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FLEXING THE SPIRITUAL MUSCLES

Developing an eye and ear for the presence of God, and cultivating an attitude of gratitude

By Leslie Berkman     1/28/2015

New year’s resolutions are as helpful for Christians seeking to improve their spiritual fitness as they are for those striving for physical vigor. That is because the quest for a closer life journey with God demands its own particular regimen.

“As we begin a new year, many of us try to set a fitness goal for ourselves by starting a walking regimen or joining a gym. We try to do physical exercise to strengthen our muscles and promote a sense of well-being…why not also look at our spiritual lives?” Says Sister Jeanne Fallon, CSJ, associate director of the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange.

“This is a good time to assess where we are in our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves,” she says.

In defining spiritual health, Fallon referenced a book titled “The Holy Longing” by theologian Ronald Rolheiser. Rolheiser, a priest and member of the oblates of Mary Immaculate, says it is important for each person to achieve a balance consisting of private prayer and private morality, community worship, work for social justice, and a compassionate and grateful heart. These are the pillars of Christian spiritual health, he says.

Professional spiritual advisors advocate an exercise developed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, that individuals can practice at the end of each day to identify when they have been receptive to God’s presence and when they have turned a deaf ear.

“It is this whole notion of reviewing your day with God by your side,” says Cecilia Magladry, CSJ, supervisor of The Art of Spiritual Direction, a program based in Orange that trains spiritual directors.

During the day God reveals himself to you “not just in the big stuff, but also in the little stuff,” Maglady says. “It could be during coffee with a friend or a meeting with a colleague or dinner with a spouse or playing with your kids… moments of joy or peace or contentment. Those are all signs of God’s presence.”

You are also directed to think about when you might have ignored God’s call, such as a missed chance to help a person in need, and ask forgiveness for any sins you may have committed. Then you pray for God’s help in tackling the next day’s challenges.

The process can take just 10 or 15 minutes each day, Magladry says, adding that no one should quit after missing a day or two. Just get back on schedule. “i think we give in too easily to failure,” she says.

Besides taking daily stock of your relationship with God, there are many other tools for spiritual growth, including prayerful reading of the old and new testaments, daily Mass, organized retreats and programs to serve the poor.

Monsignor John Urell, the pastor at St. Timothy Church in Laguna Niguel, suggested “a careful, slow, prayerful reading of the gospel of Saint Mark,” which is the gospel that will be read at daily Mass in 2015.

He also recommends pausing two or three times a day for brief prayers of gratitude, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, taking time outside of the busy seasons of lent and advent for a careful examination of conscience and for the sacrament of penance, and doing works of charity by participating in outreach programs sponsored by parishes, community organizations and schools.

Or “look around your neighborhood and see who needs help,” Monsignor Urell says. “This is practical, this is needed and this is easily done. And it makes neighborhoods more personal.”

In trying to foster a grateful spirit in ourselves, he advises, “be intentional about not complaining!”

Other sources of spiritual nourishment, Monsignor Urell says, can come from reading good novels, poetry and historical books and getting outdoors to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.

“Being connected to God in the world around you can be a healing remedy for all who feel alone or weary from their labors,” says Fallon, who also strongly recommends walking in nature for spiritual fitness.

Donna Beam, a spiritual director and director of the preparation of prospective Catholics at St. Catherine of Siena church in Laguna Beach, recommends daily reading of the gospels and meditating on lines of scripture that speak to the reader in a personal way. This is how you can get to know Jesus, she says.

Those who want assistance in deepening their spiritual life can talk to a spiritual director at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange.

“I think an advantage to having a spiritual advisor is that it helps with the routine and consistency,” says Father Robert Stephan, SJ, program director for the institute. “Also, a spiritual advisor can reflect on something we don’t notice and share methods and practices that might be helpful.”

Another way to stay on course with a spiritual regimen, Stephan says, is to share what you are doing with a friend or a spouse. “Like any other resolution, it is helpful when we know other people are helping us stay accountable,” he says.

Participating daily in the Eucharist, the liturgical prayers of the church, and devotionals like the rosary are other powerful aids, says Stephan. And regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation “can be a way to feel God’s mercy and invitation to grow,” he says.

So how do you know if you are making progress? “I think growth in spiritual life is often characterized by a sense of gratitude and generosity,” says Stephan. One thing we can ask ourselves, he says, is, “Am I feeling more grateful for the things I have received from God and from others and am I more generous in giving what I have received?”

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