By Father Connor Danstrom
Summer is normally the time we take a break from things. School is over, the weather is nice, and most people take at least some time off work. Even the liturgical calendar seems to reflect this yearly sabbath, moving out of the spiritually “busy” seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter into the mundanely named “Ordinary Time.”
But don’t let the name fool you. What Christians are ordinarily about is far from mundane. As we approach Pentecost, this time is the fulfillment of the mysteries we have celebrated all year — the incarnation of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and finally his ascension into heaven and, soon, the sending of the Holy Spirit. It is in this time of the church, the “last times” when we wait in joyful hope for the Lord’s coming in glory, that we receive ever more fully the gift that has been won for us in Christ. Even the liturgical color, green, speaks of the growth we are meant to undergo during this time. We are meant to be like trees planted beside the river, growing and bearing fruit.
So what are some ways we can concretely grow in our faith this summer? Here are 10 simple ways that you can open yourself to the growth God desires for you.
1. Make time for silent prayer every day
Any relationship needs time to grow. If we do not spend time with the ones we love, we may not grow apart, but we can hardly grow closer. Only in the mutual sharing of our hearts on a regular basis do we come to know and love someone more deeply. This is especially true of God, who is constantly communicating his love to us, if only we would stop to listen and receive him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer” (No. 2567). It also says, “According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain. The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live … the heart is the place ‘to which I withdraw’” (CCC, No. 2562-2563).
Make time every day this summer, even if it is only 10 or 15 minutes, to enter into the dwelling place of your heart with God. Relate to him what you are experiencing each day; tell him what moves you, what excites you or scares you. St. Paul says we should “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17), but in order to pray at all times, we have to pray at certain times. This summer, make time for daily prayer.
2. Go to Mass
It should probably go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: Go to Mass. According to the Second Vatican Council, the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” This means that everything we do as Christians flows from and leads back to this central mystery. It is the place of most intimate communion between Christ and his church. It is where we become what we are, the Body of Christ. As members of his body, we cannot hope to grow in strength and vigor if we are not nourished at least weekly at the Eucharistic feast. If you are already in the habit of going to Sunday Mass, try going during the week once or twice, as well.
3. Actually participate at Mass
Nothing is more disheartening as a priest than starting the Mass with an enthusiastic “The Lord be with you!” and being met with a mumbling, half-dead “and with your spirit.” Participation at Mass is about more than what we say or do, but what we say and do truly matters. We are corporeal beings, and what we do with our bodies means something. The gestures, words and songs of the Mass have significance beyond what we may be able to grasp in the moment, but their effect on us is real nevertheless. We are not meant to passively sit and listen to other people pray and talk but to worship God with our bodies, minds and souls. By actually singing and saying the responses at Mass, we are making a gift of ourselves to God. If we are too passive at Mass, or we don’t even bother opening the hymnal to sing, we are telling our souls that we are here not to give our hearts and minds in worship, but to “get something out of it” or, worse yet, to “check the box.” This summer, make an effort to participate more fully in the Mass.
4. Go to confession once a month
One of the most poignant scenes in the Old Testament is when God is searching for Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall, but they hide themselves among the trees (cf. Gn 3:8-9). God calls out to them, as he calls to all of us in our sinfulness. He does not want us to close ourselves off from him in shame but to open our faults to him so he can forgive, restore and heal us. These places of brokenness can become places of intimacy and trust because we know ourselves to be loved unconditionally. Just as Peter knew the Lord loved him in spite of his threefold denial (cf. Jn 21:15-19), so we can encounter the love of Jesus every time we receive absolution for our sins in confession.
Especially if you are in the habit of going to confession only “when you need to” or only once or twice a year during Advent and Lent, this summer, make a habit of going once a month. This encounter with the mercy of Jesus in the sacrament, if it is received with a sincere and contrite heart, will undoubtedly bear fruit.
5. Celebrate a saint’s feast day
As Catholics, we have so many great saints to imitate and admire. But more importantly, we have friends in heaven who want to help us and pray for us. The liturgical calendar is full of feasts celebrating these great saints, but unless we go to daily Mass, we may never know they exist. This summer, make an effort to celebrate a saint’s feast day with special devotion and festivity. Go to Mass on that day and pray for the saint’s help in your life of discipleship. Do something special to honor them and celebrate that they are part of the church triumphant rejoicing in heaven.
A close friend of mine would do this every year on the feast of St. Lawrence, whose feast day is Aug. 10. St. Lawrence was a deacon and martyr who died by being burned to death on an iron grill. My friend would honor him every year, appropriately, by hosting a barbecue with his friends.
6. Read one of the four Gospels
St. Jerome famously said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Aside from the Eucharist and our daily life of prayer, there is no more certain way to grow in knowledge and love of Jesus than to read the word of God. Jesus is himself the Word made flesh, so every word of the Bible speaks of him in some way. But the Gospels in a particular way allow us to encounter the person of Christ in an intense and vivid way.
I remember the first time I read the Gospel of Luke from start to finish when I was in high school. My father and I would read a chapter or two every Sunday together and talk about it. I had heard all of the stories before at Mass, but something about reading the events of Jesus’ life in order, and reading the words of Jesus in the context of his entire life and ministry, allowed the Lord to come alive to me in a new way. Perhaps this summer you can read the Gospel of Matthew, which is the Gospel we will read throughout the rest of this liturgical year. Take your time and read it prayerfully. Even better, read it with a friend and talk about what strikes you, what confuses you, and what calls you to greater love.
7. Read a book with a group of friends
\There is an old adage, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” For some reason, when we have less to do, we tend to do less. This is no more evident to me than with reading. Most of us have dozens of books on our reading list, but whenever we have the time to actually sit and read them, what do we do? Often we fritter away the time on mindless entertainment or nonurgent tasks that take less mental energy. Yet when we muster the willpower to actually sit and read a good book, one that really nourishes our mind and our soul, we have no doubt that it was time well spent. So how do we get ourselves to do the more nourishing thing even when it doesn’t seem immediately attractive to us? This is where friends can help each other.
There are so many great Catholic books, both fiction and non-fiction. If you are not normally much of a reader, I recommend starting with a good Catholic novel. Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Georges Bernanos, J.R.R. Tolkien all have written classic works of fiction that will have you grappling with spiritual realities and will spark great conversations with a group of friends over dinner. C.S. Lewis and Willa Cather are also two of my favorite authors who are not Catholic but whose stories have wonderfully Catholic overtones. This summer, expand your soul with good literature enjoyed with friends.
8. Pray the Rosary
Every year, a survey is done of the men who were ordained priests throughout the United States. Some of the questions have to do with what spiritual practices and parish activities they were engaged in before joining seminary. While many say they participated in things like youth groups, Catholic summer camps, World Youth Days and the like, there are two things that almost every man reports having participated in regularly before seminary: Eucharistic adoration and praying the rosary. It makes logical sense, doesn’t it? Who could lead us more safely to our true vocation than Jesus and Mary, and what better ways to foster our relationship with them than by spending time in the Lord’s Eucharistic presence and by meditating on his life through the mysteries of the rosary.
The rosary is one of the most tried and true devotions of the Catholic church. There is a reason many religious orders wear a rosary as part of their habit and carry it wherever they go. There is a reason St. John Paul II and other great saints prayed this prayer daily. Although it is made up of vocal prayers — the Hail Mary, Our Father and Glory Be — it is actually a mental prayer, meant to draw us into contemplation of the mysteries of the life of Christ. Making a daily practice of this prayer helps keep our minds and hearts fixed on the story that truly defines us, which is the history of God’s saving love for us. Especially if you are discerning your vocation or in a time of transition in your life, the regular recitation of the Rosary will help you remain in Jesus, who is our true home.
9. Make a “desert day”
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (or CFR’s as they are commonly known) have a discipline I greatly admire known as “hermitage.” Once a month, every friar is required to spend a day in prayer and solitude. This time away from their active, apostolic life gives them a chance to reflect in prayer with the Lord on the many things they have done, seen and suffered that month, and it lets them receive very consciously from God the life and love that gives their mission its fruitfulness.
Jesus said: “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4-5). Especially for those of us who live in the world, and particularly if you spend most of your day in temporal concerns (business, politics, entertainment, consumer goods), it is all the more necessary to make time and space to, like Jesus, go off to deserted places to pray.
Making a “desert day” doesn’t have to be an overly radical thing. If you can do an overnight at a retreat center or monastery, that’s great. If all you can do is spend Sunday afternoon somewhere peaceful with no phone and your spouse watching the kids, that’s great, too. The important thing is to spend the time remaining in Jesus. “Without me you can do nothing,” he says. The frenzied activity of our lives amounts to nothing if we are not rooted in the one relationship that gives our lives eternal significance. This summer, make a desert day.
10. Make a pilgrimage
When I was in seminary I had the great privilege of visiting the Holy Land with my classmates. It was a deeply moving experience to touch the places the Lord Jesus himself had visited and touched. To be in the very place he died and where he rose from the dead was sublime and surreal. But what moved me also was not just the connection I felt with the Lord, his mother, the apostles and the others who accompanied him in his earthly life, but also the connection I felt with the other pilgrims who had visited these holy sites over the past 2,000 years, including great saints like St. Francis and St. Ignatius Loyola.
We don’t have to travel to the Middle East to feel this connection to the wider church in time and space. There are places right in your own backyard where pilgrims go to honor saints, grow in faith and give thanks to God for the blessings they have received. Where I live, in Chicago, we have numerous shrines within driving distance — the National Shrine of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, the National Shrine of Maximilian Kolbe, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This summer, make a trip to attend Mass at a place of pilgrimage.
— A summer of grace
A priest I trust once said to me, “There is no neutral time in the spiritual life, where I’m not getting better but I’m not getting worse. No, Jesus always wants deeper communion with you, and he is always working hard to bring it about.” In other words, we can count on two things: God’s desire for our spiritual growth, and the gift of his grace to help us grow. This year, let summer be a season of growth for you, and use these simple practices as a way to receive the grace that will bring it about.
Father Connor Danstrom is the director of the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois