Planning and Precision by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
The crowds asked John the Baptist, "What should we do?" He said to them in reply, "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He answered them, "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed." Soldiers also asked him, "And what is it that we should do?" He told them, "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages."
Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, "I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier that I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
In certain areas of life, we cultivate very good habits of planning and precision. For work, finances, or health - name a few - we establish goals, make schedules, draw up budgets, post reminders, plan ahead, etc. But for some reason, we fail to apply that same wisdom to our spiritual life. Perhaps we confuse "spiritual" for "vague" or "imprecise." Perhaps we think that because the saints sought the things above, they must have had their heads in the clouds.
Not so. Any serious effort in the spiritual life demands the same good habits we apply elsewhere. And for their part, the saints were sensible and levelheaded about their growth in holiness. They attained heaven because they were down-to-earth.
St. John and his listeners seem to have understood. When the Baptist came preaching repentance, the crowds, moved to good intentions, asked him, "What should we do?" (Lk 3:10). They understood that good intentions alone would not suffice. More was needed. To get traction, our good intentions must also have firm resolutions. So St. John got somewhat specific: "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise" (Lk 3:11). More specific still were his instructions to tax collectors - "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed" - and to soldiers - "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages" (Lk 3:13, 14). His exhortations had teeth because they were definite.
The Baptist's words indicate the wisdom of applying to our spiritual lives the same planning and precision we use elsewhere. Our Lord also conveys this wisdom by exhorting us to plan ahead (cf. Lk 14:28-32) and to adopt common sense about spiritual matters (cf. Lk 16:8). After all, most good intentions fail to bear fruit not because of insincerity, but because of poor planning and a lack of precision. We fail to pray, for example, not because we dislike prayer, but because we do not plan well. We rush in and out of Sunday Mass, or miss it entirely, not because we do not value the Mass, but because we do not lock it into our schedule as securely as we do soccer games.
For this reason, spiritual writers encourage a "rule of life" - that is, establishing a schedule or routine of personal prayer, mortifications, spiritual reading, Mass, confession, etc. It is not enough to say, "I want to be holier." We need, as with anything else, to establish a concrete way of achieving that goal. Concerning Confession, for example, we should commit ourselves to a specific time - say, monthly or semimonthly - and even put a regularity reminder in the planner or on the calendar. A rule of life should be strict enough to make demands on us, but flexible enough to accommodate the unforeseen. It may not keep us from drifting in the spiritual life. But it will at least serve as a fixed point to indicate when we are drifting and what we should return to.
Further, with regard to precision, we should be specific - and brutally honest - about what needs to be done. What vices do we need to uproot and what virtues do we need to cultivate? What evil - specifically - must I cease doing? What good - specifically - must I begin to do? The specifics, although painful, prevent good intentions from becoming a dead letter. In examining ourselves at the end of the day, therefore, we can more easily put our finger on what keeps us from growing in holiness.
"What should we do?" That question is the beginning of spiritual growth. To benefit us, however, it must meet with clear answers and firm resolutions. And not just "what" we should do, but also how, when, how often, etc. No, the devil is not in the details. Rather, in the details - in the planning and precision - we find opportunities to advance in the life of Christ.
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