This post was originally published on the McGill Christians Blog.
By Terrel Joseph
Last week, I got a facebook message from a student asking me this question: How do I keep my faith alive while I’m away from Montreal for the summer? In attempting to respond to this students question I ended up writing a 4 page article by accident. Oops! I guess I got a bit carried away….
Nevertheless, I know this is a question on the minds of lots of McGill Christians so I figured I would share this with everyone. As a campus minister at McGill this is a question I get from students every summer. A lot of students experience spiritual highs during the school year through their participation in groups like the NCSS, or Challenge, or MCF, or P2C, or ISM, or I22 or a variety of local churches…But then when they go home for the summer, and change their environment and routine, the fire of faith can start to fade. The spiritual high from a year in one (or several) of these communities may give way to a sort of spiritual desert while away. But even though this is a super common experience, the good news (no pun intended!) is that there is something we can do about it.
The biggest difference between Christians whose faith stays alive and dynamic over the summer and those whose faith grows cold is not because the former are more gifted spiritually nor because they just got lucky. The difference between those whose faith life stays strong over the summer and those whose faith grows cold is that the former continue to intentionally practice their faith and the latter do not. It’s as simple and as deeply challenging as that!
When I first started getting involved in my faith in my 20’s I would regularly go through periods of spiritual highs followed by spiritual deserts, and the summer was often a desert time. But as one of my favourite speaker Matthew Kelly likes to say: “Your life changes when your habits change, it’s not freak luck and God doesn’t have any favourites.” And my faith life really did change when my habits changed. I learned over time how to smoothen out the “zig zag” of my up and down spiritual life primarily by intentionally practicing some of the basic elements of Christian spiritual growth and changing my habits so I would do these things regularly. And the more I did this, the more my faith life was not depended on a particular community, or living in a particular city, or hanging out with particular friends. Through intentionally practicing the basics of spiritual growth, I was able to make my faith depend on the Christ and His Church. So allow me to remind you of some of the basics. Most are universal to all Christians, but since I’m Roman Catholic in figured I would dispense with political correctness and include some of the basics that are also more particular to my own tradition. Even if you aren’t familiar with these, I hope you’ll find them interesting and find something in my personal experience that helps you in yours.
In the spiritual life, I often advise students that the best defence against spiritual deserts is a good offence. Instead of trying to avoid shrinking, a better strategy is to try to grow. So here are what I consider to be the basic elements of growth in the spiritual life: prayer, communal worship, the bible, the sacraments, community, service, and witness. If you don’t have time to read this whole article, just focus your efforts on these things as best as you understand them and your faith life will stand a much better chance of growing over the summer rather then fading. For the longer version, keep reading!
The first and most fundamental of these basic elements of spiritual growth is prayer. An important ingredient in a healthy spirituality for any Christian is to set aside time to pray everyday. I think all practicing Christians on campus say they want to pray every day but many of us, and myself included, often fall short. And during the school year while we are all together, even though we might forget our personal prayer time we still end up praying fairly regularly in a group setting. But when school is done and we are back home, sometimes our prayer lives can go dry if we haven’t already developed the habit of personal prayer. In my personal prayer time I like to follow the A.C.T.S. formula for prayer. A.C.T.S. stands for: Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Adoration means to adore and worship God, contrition means to acknowledge my sins, thanksgiving means to identity the parts of my life that I am thankful for, and supplication means to ask God for things to make my life better and help me grow in holiness. The spiritual high that we all experience more often during the school year primarily comes from closeness to our Lord and cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Talking to God regularly is an important part of developing our relationship with Him and consequently is an essential part of a healthy spiritual diet.
The next basic element of spiritual growth is communal worship: a.k.a. going to church on Sunday. I personally always make a point of going to Mass every Sunday, and approaching each Sunday Mass with the question, “Lord, show me one way in this Mass that I can become a better version of myself this week”. Growing in holiness translated into layman’s terms means striving to become the best version of myself. Sunday worship is a great place to pray for this grace, and showing up with a specific plan in mind has helped motivate me to pay attention to readings, homilies, prayers, music, etc, and stay actively engaged in the liturgy. Communal worship time is another important ingredient in a healthy spiritual diet. So don’t forget to go to church on Sunday during the summer, even if you are travelling or away from your regular church community.
Another basic element of spiritual growth is to read the Bible every day. The written Word of God is powerful, alive, and dynamic. Reading the Bible regularly is a great way to grow in our relationship with God. If you are unfamiliar with the Bible, and not sure where or how to start reading it, a great place to start would be to read one of the four gospels. My personal favourite is Mark, but John is a close second. The best way to read scripture though is not necessarily to read everything in one shot like a novel. A better approach would be to read a little bit everyday and to take note of the words or phrases that standout and catch your attention. This is one of the ways that the Holy Spirit speaks to us. The way I usually organize myself to read the bible is by reading the daily Mass readings everyday. These provide me with short readings from both the Old Testament and the Gospels, with a psalm sandwiched in the middle. A very healthy scripture sandwich indeed! On Sundays there is usually a second reading from the New Testament, often one of the letters of the apostles. The Catholic Mass readings follow a schedule that goes through practically the whole bible every three years so I figured if I stick to reading the assigned scripture passages everyday I should do all right! (You can find the lectionary readings online, use the calendar to the right to find the day’s readings). Staying closely connected to the bible helped me stay connected to Christ during many long summers and can definitely help you too!
The next basic elements of spiritual growth are the Sacraments, or specifically the Eucharist and Confession. Speaking as a Roman Catholic Christian I consider these to be essential parts of a healthy spiritual diet (quite literally in the case of the Eucharist!). Something that has always helped my in my spiritual life is to spend some quality time in Eucharistic Adoration. For those of you who are not aware, Catholics believe that Jesus becomes really, truly, and substantially present in the bread and wine consecrated by priests at Mass. Eucharistic Adoration is when the consecrated bread (aka the Body of Christ) is put in a special display so that we can worship and adore Jesus physically present in this unique way. One of the best descriptions of adoration I`ve ever heard was from a poor French farmer named St Charles Borromeo back in the 19 century. Charles used to visit the chapel of the famous Curé D’Ars, St Jean Vianney, every day and spend several hours a day in adoration. When Jean asked Charles what he does for all that time in adoration Charles responded, “I just look at Him and He looks at me”. While receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is reserved for people in full communion with the Catholic Church, Eucharistic Adoration is open to everyone. I encourage every Christian, whether Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Protestant to approach Eucharistic Adoration with an open mind.
I also recommend frequenting the Sacrament of Confession during the summer. We all sin and fall short in our relationship with Christ and the Church all the time and the Sacrament of Confession is a very practical and every effective way of keeping us accountable to the Gospel we are trying to live, and helping us avoid getting discouraged when we fall into sin and drift from the faith. I would recommend that Catholics and Orthodox serious about keeping their faith alive during the summer go to confession at least once a month. I’ve personally made a habit of going during the first week of every month. Nothings unburdens my hearts quite like confessing, and confessing has really helped me to avoid becoming spiritually luke-warm. And whether you are Protestant or Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, it is always a healthy spiritual practice to examine your conscious regularly, and ask God for forgiveness in prayer. If you have Christian friends who you trust it is also helpful psychologically to confess your sins to another person. Back in the first couple centuries of Christianity, confession was always done publicly to the entire Christian community, so this is way less embarrassing in comparison!
Another basic strategy for spiritual growth is to get connected to a faith community. Archbishop Tony Mancini of Halifax, Nova Scotia once said that “Our faith in Jesus Christ is personal, but it is not be private”. What usually keeps people on-fire during the school year is being around other young Christians actively trying to do the same thing. It is very important during the summer to try to find or create Christian community to motivate you and keep you accountable. Examples include, getting involved in committees at your local church or joining or starting a prayer group that meets weekly. I personally am very involved in my parish especially during the summer when Newman is quiet, and I have been a part of a men’s prayer group for five years now. Both of these communities have really helped me in my efforts to grow and sustain my relationship with Jesus.
Another basic element of spiritual growth is service and witness. When we serve the poor and the needy we are practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy described by Jesus in Mt 25: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me!” To truly love Jesus, means to also love those whom Jesus loves, because any care or compassion we show to them we also show to Him. This is also a very simple idea but loving strangers and enemies is easier said then done! If you like a challenge (and love Jesus!) then I suggest getting more involved in serving and praying for those less fortunate people living on the peripheries of our society. When we start looking for them, we usually find out that they are a lot closer to home then we thought! Without the demands of school, we might have more time to find a special summer service project, or we might already be going on a mission trip during the summer. Make this an opportunity to grow closer to God! You may also find yourself among different people during the summer, like family and high school friends. Consider this a new opportunity to evangelize and share the joy of the Gospel!
So this is how I keep my faith not only alive in the summer, but thriving, and I encourage you to practice your faith this summer using these basic elements of spiritual growth knowing that practice makes perfect!
Peace be with you! And God Bless!