Stay quietly at home: regulate your day, and waste no time
LOVE of retirement and solitude disposes the soul in a special manner for the practice of the interior life. I will lead her into the wilderness, and speak to her heart. [ ] When a man is alone with his own soul, undisturbed by the excitement of external things, his thoughts, unless he is beset by some violent passion, will naturally turn first to himself and then lead him back to God.
I do not mean that persons living in the world should lead a life of retirement such as is practised in convents and hermitages. Living at home, going out merely as duty requires, is living in retirement. Having no dealings with the world but such as are required by necessity or charity, is living in solitude. He who loves to be alone with God and, amid the turmoil of business, longs for the time when he may hold free converse with Him, has already, or soon will have, entered upon the interior way.
Take advantage, then, of all the leisure your affairs allow you, and reserve some part of every day for the consideration of eternal things. These are most precious moments which, if rightly used, will enable you to sanctify the remainder of your day. Another excellent practice, which draws down many graces is to put aside a week every year as a time of retreat, preferably in a religious house, spent in undisturbed meditation on the truths pertaining to salvation, in a serious examination of the state of your soul, and in a thorough and earnest preparation for the future.
Silence is one of the first-fruits of such a retreat. It is the friend of recollection and prayer, and cannot be too highly recommended. The interior spirit reigns, or soon will do, in religious houses where silence is studiously observed. Fidelity to that rule is the safeguard of all the rest; laxity and even disorder inevitably follow its neglect.
In the world, it is not so easy to have fixed times for silence, because occasions for speaking present themselves when least expected. But we observe the spirit of silence when we speak only when necessity demands, and to the point. When, in the presence of others, without affecting an ill-timed taciturnity, we prefer to listen rather than to speak; and when we have to talk keep our conversation within bounds, and observe such reticence as the Holy Spirit suggests. This reticence was one of the marks by which, according to the prophet Isaias, Our Lord was to be known. He shall not cry, nor have respect to person: neither shall his voice be heard abroad. [ ] Even among devout persons, those who lead an interior life are easily recognized by this same sign. Their conversation is not less natural for that; actually it is more agreeable and interesting, and, though tempered by a certain reserve, is neither dull, cold nor constrained.
When the soul is in its first religious fervour it needs no exhortation to solitude and silence: it is naturally inclined to seek them. The loss of spiritual delights is then too much dreaded, the secret pleasure taken in them is too sweet to allow any desire for distractions from without. Intercourse with worldly persons is burdensome; it seems all a terrible void and is shunned, perhaps too much so to meet the demands of one's position, and those of Christian charity.
But there is a fault to which one is liable at this stage, and that is the tendency to share indiscreetly our innermost thoughts with those with whom we are intimate; to pour out our feelings too freely when with them, telling them of our own happiness in the hope of winning them to God. We feel unable to contain the grace that fills us, and find comfort in sharing our secret with others. But we would do better to keep it to ourselves, and mention these things only to our confessor. The inner workings of grace are not such as should be divulged. We should keep them hidden, and not aim at being apostles when we are as yet but weak beginners.
When, however, the spring-time is past, and dryness has succeeded to delight, there is reason to fear that we will give up our life of retirement and seek consolation in created things. This natural inclination must be resisted as a most dangerous temptation, which exposes the rising structure of our perfection to imminent ruin. Though we then no longer feel God's sensible presence, He is present with us in a deeper and more ineffable way, which we can easily lose if we are not extremely careful to preserve it. All voluntary distractions aim a real blow at this genuine, if unperceived, recollection. They leave impressions on the mind which are revived when we are at prayer, all the more so since the soul in times of dryness is empty of ideas and feelings. Prayer thus becomes a continual distraction, which is culpable at least in principle. And as already we have found contemplative prayer difficult, since it seemed as though God had abandoned us, we soon give it up, and with it, the interior life as well.
It is not enough, however, to stay quietly at home, keeping silence: we must also arrange our time and distribute the duties of the day, so that each duty has its appointed hour, and every hour its duty. We shall thus avoid boredom, with the inevitable temptations which follow in its train. The chief thing is to have definite hours for rising and retiring, for on that all the rest depends. Then we must distribute our devotional exercises during the day -- mental prayer, Holy Mass, reading, vocal prayer, visits to the Blessed Sacrament-in such wise that some are spread over the morning, others in the evening, and there is no time of the day which is not given to God. Whatever time remains at our free disposition will be devoted to work and the duties of our state. It is as well to have our confessor's approval for all we do, but once our time-table is approved, it should be adhered to strictly.
However, as God does not want us to be slaves except to His love and holy will, which are above all external rules, and as any number of unforeseen things may cause our routine to be upset, we must adapt ourselves always to the dispositions of Divine Providence, and not reproach ourselves with exceptions for which we are not responsible. We are always faithful, if we are as faithful as we are able to be. Exactness with regard to God lies less in the fulfilling of the letter than in the disposition of the will. To break the rules of charity, propriety and courtesy in order to observe our rule of time, would be a want of fidelity to God. True piety is in no wise opposed to the fulfilment of our social duties. On the contrary, it sanctifies our relations with our neighbour, even when these seem most trifling, and are only dependent upon custom and politeness. We are not required to renounce them; indeed, we are not even allowed to neglect them
Therefore, in the first place, we must so arrange our rule that we may be able to observe it habitually, not overburdening it with practices nor multiplying them excessively, so as to fetter the spirit and enslave the soul. We must consider our health, our position, occupations, and the persons on whom we depend, and to whom we owe the greatest deference. Next, when interrupted, such as by unforeseen business, letters or visits to be paid or received, we must not scruple to forgo the devotional exercise assigned to the time thus taken up, but resume it later on, if possible. Nor must we make ourselves odious or ridiculous by mistimed exactitude, nor show by our manner and bearing that we are disturbed and have other things to do, but gracefully lend ourselves not only to friends, but to troublesome and importunate persons. God permits these little crosses in order to break our will, give us a free and pliable spirit, like that of St. Francis of Sales, and lead us to the practice of many virtues which we would have no opportunity of practising, except under such conditions.
Finally, in order to prevent all scruples, we should carefully distinguish as to what does and does not depend upon ourselves; what we are free to do, and what would annoy those whom we are bound to consider. We must distinguish such practices as preserve our liberty of spirit without in anyway straining our fidelity, from such as encourage constraint, pettiness and an exaggerated rigidity. If we are honest with ourselves and with God, we can always readily decide whether we are to blame or not for having omitted some particular devotion.
Such arrangement of one's day as I have suggested, I realize of course can only be observed by those who are more or less masters of their own time. Those who are not free to dispose of their day, if they are truly desirous of advancing in virtue, will make use of all their free moments, and carefully husband the time they may call their own, in order to employ it in prayer and holy reading. They must not complain, however, of the hardship of their position, since it is in the order of Divine Providence, and will in no way hinder their progress, if they are genuinely drawn to the interior life. God Himself will more than make up to them for their want of ordinary means, and it may be that their condition, busy and hampered as it is, will tend more to their sanctification than a state of greater leisure and independence. There are no obstacles for those who are determined to love God. Everything will become a means to loving Him, provided they have God's glory always in view, and bless His loving bounty in all He sends.
There are many reasons why a Christian should thus regulate his day, if he is able to do so. The first is that it is the bounden duty of everyone to sanctify his actions. It is already a beginning if we are able to arrange our day so that we may reasonably presume it to be in accordance with God's will, and, with that end in view, to do everything at the proper time, as though God Himself were calling us to it.
Secondly, when our devotions are thus regulated, they are less easily forgotten, and the sooner become habitual. The hour itself reminds us of the duty attached to it, and very often calls for some act of self-denial, since we may have to lay aside what we are doing in order to do what God is asking of us.
Again, we thus avoid idleness, a temptation to which those whose time is at their disposal are always exposed. We are all naturally inclined to indolence and laziness, and unless we have a clear and definite object in view, are bound to be a prey to disquietude and inconstancy in our thoughts. We commence any number of things and finish none: in short, we do not know what to do with our time, and often for want of occupation indulge in vain and even dangerous amusements. But idleness has no fears for those whose days are fully occupied. They are not left wondering what they shall do next: every hour has its appointed task, and the various duties which succeed one another do not allow the spirits to flag.
Finally, one is thereby relieved from boredom, which is undoubtedly the scourge most to be feared, and the inevitable portion of all who have no definite aim in life. It is to escape the pursuit of so inexorable an enemy that worldly folk multiply and vary indefinitely their pleasures. One would think that they sought these pleasures for the satisfaction they find in them, but it is not so. They simply use them as a remedy for their boredom, but without the least success. They are constrained to flee from it ceaselessly, but find it everywhere, and it is in vain that they make the attempt. They will always find it, for boredom pursues them relentlessly, following them wherever they take refuge. The only way to put oneself out of the reach of this torment of the so-called fortunate ones of this world is to lead a serious and planned life, in which the mind has always something definite to occupy it, and where the very variety of one's occupations serves as a relaxation.
When thus protected from idleness and boredom, how many temptations are prevented from entering the soul; how many occasions of sin avoided . From there two sources (that is, idleness and boredom) arise almost all the evils that beset society. They make men evilly inclined and unhappy. Be always occupied in conformity with the will of God and the duties of your state, and neither the passions nor the devil will have any hold over you, and you will be as virtuous and happy as it is possible to be in this life.
What I have said refers to all Christians in general, according as their circumstances permit. As to those who lead an interior life, they are more inclined to regulate their time than others, and they keep to their rules more faithfully. The spirit of God, in Whom they live and by Whom they are led, allows them no indefinite way of life, and demands a strict account of all their time. But it is not to be expected that they will always follow the one rule: they may have to vary it according to the stages through which they are passing. Practices which were useful in the beginning are not necessarily suitable later on. The spirit of God sometimes forbids what at other times it demands. Exercises proper to a retired life should occupy the early years; afterwards, God may leave them more liberty to mix in external affairs for the sake of others. There will be times when it will be necessary for them to retire within themselves; at others, they will have to yield to whatever draws them out of themselves, and helps them to forget themselves. Thus, for example during times of great distress, the director may wisely allow them such innocent pleasures or amusements as will assist them, which at another he would undoubtedly forbid. I say no more on this point, because I am not writing for advanced souls, but for beginners.
Isaias xlii. 2
Work of God Apostolate