and how exactly can I work on them, which habits of selfishness are most deeply rooted in me and how can I diminish them, what is the underlying cause of my most frequent sins and faults?  Again, every individual will answer these questions differently

State in Life - The same goes for the fulfillment of God’s will through fidelity to the responsibilities of one’s state in life.  Every father needs to guide, discipline, and spend time with his children; every husband needs to give his life for his wife, as Christ gave his life for the Church; every professional needs to be another Christ in their workplace – but these ideals will take on unique (and uniquely beautiful) characteristics as they are incarnated in the unique and dynamic reality of every individual.

The Program of Life consists of the personalized answers to all these questions, phrased and arranged in such a way that they become a guide for daily living.

The Program of Life, then, is like a spiritual workout program that insures spiritual growth because it is customized to the individual’s needs and opportunities.  When we meet with our spiritual director, it is good to start by going over the headlines, but, reviewing together the main points of the Program of Life is the real path to consistent, substantial progress.

Three other things are worth noting.

  • First, when we draw up a Program of Life together with our spiritual director (which is a very good idea), our efforts to follow it have the added benefit of being acts of obedience, since we are doing not just our own will, but God’s will as manifested through our director (we are not speaking of a vow of obedience, but the virtue).  An effective time to draw up a Program of Life is during a retreat; a little distance from the daily grind sharpens our spiritual vision.
  • Second, a good Program of Life includes a personal (usually weekly) schedule with prayer commitments that are decided upon ahead of time.  This saves us from the inconsistency that comes from moodiness and constant improvisation.   It also includes concrete areas of activity (the formation of good habits of behavior) that directly counteract the most salient manifestations of one’s root sin.
  • Third, the Program of Life is a living entity.  It can and should change as we get to know ourselves better and as we grow.  Living it out is not like following the Ten Commandments, to which there are never exceptions.  Rather, it’s like following a game plan on the basketball court; flexibility in the face of life’s dynamism is preferable to scrupulosity.
Print Friendly

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

please consider supporting our mission with a donation!

  • Elizabeth Long

    from where does one obtain a specific “Program for Life”?

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Friend – A “program of life” or “rule of life” is something you would create with your spiritual director. Every program of life contains basic elements like prayer, sacramental participation, and apostolic work. However, they will be as different as each individual unless you join a religious order or a Church movement which would then follow specific elements that reflect the particular spirituality that you are following…

      • Celeste Lovett

        Hello Dan, I would like to ask my spiritual director next time I see him if we could spend our time working on this. Are there any aids or guides (like outlines) to follow in developing a “program of life”? I’m not sure how to ask for help with this. Thanks and blessings!

        • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

          Dear Celeste, my book provides a clear guide that should be very helpful to you.

  • Guest

    Dear Fr. John:

    Thank you for this post; I’d been looking for this answer for quite a while, but I wasn’t asking the right question to find it!

    Your response “hits the nail on the head” when it comes to the frustration I’ve had in spiritual direction.  I’ve been very guilty of excessive subjectivity, which has been extremely unproductive.

    Thank you so much for this insight!

    PS:  This reminds me of a quote that I hate to admit I understand all to well:

    “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”

    ~G. K. Chesterton