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 | By Sister Pam Smith

Check Marks and To-Do Lists

Among the things that have recently come across my desk are notifications that I can get lists, tasks, reminders and calendars all in one app. That doesn’t mean that I want the particular app, but I have to confess that I am a compulsive list writer. Frankly, I sometimes wonder if we sisters will have groceries or supper unless I put those necessities on a list or my daily online calendar.

It seems that many of us are on overload when it comes to the series of unrelated tasks — ministerial, familial, household, financial, spiritual — that press upon us day after day. Yet we also like the check marks or the stacking files that say “outgoing” that show we have completed a task.

Maybe it goes back to childhood. At home, we had a wall where there were light pencil marks to show our progress in height. We also had charts from school that got gold stars if we had all our homework correct. With my office now located above a Catholic school, I see marks of accomplishments and prizes for this or that achievement — an art contest with first- and second-place awards, a class competition for collecting items for a food bank or outreach center and, of course, the everlasting scoreboards and trophy cases. There is something about us that not only wants but needs to see that we have gotten from point A to point B, have raised grades or achieved a goal. Business leaders remind us that written goals are more likely to be fulfilled than ones that have simply been voiced at a meeting. That seems to go for both corporate goals and personal ones.

When I turned 60, I happened to be on a retreat at which we were challenged to write out some goals for the next 30 years. After an internal guffaw and the thought that this retreat director clearly had younger adults in mind, I caught myself and thought: Why not? So I wrote some. It turns out that I have actually accomplished some of those goals. They had to do with professional and ministerial life, spiritual development and a generalized sort of bucket list. The trick is going back to check on what I’ve written, whether the goals still are worthy or need revision — and to remember that there’s still time.

So, in this month of New Year’s resolutions I thought I’d mention a couple of general strategies that have worked for me. One is my long-term commitment to writing down the author, title, publisher and copyright date of anything book-length or booklet-length that I have read. I actually started this in college. I’ve been in the Catholic Book Club at St. Gregory the Great Church in Bluffton since its founding in 2006. That has meant I’ve read a number of spiritual classics, nonfiction and fiction with a moral-spiritual angle simply for our monthly meetings September through May. Since helming the ecumenical office for the diocese, I have also found that several of our statewide faith-based organizations sponsor live events and book clubs. For example, South Carolinians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty have a bi-monthly online book meeting. Our October 2023 one was joined by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, of “Dead Man Walking” fame. A few months earlier, a survivor of the killings at Mother Emanuel in Charleston joined us. Keeping the reading list has also impelled my reading of papal encyclicals, and as a result, I suspect I qualify as an “encyclical nerd.” They’re typically fairly weighty tomes, but they are easily accessible and printable from I haven’t kept every reading list since college, by the way, but I do have more than 15 years of those lists in a binder. It has frequently helped me find titles or publication information for something I’ve ended up teaching or commenting on in a column.

Another interesting and challenging goal is tithing time for prayer. It adds up to 144 minutes per day. Aside from sounding impossible for the average busy person, it’s a consciousness-raiser. Many things count: daily Mass, the Divine Office, a rosary or rosaries in the car, the Divine Mercy chaplet, spiritual reading, reflective watching or listening to spiritual talks or religious music or just sitting in silence.

To be truthful, I have noted years when I read astonishingly little aside from things like notices and handbooks. In those years, though, I could see that there were times when I binge-read — frequently on trips that required flights and an overnight stay in a hotel somewhere or on retreat. I also have not come close to succeeding in tithing time for prayer on a number of occasions. And then there have been times that I have been on a long solo car trip and simply said to God, “I think you and I need to listen to some smooth jazz together. That works for you as prayer, right?” 

My rationale on that score is that St. Paul’s injunction to us to pray without ceasing (1Thes 5:16-17) can be interpreted to mean pray any way that you can. All sorts of things lift our minds and hearts to God, and plenty of people tell me how they pray while walking the dog, knitting, gardening or woodworking. The thing that makes us attentive to our prayer time or neglect thereof is having a simple tracking device, like a little notebook with dates and a slot for estimated minutes spent, noted at day’s end.

While these lists can be effective motivators, the big caution is that we don’t become like the nursery rhyme Little Jack Horner when checking our lists and, if it looks pretty good, smugly thinking “what a good boy/good girl am I!” Jesus warned us against multiplying our prayers and making vain repetitions, just as he cautioned against pharisaic widening of phylacteries and parading our penances: “All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels” (Mt 23:5).

All that having been said, it seems worthwhile in January to set a few goals for continuing education and ongoing faith formation. We may become better people for it, better read, holier and more attentive to the wider world.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at