We’re less than a month away before St. Francis Xavier starts his pilgrimage across Canada. Christmas is around the corner, and the seasonal stress and busyness of the holidays are in full swing. With everything you have happening in your life right now, with all of the craziness, here is one simple activity that will transform your pilgrimage experience.
We all know St. Francis Xavier did amazing things for the Church, from conversions, healings, miracles and raising others from the dead, but do we know what was happening in the world while he lived? We are all influenced and formed by the times we live in. Francis Xavier is no different. What St. Francis, St. Ignatius and the other founding Jesuits did to prepare themselves for their work are things we can do as well to prepare ourselves for this pilgrimage, as well as for our life as Catholics living in the world today.
The Catholic Church during the life of St. Francis Xavier was at a crisis point. Nine years after the birth of St. Francis Xavier, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and sparked the Protestant Reformation which changed the course of Christianity. In 1534, when Francis Xavier was 28 years old, King Henry the VIII was declared head of the Church of England and separated from the authority of the Chair of Peter. Once St. Francis landed in India, he faced a society of Catholics who, through lack of catechesis, lived lives in contradiction with the teachings of the church. Mistresses were common with soldiers, slavery was the norm and greed was the driving motivator.
St. Francis and the Jesuits prepared themselves for the spiritual and intellectual combat needed to do battle with these challenges to the faith through disciplined prayer, frequenting the sacraments and rigorous intellectual formation. We can follow the model set by these famous Saints to help prepare ourselves for an encounter with one of history’s most powerful evangelizers, as well as ready ourselves for the work of renewing the world, starting with forming ourselves. Today we’ll focus on prayer.
Prayer: the root of hope
St. Francis Xavier benefited greatly from the spiritual guidance and life of prayer offered by Ignatius. The disciplined and deep prayer life lived by Ignatius, Francis and the other Jesuits was also one of the greatest weapons they had to fight the corruption that sparked Martin Luther to nail his 95 Theses to the door of the church.
Prayer connects us to the heart of Christ, it brings us into a personal relationship with Him and allows us to experience His love and be cognizant of the direction He is calling us to in our life. Without a disciplined prayer life, we can get caught up in the distractions and temptations life presents us and lose sight of what matters most: Jesus. The success of St. Francis Xavier is grounded in his personal relationship and trust in Jesus, which is nurtured in prayer.
Build those spiritual muscles
Personal experience tells us that to have a solid prayer life requires self-discipline and perseverance. Without either, it is difficult to advance in your spiritual life. Both Ignatius and St. Paul the Apostle saw the analogous connection between athletics and prayer:
Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one.” 1 Cor 9:25
Just as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises that get the body in shape and make it more alert, so spiritual exercises incline the soul to purify itself and render it more determined to seek and find God’s will for one’s life.” Spiritual exercises Rule 1
How can we build discipline in our prayer life? If you don’t already have a habit of daily prayer, this the easiest place to start your spiritual training. Similar to starting exercise for the first time in a long time, we will find the most success in building a strong prayer life by starting small. Spend five to ten intentional minutes a day in prayer for 3 weeks. This will start building the habit without overwhelming you, or discouraging you from the sheer effort of trying to do big, long prayers before you may be ready for it.
Before you begin your spiritual training, you will benefit enormously if you ask yourself three simple questions, posed by Matthew Kelly of Dynamic Catholic:
- When am I going to pray?
- Where am I going to pray?
- How am I going to pray?
Answering these questions will help you get started because it helps you make the practical decisions necessary for you to start. I would recommend writing down your answers to these questions. This will help you remember what you decided to do and help keep you accountable to your new plan for spiritual health.
The first two questions to building your spiritual training plan will be highly personal. When and where you pray will in a large part be determined by the stage of life you are in and the responsibilities you have. I would recommend though, if possible, you commit to doing your prayer life in the morning, before your work, studies, or other commitments. Praying first not only orients ourselves in the right direction for the day but also prevents prayer from being skipped when sudden tasks arise throughout the day. Most people tend to find morning prayer a great benefit, so why not start there?
Spiritual doesn’t mean impractical
Now you know when and where you are going to pray, let’s talk about how you can pray in tried and true method.
St. Francis and the early Jesuits used scripture as the foundation for their prayer lives, and followed an exercise of praying with scripture as developed by St. Ignatius. Before we dive into the practicalities of Ignatian prayer, a word on scripture. Scripture is not just a collection of wisdom writings from ancient times, but rather,
In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, “but as what it really is, the word of God.” In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them.” CCC 104
The Church affirms to us that God talks to us through scripture, as a loving father speaks to his children. Scripture should be a cornerstone of our prayer life. It doesn’t have to be the only thing we pray with, but we should turn to it constantly for nourishment and hear what God is trying to tell us. Yes, Christ will speak to you personally, for your unique situation in life in scripture. Don’t believe me? Try it!
Here’s how to pray with sacred scripture the same way St. Francis would have. Find a story from the Gospels in the New Testament. Now, slowly and intentionally read the story using your imagination to place you right into the story. Who are you in the story? How is Jesus interacting with everyone else in the story? How is Jesus interacting with you? Use all of your senses; what do you see, smell, touch, taste and hear? Allow yourself to be drawn into the experience of being in the story and interacting with Jesus there. Once you have read the story once, pause and think about the experience. After a period of brief reflection read through the story again.
When you read the story a second time, make note about what strikes you about the story. What is Jesus telling you? What does this story make you feel? Why does the story impact you in this way? Take time to reflect on what Christ is telling you through this story. If you have a journal that you keep, I would strongly suggest that you take a minute to jot down what God is telling you.
If you have never prayed with scripture before, I strongly recommend starting with the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew and systematically and sequentially reading through the four Gospels and the Acts and letters of the New Testament. This will help you to get a solid understanding of the person of Christ.
How do I know what God is telling me?
One of the more difficult things to do in your spiritual life is to discern what it is God is actually calling you to do. St. Ignatius developed a method of discernment that helps guide us through the ups and downs of daily life. It is an invaluable tool to have in our spiritual training plan. Jesus has an incredible plan for us, we need to be able to hear what he’s saying!
Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV has spent considerable time teaching the Ignatian discernment of spirits to people all over the world. I would strongly suggest listening to his explanation of the discernment process, it will provide a very practical guide you can apply to your life immediately. If you listen to all of the episodes, you will have a depth to your discernment which will enable you, with practice, to see how God is moving in your daily life and where he is inviting you to enter into his dream for you.
You can listen to Fr. Timothy Gallagher HERE.
If you want to know the vision God has for you, the future of hope, we need to hear from Him what his plan is. We can only do this through prayer. Whether you are a beginner in the spiritual life or an experienced follower of Christ, there is always room for improvement.
My challenge to you: Start building an intentional prayer life.
Beginner – I’ve never had a structured prayer life – Take the first step and commit to daily prayer: When, Where, How? (Start small!)
Moderately experienced – I pray regularly, but not necessarily in a structured way – Pray with Scripture like St. Francis Xavier did
Spiritually trained – I pray daily, with a plan – Use the Ignatian discernment of spirits – Where in my life is God calling me/talking to me?
If we want to get to know God, to know the incredible love He has for us, and to say yes to the works he will do in and through us, we need to start with prayer. Prayer grounds us in God and secures us in hope. God has a great dream for us. We need to begin training so when life sends us challenges and difficult decisions we are strong, healthy and ready to put our feet to the road in the right direction.
Did you miss the previous installments?
Listen to our Podcast Episodes on Prayer:
Listen to our Podcast Episode on the Relic Pilgrimage: