Six Holy Habits
The Six Holy Habits (1) Sunday Mass
I remember once after Mass, when during the homily I had mentioned the obligation on Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and Holydays, being asked by a parishioner: Where does this obligation come from? Ultimately, of course, the obligation comes from God. On Mount Sinai He gave us the Ten Commandments, the fourth of which is to keep holy the Sabbath. From the very early Church, Sunday, the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1: 10) replaced the Jewish Sabbath as the day of worship. It was the day the Lord rose from the dead. Sunday was also the day God rested from the work of creation (Gen 2: 2-3) and the day the Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles (Acts 2: 1-13). It is the Day when we listen to God’s word and partake of the Holy Eucharist (‘unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life in you’ Jn 6: 53). The moral obligation to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice on Sundays and to rest from work dates from the early Church, although it did not become a definite law of the Church until the fourth century. The obligation is there of course not to burden but to help us: if we were to fall out of the habit of going to Mass on Sunday, when would we hear the Word of God? When would we be nourished by the Holy Eucharist? When would we meet our fellow disciples, the community of the Church?
Keeping Sunday special is a challenge to us all in a busy, secular culture. Depending on work patterns, it would be good to make Sunday truly a family day, with rest and relaxation, and a different rhythm from the rest of the week. Parishes might reflect on the ‘Sunday Experience’ and how to enhance the variety, beauty and solemnity of the parish Liturgy, so that it truly ‘enchants’ its participants? Clergy could reflect on homilies and how to improve them. Laity might prepare themselves better for Mass and afterwards, spend a few moments over tea and coffee with the community. In the prayer book Lord I am not worthy, which gives a selection of prayers to say before and after Mass, I said this: ‘The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life’ (Catechism 1324). The whole of a Christian’s daily life and practical charity flows from the Eucharist (source) and leads back to it (summit). It is the most important event each week (Sunday). Before setting off for Mass, therefore, we should familiarise ourselves with the Scripture Readings and the Collects. Pray on the way to Mass. Arriving early, try to spend some time quietly uniting yourself with Christ in His self-offering to the Father. Tell God a list of all your needs.” I also outlined the purpose why we go to Mass: that is to adore the Blessed Trinity, through, with and in Jesus Christ, as He offers Himself on the Cross to the Father through the Holy Spirit (adoration);
to give thanks to God for the many graces and blessings He has given us (thanksgiving);
to beg pardon for our sins and for the times we have failed to love God and our neighbour as we ought (expiation); and
to ask God for the many things, spiritual and material, that we need (petition).
I go to Mass too to meet, support and fulfil my duties towards the Christian community, to profess our common faith in the Triune God and to give a witness of faith to others.
The Six Holy Habits (2) Daily Prayer
There can be a lot of mystery about prayer. In fact, it is really very simple. St. Therese of Lisieux puts it well: ‘For me, prayer is a surge of the heart, a simple look toward heaven .. a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy.’ It is the recognition that I am merely a creature and that I need God’s help. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites a line from St. John Damascene: ‘Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God’ (2559). In truth, of course, there is only one prayer: the prayer of Jesus to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our own prayers are like tuning in a radio. This is why we should always begin a time of prayer by asking the Holy Spirit to unite and align us with Christ. There are different categories or types of prayer. At school, I remember being taught: A-C-T-S – Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving and Supplication (petition). Each of us prays in the best way we can and in a way we find most effective. Yet this is where the Church’s tradition of vocal prayer and prayer books can be a help, especially when we are plagued with distractions.
I have called the second of the six Holy Habits for short “Daily Prayer.” It means resolving to find time each day, at least five minutes of quiet and solitude, to pray, at whatever time you find best, using the Scriptures, maybe the Gospel of the day. The use of the Bible is important as it unites us with the Word of God and gives us much spiritual nourishment. The time of prayer should also enable us to be aware of the Church’s liturgical calendar and help us to get to know the saints better. True, St. Paul says we should ‘pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication’ (Eph 6: 18). But we cannot pray at all times if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. When I was young, my father taught me to say prayers on going to bed. This was the main time of prayer. He also said I should pray first thing in the morning on waking up. I always found morning prayers a bit hit and miss. Nowadays, I find the opposite is true: for me, the best time to pray, serious prayer, is first thing in the morning - after a good cup of coffee! Then my mind is clear and less distracted than later in the day with all its affairs.
So this second Holy Habit of daily prayer is all about deepening our personal-passionate relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour and through Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit. It’s about living too with the Blessed Mother, with our patron saints and Guardian Angel in the communion of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, now and in the world to come. Prayer is about deepening our spiritual life and growing in holiness, that is, as people configured more closely to Jesus Christ. Prayer is full of grace but it is not unnatural. It is a natural human activity and it contributes to our psychological and emotional well-being, even if for many the only time they pray is in a moment of desperation. One day, we must ask the Lord about the wonder of prayer and how it all works, how He hears our prayers and even more mysteriously how He answers them.
The Six Holy Habits (3) Friday Penance and Service
Friday is always a popular day because it brings us the weekend. For many, the work week ends, hence the expression ‘Thank God, it’s Friday!’ Yet for us Catholics, Fridays are extra-special. They are devoted to the Passion of Jesus, every Friday being a mini-Good Friday when Jesus laid down His life for us on the Cross. We should try to keep Fridays special by reflecting on this. In England and Wales, Fridays are days of abstinence, when the Church asks us not to eat meat, or to undertake an alternative penance. In this way, we unite ourselves to the offering of Christ to the Father on the Cross. We could bring this together at 3 pm in the afternoon, the moment Jesus died, by reciting the Divine Mercy chaplet. (Maybe you could set up an alert on your mobile for this?)
So the third Holy Habit is about keeping Fridays special as a day of penance – but also as a day of mercy, charity and justice. It’s an ideal day to ask: How can I help someone in need? Could you try to find time to do an act of mercy for someone? It might be phoning or texting a friend you know to be lonely or having a hard time, or bringing your baby to visit an elderly relative, or doing some shopping for a housebound neighbour, or attending a First Friday Mass. It might be an act of advocacy for justice, writing a letter to an MP. Whatever it is, it’s up to you. But we do it in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ Who laid down His life for us on Calvary
The Six Holy Habits (4) Visiting the Blessed Sacrament
It is an amazing truth of our Catholic faith, that in a continuation from the celebration of Mass, Jesus Christ Himself, in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, is present and active in the Tabernacle on our altars. This reality makes our churches different from what are often termed ‘places of worship.’ In a Catholic church, Jesus Himself speaks to us, nourishes us with the Eucharist and with His Sacraments, and forms us in communion into His people, the Body of Christ, the Church. To be in His presence is a most refreshing activity. This is why there is nothing like stealing away from our homes and our work to spend a few minutes of down-time with the Lord in church.
In the Diocese of Portsmouth, I’ve asked that all our parish churches be kept open during daylight hours for prayer, for people to be able to go in to light a candle and to spend some time with Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. (Incidentally, our diocesan insurance premium includes cover for churches being open, although obviously we need to be prudent and not leave out precious objects that might be stolen or vandalised). As Pope Francis has said: “Do not lock Christ away from His people.”
I’ve often mentioned how as a child, my father taught me a truly good habit. When I was about 10, I remember him buying a new van for his work and every night he got in from work, he’d take us out for a spin. We’d go all over, but on the way back, we’d always stop by our parish church for a quick visit to say a prayer. It was dark inside: all you could see was the red sanctuary lamp, flickering in the distance, by the tabernacle. Later as a teenager, after school I’d often go out on my bike with friends, but following the habit I’d been taught, I too would lead them, before heading home, to stop by church. It was wonderful to spend a few moments with the Lord Jesus, to be in His presence, to pray to Him, to listen to Him, to speak with Him. I hope you too will develop this habit – of popping into church to pray to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. It will change your life.
The Six Holy Habits (5) Sacrament Of Reconciliation
St. John in his First Letter says: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just; he will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1: 8-10). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the sacrament of conversion: “it makes present sacramentally Jesus’s call to conversion” (Catechism 1423). It is a beautiful, life-changing encounter with the merciful Heart of Jesus, “usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation” (Council of Trent). If we have committed a serious sin, we should go to confession as soon as we can. The Church obliges us to confess our grave sins. But the sacrament does not exist only for the remission of mortal sins, but so that through more frequent confession people who are “good” can become “better.” It is like a spiritual check-up or a booster in which we encounter Jesus personally and the mercy of God as well as His help and inspiration.
I often recommend to penitents that they avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance every few weeks, say once a month or every two months. “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit” (Catechism 1458). Regular confession helps fight the temptations we struggle with.
One of the secrets of a good confession is a thorough examination of conscience. To see in a dark room, we need a light. So before setting off to meet the priest, we need to pause and ask the Holy Spirit to shine the light of Christ in our heart and mind, that we may know our sins and make a good confession. I was always taught to remember a list of things in my mind, but these days it’s often easier to make a simple note or list on a piece of paper, as this helps keep things focused without drifting away into unnecessary contexts and explanations etc.
The Six Holy Habits (6) Join a Support-Group
In the old days – whenever they were! – many people in a parish would belong to a sodality such as the Scouts, the St. Vincent de Paul Society for visiting the poor, the Legion of Mary for street visiting, or the union of Catholic Mothers (UCM), with its responsibilities within the parish. Such groups revolved around prayers in common, a task or service to be done, and the fun and friendship they developed. My father had lots of friends because our home parish had a Men’s Cycling Club and even into his eighties he would meet with surviving members for a pint at the pub. Our Catholic faith expresses love for God and love for neighbour and as disciples of Christ within His Body the Church we are naturally not lone rangers. We are part of the mystical Body of Christ. We belong to one another and so it is natural to from small groups that exist for service and praise.
We need to rediscover this dimension of faith today, not least to reinvigorate and further the mission of our parish communities. Many people today, living busy lives, become isolated and the elderly, the sick and the lonely can feel cut off. As Catholics and as Christians, there is a real need to support one another in our faith and to share with others the joy of our faith and what God is doing for us. Parishes are often too large for the kind of deeper conversations on faith matters, or even to get to know others in the community well. So belonging to a small support-group would be a huge help and encouragement.
Most parishes have a range of groups you can belong to: those that serve in some way (the poor and needy) or those that are there for growth in prayer and in faith (such as the RCIA or a prayer-group). In the picture, I am with a group of the Knights of St. Columba. Your parish might even have small cell-groups. Whatever group you join, make sure the group includes time for prayer and formation alongside its designated activity, as well as the chance to get to know some new friends. Indeed, groups that already exist ought to think about how open they are to new members and also to ensure that all the components for a Catholic sodality are in place, especially appropriate time for faith-formation and prayer.