Let us turn to some practical aids that can encourage us to establish a strong spiritual life. This is by no means an exhaustive list; rather, it’s simply a starting point for your own exploration. And realize, too, that you won’t achieve these all in one week or even one month — and you’re not supposed to. As St. Philip Neri says, “One should not wish to become a saint in four days but step by step.”
And remember this: Show me a room with seven different Christians who are committed to a strong daily spiritual life, and I’ll show you seven different regimens of prayers and other devotions. Quite simply, we’re all different. St. Francis de Sales tells us that our spiritual lives should “be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.” Even so, there are some staples that everyone should acquire and practice over time.
1. Monthly Confession
It will suffice to say that the beautiful Tribunal of Mercy that is this Sacrament is an irreplaceable fountain of healing grace for our souls. And let us not be afraid to call on Our Lady of Mercy to assist us in making a sound confession.
2. Weekly Eucharist
This, of course, includes your Sunday Mass obligation — which is an obligation not because we fear God but precisely because we love Him. Try, though, to attend one or two weekday Masses if your schedule permits. After all, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” You should also try to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament at least once per week. Whether it is a fifteen-minute visit or a Holy Hour, time spent in our Lord’s Eucharistic presence is invaluable.
3. Morning Offering
This is a simple practice every Christian can integrate into his or her daily life. After all, how do you know that today isn’t the day you’re going to die? How do you know you won’t be tempted to commit mortal sin? It is traditionally said that St. Philip Neri spoke these words each morning upon rising: “O Lord, stay by your Philip today, because if You do not, Your Philip will betray You before the day is over.” You might want to use St. Philip Neri’s model, write your own, or use any other Morning Offering found in a good Catholic prayer book. The Morning Offering can also be a great way to renew your consecration to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
4. Daily Rosary
Try to pray just five decades a day — a fifteen- to twenty-minute practice. You can even incorporate the Rosary into your daily commute or walk — be creative. In family settings you can pray it with your spouse and children. You can give children a chance to participate by letting them take turns in announcing the mysteries of the Rosary and leading the decades of prayer.
5. Daily Chaplet of Divine Mercy
This simple devotion reminds us of our sinfulness, but also of the beautiful fact that God is always waiting to embrace us with open arms — provided we honestly repent. If you don’t have time for the entire chaplet, just remember this simple prayer brought to us by St. Faustina that you can say throughout the day: “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
Fast according to the mind of the Church at least one day per week, preferably on Fridays. By “according to the mind of the Church” I mean simply one main meal and then two smaller meals that together do not equal the one main meal. It’s really a very simple fasting rule. Fasting regularly can be a powerful tool to overcome habitual sin. As our Lord says in the Gospel, some demons can be cast out only by “prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).
7. Two Daily Examinations of Conscience
I recommend a particular examen and a general examen every day. Each of these should take only about two or three minutes and should close with an Act of Contrition (either a formal one from a favorite prayer book, or one of your own wording).
The particular examen is done around midday and looks at a specific virtue that you’ve been trying to cultivate in your life, or at a specific vice that you’ve been trying to eliminate. It is as simple as asking yourself: “How have I done so far today?” Similarly, at the end of the day, just before you retire for bed, make a general examen of your entire day — that is, how you did overall that day in following God’s will. Recognize certain instances during that day when you practiced virtue; and don’t hesitate to recognize certain instances when you sinned.
These two daily examens help us to grow in self-knowledge by recognizing and admitting any sin we may have committed that day. If your sin is venial, your fervent Act of Contrition will wipe it away. If it is mortal, pray an Act of Contrition and get to the sacrament of Penance as soon as is reasonably possible.
8. Aspiratory Prayers
These are simple one-or-two-sentence prayers that can be said in a single breath — hence, “aspiratory.” These are great to get into the habit of saying because they help us recognize the presence of God throughout the day. These short prayers can be based on Scripture or other devotions. For example:
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps. 118:24)
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1) Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — I love you, save souls. My Guardian Angel, protect me.
O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.
O Sacrament Most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine.
Pick out a favorite passage from Scripture and make it your own aspiratory prayer, or invoke a favorite saint throughout the day.
9. Daily Liturgical Reading
Have a plan to read the daily Mass readings for the day, perhaps along with a short meditation, so that even if you don’t get to daily Mass you can still read the Scriptures with the Church. There are several daily devotionals you can subscribe to that have the daily Mass readings in them, and the readings are also available free online.
Sacramentals are “Sacred signs which bear a certain resemblance to the sacraments, and by means of which spiritual effects are signified and obtained through the prayers of the Church” (CCC, glossary). They can include blessed objects and places, such as holy water, shrines, and religious medals (for example, those of your patron saints). Sacramentals can also include blessings of persons, meals, and objects — for example, the blessing of a mother before childbirth, blessings before and after meals, and having one’s rosary blessed. These practices derive from the baptismal priesthood in which all the baptized share, as “every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing’ and to bless (cf. Gen. 12:2; Luke 6:28; Rom. 12:14; 1 Pet. 3:9)” (CCC 1669).
Lastly, there are four chief texts that I’d like to recommend that you become very familiar with:
- Sacred Scripture: Try to read one chapter daily — roughly a five-minute exercise — leaving some time for meditation.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: Try to read and study three to five paragraphs each day. This is a great way to catechize yourself at your own pace and learn faithfully the teachings of Holy Mother Church.
- Lives of the Saints: Try to read a condensed version of one saint’s life per week. Good, condensed versions will not take you more than a few minutes. While we can benefit from reading the life of any saint, particular benefits flow from focusing on those saints who shared our vocation and state in life. Remember: The saints lived in the modern world of their time just as we live in the modern world of our time.
- St. Faustina’s Diary: I have a particular affection for this beautiful piece of spiritual writing. Try to read three to five paragraphs per week. It will help you discover even more what an immense gift and treasure the mercy of God is.
I hope that these ten spiritual exercises and the regular reading of these four staple texts will serve as a great foundation for you to begin a faithful regimen in the spiritual life. Again, this list is by no means exhaustive, nor do you need to incorporate each and every suggestion right away; it is simply a suggested plan of action meant to spur you on to a prayerful daily life. A strong spiritual life assists us all in staying in a state of sanctifying grace, which must always be our first goal.
Our Lord once told St. Faustina, “My Kingdom on earth is My life in the human soul.” What a wonderful truth! The soul in the state of grace is Christ’s Kingdom, allowing us to participate in God’s own divine life.
Art for this post on ten practical steps to a sanctified life: Detail of Christ at the house of Mary and Martha, Alessandro Allori, 1605, published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923; both PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons; Cover of The Four Last Things and picture of Fr. Wade Menezes used with permission.