I’m a college English professor with two children, ages 6 and 8. As a new school semester begins for our family, new routines automatically emerge. My son Jack will start playing basketball. My daughter Emmeline will start dance classes. I’ll begin teaching a new set of courses. A new semester automatically ushers in new ways of ordering our lives. My husband and I will arrange carline pickups and meal plans. College students will begin to schedule cardio classes with friends and other extracurricular activities.
As academics and activities increase for parents and students alike, so does joy – and stress. We need God in all of these moments, big and small. In the midst of school planning over the years, I’ve learned that an active spiritual life can sometimes get the short shift: there is no “back to school” meeting or college orientation that God plans for worship. Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years, so my family’s relationship with God remains at the center of every academic semester.
1. Take a few minutes to read or listen to the Daily Readings
Growing up, my mother always told me to “begin the day with Jesus,” and this advice has never left me. I remember seeing her in the mornings with her Bible and coffee in hand. Today, I often read Scripture during my morning routine, while blow-drying my hair, or I’ll listen to the Laudate app on the way to work. This five-minute check-in provides spiritual guidance, helping me ponder how God’s word relates to the events of my day. As I’m teaching or learning about new subjects or simply out with friends, I can think about how the daily reading intersects.
2. Create or find a sacred space that you visit
This summer, my daughter attended vacation Bible school and created a rosary with pipe cleaner and multicolored beads. She asked to hang it on her wall, so she could look at it and take it down to use. At work, I have a crucifix hanging and a poem by Mother Teresa that I reflect on when needed. Creating a sacred space doesn’t require a large area; all you need are small reminders that help bring you to prayerful time with Jesus. The side of your desk can hold a prayer card, as can your laptop. If you feel your environment isn’t conducive to creating a sacred space, find a space that helps you feel close to God that is easily accessible during your week. Don’t be afraid to visit your parish, your college’s Newman center, or the sanctuary at your school if there is one! Even a beloved tree will do in a pinch. Schedule this quiet time with God the same way you would a visit to the gym or a study group session. Just 10-15 minutes in prayer, away from the bustle of everything you have to do during the week, can help recenter your mind and bring a quiet peace to an otherwise packed day.
3. Befriend a saint for the semester or school year
Last year, because of the pandemic, I got to know Julian of Norwich, someone I’d always found inspirational but never had time to discover more about. I spent time asking for her intercession and read a little about her, often sharing her devotional writings at the start of my classes. She lived in isolation during a pandemic and has a famous prayer: “All shall be well” that has always given me comfort. Spending dedicated time with her helped me not only grow in knowledge but also deepened my faith. If you’re interested in literature like many of my students, you might choose to spend time with Saint George—the patron saint of reading. Or, if you’re interested in medicine, Saint Raphael or Saint Gianna Molla might be for you. Perhaps when creating a sacred space, you keep your saint for that semester or even school year in mind, knowing that they’ll be praying for your spiritual and academic success.
4. Set aside time for Mass
This one you probably expected to see on this list—but sticking to it is harder than it sounds during a busy semester. On my semester calendars and syllabi, I mark off religious observations and holy days. God may not require you to attend an orientation like I mentioned above, but we should be sure to schedule Mass into our lives just as we do anything else (or ideally before we do anything else). In the same way you’ve befriended a saint for the semester, you might try to find a friend to attend Mass with. If you’re in college, Newman centers or campus ministries are excellent places to start to find like-minded Catholic students. Or simply start showing up, and you’ll find familiar, friendly faces with similar values.
Mass is like beginning the day with Scripture: it infuses the week with love. Receiving the Eucharist. Offering peace to your fellow Catholics. Praying together in communion. This is what being Catholic is about, so it’s important to make this time with God a must—even and especially when we’re the busiest. This is one way we bring peace and joy to ourselves, and to the world around us.
It feels fitting to end with one of my favorite Bible verses, Philippians 4:8, which reads: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
A busy semester will pull us all in a multitude of directions, and busier schedules will likewise have us contemplating a range of different “things.” Setting aside time to read what is “right” and “pure,” spending time in sacred spaces that are “lovely,” getting to know a “noble” saint one “admires,” and attending Mass where “truth” is spoken and felt are all ways to create a holier semester. I’ve learned over the years that none of the practices I’ve suggested take much time from my everyday life, but each of them has transformed it in a different way. Incorporating these ideas into your calendar at the beginning of the semester – as my family will be ours – will help ensure not only that your spiritual life feels attended to, but also that your whole life might be infused with a sense of calm because you’ll know that God will be a fixture in the patterns of your life no matter what the semester may bring.