Dear Fr Anthony,
In a book I am reading it is suggested that as part of the discernment process one develop a "Rule of Life. This is defined as a daily, weekly, and monthly schedule in which you set aside specific times for prayer, study, work, meals, exercise, recreation, reading, and other priorities. Could you offer any advice as to how I would go about doing this?
A "Rule of Life" is a very practical way of ordering your life; as a matter of fact it is just a religious name for time management which also takes into account your spiritual growth, and I would not limit its usefulness only to vocational discernment - it is a great way to get a handle on your whole life. It is much more than simply distributing the use of your time, because the things we fill our life with and the time we give to each one responds to the relative importance we give each one, and we judge their importance by their usefulness in relation to the goals we set for ourselves in our life. So, the first big advantage of setting a rule of life is that it helps us break free from our tendency to drift along and it makes us think about our priorities and goals, and so it allows us to live with a purpose, constructively.
The best way to do it is to take pen to paper. As a matter of fact, it only works when you commit it to writing and you regularly assess your progress by going back over what you wrote to see how you are doing. So, get yourself a notebook or open up a document on your computer just for this. What follows is one way to organize your thoughts and reflections:
First of all, list your overall priorities (it is very helpful to do this in a retreat situation, when you have had the opportunity to reflect on the gift of life and life's purpose), in other words, what do you really want to do in life, what do you want to get out of life? Some people find it helpful to ask what they would like others to say about them after they die; others make it even more real by asking themselves what God is going to be looking for when they stand before him on judgment day.
As soon as you ask yourself about your priorities, you realize that your life is made up of several complementary, overlapping areas: your Christian vocation and your spiritual life, your social life, your human formation, family life, studies and profession, etc. You can also look on these as needs (I need to save my soul, I need to live in Grace, I need to prepare for life, I need to help others….) This means that you will need to reflect and find a way to make these areas fit together and complement each other, rather than divide you and pull you in so many different directions.
Make a list what you really want to do in each of these areas, the things that are most important for you. List also the problem areas: your time wasters (Internet, phone, TV...), your weaknesses (such as inconstancy, impatience, weak in peer-pressure situations, any addictive behavior, etc.), the things you are sorry you did afterwards, etc. Now, you will have to reflect to see what are the means you are going to apply in each area in order to achieve your goal. (I want to live a strong life of Grace, therefore I need to dedicate time each day to prayer; I need to go regularly to Mass and receive Communion, what are the opportunities I have; I need to go to Confession more regularly, what times is it available at my parish; I want to develop my intelligence responsibly, therefore I need to dedicate more time to study, use it better, pay more attention in class, which means giving up gaming on the internet, limiting TV to Sundays; I want to pay off my debts so as to be free to follow my vocation, therefore I need to cut my expenses, save, get a second job, sell my car and use a bike....) So, state your goals and list the means to achieve them. The great thing about writing it down is that it obliges you to be very clear and concrete. If you have a spiritual director ask him for his help to make sure you are being realistic in your analysis, setting your goals and choosing your means.
Once you do this, the next step is to distribute your time. Look at the goals you set in each area and the means you plan to apply, and then see how you are going to fit each one in your day, week, month and year (what time each week Confession is available, the time of day I can go to Mass, the prayer I need to do each day, when I can do a retreat, how much time I can work without it affecting my studies, when I'm going to take time off with my friends, how much sleep I need, how much exercise….) Your spiritual director can help you here to make sure you are not trying to do too much too soon, or too little too late. Check your duties (studies, work, health, your obligations towards your parents, etc.), your goals and needs and how you spread them out over your week. Take a look at what you want to do for others (teach catechism, coach younger kids, boy-scouts, altar-servers, meals on wheels...) and do the same for these as your duties. As regards your vocation, I would recommend you gather the information you need, make sure you set some time for a retreat, plan on visiting the places you are interested in, take care of obstacles (work to clear up your debts, for example), look into the practical implications (when the entrance date is, the application process...). It will then be relatively simple to set deadlines on a calendar (one that you will be able to see), and to develop a daily and weekly routine that will keep you focused.
Dan, I hope this is helpful. It usually doesn't work out perfectly the first time, there is always some hitch, but as you try to do it you will get to know yourself better and you will improve. There seem to be some people who are just more organized than the rest of us. If you have a friend like that enlist his help.
One final, very important point: once you make a rule of life you have to post it somewhere and set a time every day that you are going to check it. I suggest it not be somewhere too visible because then you get used to it and never really see it anymore even though it’s there in front of you. Try the back of the door of a closet. Set a time (usually good to do it first thing in the morning) to check on what you have to do today, and then one (usually towards the night) to see how you did. You can include that in a short daily examination of conscience.