Four Spiritual Work Habits

Scripture Readings

Like any relationship, our spiritual life takes work. We’ve all done hard work from time to time. Maybe you’re doing hard work right now—if not, it’s easy to remember what it’s like. There’s one characteristic common to all kinds of hard work: it’s seldom fun. That’s what makes it hard. If spiritual work is hard, then why and how do we do it? As a matter of fact, if we didn’t have a good reason, we wouldn’t do it, would we? So, right at the outset, we need a reason, a motivation. Either there will be consequences if we don’t do the work, or we’re looking forward to gaining something that we think is worth the hard work.

When we’re talking about the spiritual life, that is, our relationship with God, what’s our motivation? Fearing the consequences of not having a spiritual life—that is, going to “hell”—doesn’t work for us. We’re looking to gain something of great value, and you may be surprised to find that it’s much more than just “heaven.” Here are some of the things that spirituality promises us: freedom from fear; a sense of contentment, serenity, and peace; a sense of connectedness to the world and to others; a sense of security, adequacy, and capability; a sense of trust in the power and goodness of divine Providence; the conviction that we are not—and never have been—alone. Are these things motivating? Are they worth working for? I think so.

Now that we’ve established a worthy motivation, there are four habits of spirit, mind, and heart that we’ll need to do our hard spiritual work. They are: preparation, vigilance, focus, and perseverance. I’ll speak about each one of these, starting with preparation.

Preparation provides us with the wherewithal to achieve what we’re working for. It means having the tools and materials that we’re going to be working with. In spiritual work, that means preparing ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially for our relationship with God. This is essential self-care, and nothing is going to be achieved without it. We all know that we need nourishment, exercise, and rest. We know we need these things, but we don’t always prepare ourselves for our work by providing ourselves with them. What about intellectual nourishment, exercise, and rest? How about emotional nourishment, exercise, and rest? Then there’s social nourishment, exercise, and rest. See what I mean? If we’re not prepared, how do we expect to be able to do the work?

The next habit we need to consider in order to be successful is vigilance. That means both planning our way forward and considering the threats and risks we’ll face along the way. What do we need to watch out for? What are the danger signs? What has experience taught us about the obstacles we’re likely to face? When we set out to do hard work, we need to expect the unexpected. Things never work out the way we anticipate. Everything takes longer and costs more. So, what things are we aware of now that we know can sabotage our spiritual preparedness? What are the pitfalls that we know can thwart our progress? Watch out for the small stuff. Take care of the small stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself.

The third habit we require for our spiritual work to be successful is focus. Regardless of our chosen spiritual path, we will be beset with distractions. Does this sound familiar? “I gotta clean the house. I’ll start with the dishes. But the kitchen floor is disgusting. I have to mop it first. But the trash is in the way, I’ll take it out. But first I should clean out the refrigerator. Oh, no…I’m out of trash bags. I need to put that on the shopping list. Where’s my pad of paper? It’s somewhere here on the counter. I’ve gotta to clear off this counter. What are these dishcloths doing here? They need to go in the laundry. Oh, no…I forgot to fold the laundry yesterday. I’ve gotta do that. These shirts need to be hung up in the bedroom. It’s almost noon and the bed needs to be made. Why is there a drinking glass next to the bed? It belongs in the bathroom. The mirror is all smudged. Let me get the glass cleaner. What got spilled in this cabinet? I’d better get a sponge and clean it up. Ugh! What am I stepping on? Let me get the vacuum…” Get the picture? What disrupts your spiritual focus?

The fourth and final habit that we require to do effective spiritual work is perseverance. This may be the hardest of the habits to master because it means confronting one of the greatest obstacles to hard work, and that is boredom. Boredom comes to us in several guises: discouragement because the results aren’t coming fast enough or aren’t what we expected; or we’re reluctant to expend the effort we know it’s going to take, so we procrastinate—put it off until mañana. Lack of perseverance in the face of disappointment is a sure killer of spiritual progress.

Now, let’s see how these four habits apply to the hard work we call prayer. How do you prepare yourself for your prayer time: physically, mentally, emotionally, socially? How do you exercise vigilance against interruptions both within yourself and from your prayer environment? What kinds of interruptions do you need to watch out for when you pray? What do you do to maintain your focus during prayer? What sorts of things distract you—thoughts from your monkey mind? How have your learned to deal with them? Finally, are you prepared to persevere in prayer in the short run and over time? What methods can you use to counter boredom and the tendency to put prayer off.

So far, I haven’t mentioned today’s Scripture readings, have I? Yet, that’s all I’ve been talking about this whole time. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” That kingdom encompasses everything I listed as motivation for doing the hard work necessary to maintain a spiritual relationship with our heavenly Father. It is hard work. Now, I want you to do something later today. I want you to take these four work habits I mentioned and see if you can find each one of them in today’s gospel. They are: preparation, vigilance, focus, and perseverance. I assure you, they are all there, if you look for them.

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