When I was discerning the priesthood/religious life, I spent some time with several different religious orders. The seminarians and religious brothers would wake before the crack of dawn for their community morning prayers. Some individuals woke up even before the rest of the community got up so that they could spend time praying quietly on their own. It was such an amazing and awe-inspiring experience to find myself amid young seminarians praying quietly and fervently in the early hours of the morning, drawing strength from God to carry them through their day.
Note that these young men would joyfully work late into the night, studying and praying, and then still manage to wake up way before dawn the next morning. I discovered that there was a direct connection between their early morning routine and their ability to work throughout the day. Although I eventually decided against the religious life, I picked up an important habit that I now find very useful in my life as a family man—the habit of beginning every day early with prayer.
I was in the military for several years so getting up early in the morning is a familiar routine. I know that being awake in the dreaded wee hours of the morning can make even the nicest people groggy, crabby, and grouchy. But when I lived with the different religious groups in their seminaries and novitiate houses, I was quite fascinated by what I observed. A busy daily routine, schoolwork, homework, plus service in the kitchen or whatever other duties can get anyone tired, sleep-deprived, and even crabby in the early mornings.
But not these seminarians and religious brothers. During my stay with them, I felt nothing but true joy circulating in the air, and it was the kind of joy that was just all around, spreading like wildfire in the novitiate, even in the early hours of the morning. The “Good Morning!” greetings from the seminarians and the novices came with a smile. I could feel the genuineness of their greetings. They radiated the joy of the Lord and it was contagious. As the day went, whether the brothers were serving in the soup kitchen, cleaning their homes, serving at Mass, or studying Scripture, they amazingly stayed full of energy. They were so joyful to do the work they were doing, no matter what that work was and no matter how early it was in the morning.
They began each morning knowing that they have a purpose in life. They knew exactly why they get out of bed in the morning. They knew their calling, and they were driven to fulfill it.
One early morning, I asked one of the seminarians how he felt about waking up early on a daily basis. He smiled and replied while we stared out the window, “Look outside. You see all those cars on the highway this early in the morning? Those are the people we have to serve and they are up already.” He paused for a few seconds and then quoted something in Latin: “Servite Domino in laetitia!”
My Latin was rusty so I asked, “What does that mean?”
He was eager and happy with the opportunity to talk as if we were already in class. He went on to explain, “It is a quote from Saint Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. The Latin phrase Servite Domino in laetitia translated into English is ‘I will serve God joyfully!’”
It usually would have been difficult for me to absorb the informal Latin lecture that early in the morning but his very sincere and enthusiastic delivery, even at that early hour, was enough to give me a jolt stronger than what any caffeinated drink would have given me. And his explanation really did capture the actions and the sentiments that I observed during my time with them. The seminarians and novices there were some of the most devoted and dedicated group of individuals I have ever met and it showed in their joyfulness.
Peanut Butter and Prayer
It has been over a decade now since that fruitful experience of exploring my religious vocation but this is one key takeaway that has kept me going in my daily life outside of those seminary walls. As a family man with two young kids, my vocation is clearly different but I am made aware that I must continue to acknowledge that I still have a calling to serve God with joy and with purpose. When I wake up early in the morning, I bring to mind that my call is to fulfill my vocation as a parent taking care of two of God’s most beautiful creations. My wife and I devote, not necessarily an entire hour like what I experienced in the religious settings, but at least the first minutes to God, thanking Him and asking for His guiding hands and to give us a full charge for the day. Our day starts with prayer and service, going to the kitchen and preparing the kids’ school lunches, and preparing for the busy workday ahead. Spreading peanut butter and jelly on toast might not always be the most serene and most enjoyable task but when we keep our focus on the reasons why we do it, they become meaningful.
It is important that the first thing we do when we open our eyes is to be grateful and to acknowledge our purpose so that we may align our motivations and our actions with God’s will. And when we do that, we are able to structure the day ahead in a positive and meaningful way. Evidence from psychology research suggests that positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, and interest, lead to a positive tone that tends to be long-lasting and so why not start the day with positivity? Why not start the day inviting Jesus into our lives? Making time in the morning to pray gives us not only get a head start on our day but also the opportunity to reflect on God’s calling in our lives, our purpose. We get to discern what God’s will is for us that day. The better we are aligned with God’s will, the clearer our pursuits in life will be. Sometimes that calibration process is a daily recurrence. “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
The Gospel of Mark tells us that our Lord Jesus got up very early in the morning, while it was still dark, to go off to a solitary place to pray (Mark 1:35). That time of prayer was followed by a very productive day where he went preaching throughout Galilee, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Jesus shows us that no matter how long, busy, and tiresome our day will be, it is important that our daily activities start off with prayer, even if it means waking up very early.