Part 5: Setting Your Priorities

The following is part 5 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.

Maybe you're thinking, "If being a true disciple of Jesus Christ means doing more good works in the world, then my chances of being such a disciple are slim because my life is already so busy with duties and responsibilities at work and at home. I just don't have the extra time and energy to do anymore!"

Please understand this: To make a real difference in this world as a disciple of Christ does not necessarily mean you have to do more. But it will mean that you need to do some things differently. For example, Jesus does not need you to devote extra time to His service (after all, who has any extra time these days!), but to reprioritize the ways you spend your time. In other words, once you have done some major "spring cleaning" in your soul (see part 4) it may be time to rearrange the furniture a bit!

Let's now look at the three areas of our lives in which most of us could do with some "rearranging."

1. Time
In the average North American household, the television set is left on about seven hours per day. Actually watching TV programs for even half that amount of time per day is clearly a huge time waster. How about turning off the TV except when there is a special program on that you really want to watch? Just leaving the TV on throughout the day or evening is, at best, a constant distraction, and all too often it draws people into watching programs they really do not need to see. You will be amazed at how much more time and energy you have simply from the practice of stopping the "idiot box" from blaring night and day, cluttering your life with distracting noise and banal, time-wasting entertainment.

Even better: why not try a complete media blackout? Every weekend, turn off your cell phone and stay away from the Internet, iPods, Blackberries, and everything else, including the TV. Instead, go for a walk in the park, read a book, play a board game with your kids, and spend extra time in prayer. Let your weekend become a time of mental and spiritual refreshment for a change!

That one is easy. The next one may be harder.

One of the things eating up way too much time in our lives in North America is work. In his book, A Civilization of Love, Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, summarized the effects of what is becoming a growing national trend:

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set a forty-hour work week, but today more than 40 percent of U.S. workers are working more than 50 hours per week.

Part of the reason for this trend, according to Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live, is the burgeoning of salaried positions. Originally, salaried positions - jobs for which the individual is paid a flat amount regardless of the number of hours worked - were meant to be for top and middle management. In 1940 managers and salaried professionals made up less than 9 percent of the work force. Today, however, more than 40 percent of all U.S. workers are salaried. Some companies perceive a vested interest in getting as many hours as possible out of a given employee. ... Very often, such forms of exploitation are not even cost effective. Robinson observes, "Chronic 11- and 12-hour days result in lousy productivity, expensive mistakes, burnout, triple the risk of heart attack, and quadruple the risk of diabetes - and families without a quorum for dinner. Two-thirds of people who work more than 40 hours a week report being highly stressed."...

Robinson's aside about "families without a quorum for dinner" should not be glossed over. Today, we lament the decline of the family, the increasing isolation and alienation of family members from one another, and the social problems that result. Does this decline have anything to do with the encroachment of the work day into times that were formerly devoted to family life? When parents come home after a twelve-hour day too exhausted to do anything more than barely acknowledge their children's existence, or when they relegate their children's upbringing to the electronic nanny known as television, quality of life begins to decline.

Could you realistically cut back on your commitments at work? Could you class yourself as a "workaholic"? On that second one, you can probably just ask a friend, but it may take some tough soul searching before you can come up with honest answers to those questions. If, however, your life is full to overflowing with work, it is hard to see how your heart can be full to overflowing with the merciful love of Jesus Christ at the same time, and it is likely that you and your family are missing out on a lifestyle that leaves quality time for prayer, for works of love, and for each other: a much deeper and more rewarding life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

2. Money
To be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, you may need to rearrange some of your financial priorities as well. Think for a moment about the amount of money that you truly waste each month: on expensive hobbies, needless luxuries, or shallow diversions. This will vary from person to person, of course, especially since those who have more money tend to waste a lot more at the same time. Here is a sobering set of reflections on the Christian use of one's financial resources from the great 18th century spiritual writer William Law:

If we part with our money in foolish ways, we part with a great power of comforting our fellow creatures and of making ourselves forever blessed.

If there be nothing so glorious as doing good, if there is nothing so like God, then nothing can be so glorious in the use of our money as to use it all in works of love and goodness, making ourselves friends and fathers and benefactors to all our fellow creatures, imitating the divine love and turning all our power into acts of generosity, care, and kindness, to such as are in need of it.

Riches spent upon ourselves in vain and needless expenses, in trying to use them where they have no real use, nor we any real want, we only use them to our great hurt, in creating unreasonable desires, in nourishing ill tempers, in indulging our passions and supporting a worldly, vain turn of mind. For high eating and drinking, fine clothes and fine houses.... [Excessive] pleasures and diversions do all of them naturally hurt and disorder our hearts... [and] make us less able to raise up our thoughts to things that are above....

So that money thus spent is not merely wasted or lost, but it is spent to bad purposes and miserable effects, to the corruption and disorder of our hearts, and to making us less able to live up to the sublime doctrines of the gospel. It is like keeping money from the poor, to buy poison for ourselves. (A Serious Call to A Devout and Holy Life, ch.6)

All this is not to say that you necessarily have to free up more money to give away to the Church or to charity. But it is to say that you need to stop wasting money, for money represents one of your God-given capacities to do good in the world and to make a big difference in people's lives. As a matter of fact, after examining your conscience on this matter, you may find that the most charitable thing you can do with the money you have been wasting is not to give it away at all, but to use it to buy proper life insurance for the income security of your own family or to set it aside in a college education fund for your kids.

Examine your heart and your monthly budget, ask the Lord to guide you, and you may be surprised to find how much more good you can do with the good things He has entrusted to you.

3. Prayer
In order to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ who can truly make a big difference in this world, you need to spend time alone with Him each and every day. According to St. John's gospel, the apostles spent three years in the intimate company of Jesus during His Galilean ministry, mostly just listening to His teachings and observing His example. This was their long apprenticeship to prepare them for His service. In the same way, we need to set aside time to be alone with Him every day, a block of time when we can give Him our undivided attention.

The best way to start is to set aside one half hour each day in a regular place for a "quiet time," a time simply devoted to quiet reading of the gospels. You could make this part of your lunch hour or the first half hour of the day after the kids have been packed off to school. It could even be the first half hour after you get up in the morning, especially if you can get up at dawn when the world is still quiet, before the rush of morning traffic. Commit yourself to reading and meditating upon a chapter of one of the gospels each day.

As you start, simply say the prayer of Bl. Charles de Foucauld, "Lord, what do you want to say to me today through this scripture?" Then read the chapter slowly and attentively, reflecting on its meaning for your own life, for the Church, and for the world. Then you can say to Jesus, "Lord, for my part, this is what I want to say to You," and express to Him any sentiments or concerns or resolutions that have arisen from your reading, but also go beyond that to offer up your genuine needs to Him and the needs of those for whom you want to pray. Finish with the Lord's Prayer, and you are ready to begin the day and take the next good steps in His service.

Saint Francis de Sales explains why meditating on the gospels is of primary importance in your life of prayer:

I especially counsel you to practice mental prayer, the prayer of the heart, and particularly that which centers on the life and passion of our Lord. By often turning your eyes on him in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with him. You will learn his ways and form your actions after the pattern of his. He is "the light of the world," and therefore it is in him and by him and for him that we must be instructed and enlightened. He is the tree of desire in whose shade we must be refreshed. He is that living fountain of Jacob in which we can wash ourselves clean of all our stains. Finally, just as little children learn to speak by listening to their mothers and lisping words with them, so also by keeping close to our Savior in meditation and observing his words, actions, and affections, we learn to speak, act, and will like him. (Introduction to the Devout Life, II.2)

Discussion Questions
1. What are the things that most "clutter" your life, wasting too much of your time and energy?
2. If tomorrow turned out to be the Judgement Day, what would our Lord say to you from His throne of judgement about your stewardship of the money he permitted you to have during the past year?
3. How do you think having a daily "quiet time" with Jesus Christ might change your life?

A Prayer of St. Therese of Lisieux (1874-1897)
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not try to forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you....
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.

A Hymn
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love;
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my King;
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.

Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold;
Take my intellect and use
Every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine;
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own;
It shall be Thy royal throne.

Read Part 6: Living on The Bread of Life

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).

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