Q: Dear Father John, what is a “Program of Life” and why is it important to my spiritual progress and Spiritual Direction?
A: One of the enemies of good spiritual direction is excessive subjectivity. We all have urgent personal issues that come and go; they occupy our attention and energy intensely for brief periods, but they really don’t touch the deeper regions of our character and personality. When a child is sick, it preoccupies us. When someone at work is having problems that affect the rest of us, it preoccupies us. Sometimes issues like this are important enough to deserve ample attention during spiritual direction, but not usually. And yet, because they are on our mind, we will naturally tend to let them dominate our conversation during spiritual direction. This can inhibit us from the kind of deep, systematic, and structural work that spiritual direction is really designed to foster. The headlines of our lives change every day, just like the news headlines. But headlines are by nature superficial. We need to make sure that we don’t waste all of our spiritual direction talking about superficial headlines. This is where the Program of Life comes in; it helps us to keep our ongoing spiritual work objective and profound.
To understand how it does that, we only have to understand what it is. The term Program of Life has some siblings: Rule of Life, Reform of Life, Plan for Spiritual Growth, Game Plan for the Soul, Business Plan for the Soul… In all cases, the core meaning remains the same. The Program of Life is a tool that helps us personalize the principles of spiritual progress:
Prayer - Everyone needs to pray, but how often should I pray, what type of prayer should I focus on, what factors are making prayer hard for me? Every individual person, because of their life-situation, background, education, and temperament will find individualized answers to those questions.
Virtue - Likewise, everyone needs to become more Christ-like through the practice of Christian virtue. But which virtues do I most need to develop and how exactly can I work on them, which habits of selfishness are most deeply rooted in me and how can I diminish them, what is the underlying cause of my most frequent sins and faults? Again, every individual will answer these questions differently
State in Life - The same goes for the fulfillment of God’s will through fidelity to the responsibilities of one’s state in life. Every father needs to guide, discipline, and spend time with his children; every husband needs to give his life for his wife, as Christ gave his life for the Church; every professional needs to be another Christ in their workplace – but these ideals will take on unique (and uniquely beautiful) characteristics as they are incarnated in the unique and dynamic reality of every individual.
The Program of Life consists of the personalized answers to all these questions, phrased and arranged in such a way that they become a guide for daily living.
The Program of Life, then, is like a spiritual workout program that insures spiritual growth because it is customized to the individual’s needs and opportunities. When we meet with our spiritual director, it is good to start by going over the headlines, but, reviewing together the main points of the Program of Life is the real path to consistent, substantial progress.
Three other things are worth noting.
- First, when we draw up a Program of Life together with our spiritual director (which is a very good idea), our efforts to follow it have the added benefit of being acts of obedience, since we are doing not just our own will, but God’s will as manifested through our director (we are not speaking of a vow of obedience, but the virtue). An effective time to draw up a Program of Life is during a retreat; a little distance from the daily grind sharpens our spiritual vision.
- Second, a good Program of Life includes a personal (usually weekly) schedule with prayer commitments that are decided upon ahead of time. This saves us from the inconsistency that comes from moodiness and constant improvisation. It also includes concrete areas of activity (the formation of good habits of behavior) that directly counteract the most salient manifestations of one’s root sin.
- Third, the Program of Life is a living entity. It can and should change as we get to know ourselves better and as we grow. Living it out is not like following the Ten Commandments, to which there are never exceptions. Rather, it’s like following a game plan on the basketball court; flexibility in the face of life’s dynamism is preferable to scrupulosity.