We are all students in God’s school of Holiness – awareness of this is important, but it’s just the start. Once aware, we need to study and do our work if we’re to progress through His school.
Jesus has laid out a rough curriculum for us in John 6: 44-47. In this we can begin to work out the course material and how best to “study” so that we can pass the test.
Jesus said to the crowd:‘No one can come to meunless he is drawn by the Father who sent me,and I will raise him up at the last day.It is written in the prophets:They will all be taught by God,and to hear the teaching of the Father,and learn from it,is to come to me.Not that anybody has seen the Father,except the one who comes from God:he has seen the Father.I tell you most solemnly,everybody who believes has eternal life.
The process by which we come to Him
In my feeble attempt to create a logical sequence or flow out of what Jesus is teaching, here’s how I see this process playing out:
- The Father loves us and draws us to Himself, we are expected to respond with love
- The Father teaches us, we are expected to listen and learn from Him
- As we learn, we are brought closer to Jesus – we come to Him
- Remaining close to Jesus, we have eternal life
Let’s go deeper into this process as it provides clear instructions on what we’re to study and what work we need to complete.
Drawn by Love
We’ve all heard the phrase “God is love”. Let’s look at what John had to say about this, as it relates to the first part in the above process (1 John 4: 7-8):
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
God draws us in through His love, and we respond to that with our own ability to love – loving Him and loving those around us. We’re back to the two greatest commandments according to Jesus – loving God and loving our neighbour as ourself. So to begin this process, we need to be open to being loved by God and, in turn, sharing that love with Him and others.
So, step 1, love!
Learn from Him
How does God teach us? If you were to think back to all of the lessons that you’re sure came from God, reflect on how those lessons were given to you. Thinking of my own experience, it’s come from three places: Sacred Scripture, Prayer and Prompts.
The first is straightforward, Scripture is the Word of God – He inspired all of it. As we read it, we’re opening ourselves up to His teaching. Taking small passages at a time, going through it slowly, allows Him – and through His Holy Spirit – to point our attention to something we need.
The second form of teaching I’ve experienced is through prayer. In the quietness and silence of prayer, bringing issues, questions, challenges, concerns to God – and then sitting with it, listening – is a great way to give Him space to instruct and direct us. We rarely get a clear or audible response from Him, but don’t let that make you think you need to fill all the time with your own words. It’s a conversation, give Him the “air time” to move within you. Look for that calm assurance that comes with an idea. If you don’t have time set aside each day for prayer – what are you waiting for? Where else are you getting your answers and direction from?
The last form of teaching I’ve experienced is through prompts. So often it’s a book I’ve picked up, or something my attention is drawn to, or a comment from someone. It’s as if God is speaking to us through these prompts, these divine interruptions. I’m sure our guardian angels are cooperating, literally forcing our gaze to look at what He wants us to see (like trying to force a horse to drink from a pond – stubbornness very much included). The more open we are to these kinds of things, and the more we are alert and on the lookout for what He wants to teach us through the course of our day, the more we allow him to instruct and direct us.
So step 2 – read, pray, be alert!
Come to Him
As we do these things, and go deeper into each, our journey to Christ progresses. It’s reassuring to know that He helps us (drastically) but the action is on us to participate in that journey. In our choice to believe, this is our life’s work – our climb to Holiness.
Most of us have a very long way to go before we can be perfectly united with Christ – before we can be called “other Christs”, but that shouldn’t discourage us from making small daily progress. An inch at a time in the right direction is enough to show God our intention and desire.
There are a few of incredibly useful habits that I’ve come across that make a world of difference in that climb – turning those inches into miles, and reducing the risk of falling backwards. Here’s a brief summary of three of these:
Praying through Scripture
I’ve been putting into practice the process that Dan Burke outlines in his “Into the Deep”, a very quick read. This is essentially a way to pray through Scripture and, from that, allow God to instruct us in real-time. The simple process is to (1) ask God to join you, (2) read a small passage from Scripture (slowly and repeat 2-3 times), (3) reflect on what you think you can learn or apply from that passage, (4) spend time in silence, resting with God and that insight, (5) decide how you want to take action on that in the day to come. A journal or notebook really helps with this.
Setting a small amount of time aside each day, even if it’s just 10-15 minutes, will change your life. Commit to 30 days of that minimal time and, afterwards, see if you’re ready to give it up (chances are good you start lengthening the time!).
St. Ignatius of Loyola was a master of “Spiritual Exercise”, doing for our souls what push-ups and sprints may do for our bodies. One of the most important of these exercises was his Daily Examen. There is a wealth of content out there about this (and many variations on his original method), so I’ll just give a brief overview of how I have tried to put this into practice. How “true” to St. Ignatius’ original method this is, I couldn’t say, but this is what has worked for me!
Once a day, typically in the evening after dinner, I’ll spend about 15 minutes reviewing my day in the presence of the Holy Spirit (having asked Him to join me). I ask Him to walk through the different parts of my day and point out things I should take note of – I try to categorise these into three buckets: Blessings from God (things I can be grateful to Him for), Insights (lessons or things I can apply as I continue my climb), and Learnings (cases where I may have failed to do His will). As I reflect, I’ll write down what comes to mind into these three lists. Reviewing those lists, I’ll take one insight and one lesson and commit to taking action based on these in the day(s) to come. Finally, I conclude with a prayer of thanks for the direction.
Over time, this process provides a daily snapshot of how God has worked in my days – his gifts, his lessons, and his indicators to me on where I still need to improve. What I’ve also found is the act of doing this has improved my alertness and perception throughout the day, looking out for things to put in those three buckets (and very likely preventing cases where I may used to have easily fallen).
We’ve probably all heard this at one time or another, and rarely figured out how. Something I’ve tried recently has been incredible and it would be crazy to not share it with you.
There are many things we do where we open and close with a prayer. The Mass has an opening and closing prayer, we say grace before (and sometimes after) a meal, different prayers like the rosary have an opening and a closing. So I thought, why not introduce and opening and closing to smaller things and do this more frequently?
For example, I’ve been on a lot of Zoom calls recently. Saying a 30 second prayer before the call starts has completely changed how these calls have gone. It doesn’t take long to ask for the Holy Spirit to keep me present, help me to actively listen, give me the words He might want me to share, and to point out the insights he’ll want me to come back to – and when I do I can feel each of these things happen. Another 30 seconds after the call is over allows me to show my gratitude for His help, make final note of those insights and ask Him for help in taking whatever action is next.
It shouldn’t stop there – simple things like preparing a meal, cleaning the floor, going for a walk, playing with the kids…each of these are things that we could briefly say a quick intention of how we’d like Jesus’ involvement in that activity – and afterwards thank Him for it. Each of these turns into something we actively and consciously do with Him and, in this way, everything turns into a prayer. Such a beautiful way to truly live in the present, being fully alive and fully alert His prompts.
Amusingly, it also reveals the things we do that may be wasteful. I can’t picture myself asking Jesus to join me as I watch Netflix or play a game on my iPad. If it’s an activity I wouldn’t ask him to join, and in doing so help me develop and help me serve, seems like something to reconsider spending time doing.
The “world” has its’ “mindfulness” – this is a way of living through Christfulness.
Climbing to reach eternity
We’re each on our own climb to Holiness, doing our best as students in God’s life-long school. Time and time again, Jesus reassures us that the path is hard – there will be sacrifices and crosses – but it’s worth it. It’s on us to adopt the desire and discipline to keep doing more, keep pressing upward. The help is there but we need to do the work.