Sticktoitiveness

To make progress in growing closer to Christ it helps to pick one thing and stick to it. Pick something which is optional, not a matter strictly of required morality or Church law. And then see if you can stay with it every day.

Here are the sorts of things I have in mind.

(1) Many reliable spiritual writers have suggested that a first step in developing a life of prayer, especially for a student or young professional, is to pick a definite time in the morning, set your alarm clock to that time, and then try to wake up at that time everyday. It doesn’t much matter how early or late the time is. Wake up because it is the time you have set, not because you feel like waking up.

(2) During lent, some Catholics adopt the practice of going to Mass everyday, not simply on Sunday. Some Catholics aim to do this all year round, even outside of Lent. There is no “obligation’’ to go to Mass during the week. You don’t break a moral law if you don’t. It’s the complete freedom of the practice which makes it so appealing.

(3) A journalist who was a member of Opus Dei once found himself traveling on the papal airplane with John Paul II for one of the pope’s many pilgrimages. He was invited to speak personally with the Holy Father and told him then that he was in Opus Dei. John Paul II said to him, “Many times when I am sitting you will see that I don’t lean against the back of the chair. It’s a small mortification which I do, and I learned that from St. Josemaria Escriva.” The pope was referring to St. Josemaria’s teaching that “mortification” (“putting oneself to death” through small acts of self-denial) should be in the background of one’s life constantly, “like the beating of one’s heart.” This might involve not leaning against the back of a chair, or not taking cream in one’s morning coffee, or not putting butter on one’s bread at dinner, or some similar small thing.

What is the value of doing something for Christ each day, whether it is small (omitting cream from your coffee) or infinitely large (daily Mass)? I mean, what worth is there simply in the persistence?

First, there’s the test of love. Remember when Peter said to Christ, “Even if the others desert you, I’ll remain faithful, even to the point of death”? This was easy for Peter to say, but difficult to do. Love is proved in deeds, not sweet words. Suppose that the test of love is not that you give up your life, but rather that you drink your coffee without cream? Can you do that simple thing each day? You eat three meals each day without fail, because if you didn’t you’d be hungry. Do you have enough love in you to do something optional each day without fail? Can you make love a priority?

Second, there’s the self-knowledge. St. Peter lacked knowledge of his own weakness; he discovered it when in difficult circumstances he betrayed Christ three times. In a similar way, though on a much smaller scale, we inevitably discover our own weakness when we try to be consistent in some small act of love.

You’ll discover rising up against your resolution all kinds of reasons, excuses, and competing allegiances which you never knew existed before. You’ll be astonished at your own half-heartedness, variability, and vacillation.

A friend of mine once made the resolution for Lent to wake up at 6 a.m., which was early for him. He succeeded on Ash Wednesday, but, despite his efforts, he failed every other day of Lent after that. He thought his Lent was a complete failure, until someone pointed out that he had gotten a very clear grasp of his own weakness.

Third, there’s the purification of motive. Someone ought to give a name to the error, or even heresy, that that which is a matter of spontaneous feeling is best. Feelings only go so far. Sometimes they can get us started in the right direction, but when they fade, as they inevitably do, they have to be replaced by other motives, if we are to continue on this path.

Furthermore, feelings please and “console” us. To that extent a mere feeling is a selfish motivation. The motives that must replace feelings, if we are to persevere, lack these pleasures and therefore are more disinterested.

Indeed, when we do something because it gives us a good feeling, what we value is something in ourselves. But when we do something even when the good feeling is gone (usually only for a while), we testify with our actions to the worth itself of what we are doing, regardless of any benefit we get from it.

It can be seen, then, that all consistency in love implies “mortification,” the putting aside of oneself, and the opening of oneself to the other and to God’s grace. The great example of this in our own time is Mother Teresa, who persevered in a life of devotion to Christ, despite long years of “darkness,” in which she felt no consolations.

“I have come to love the darkness,” she wrote to her spiritual director, “For I believe now that it is a part -- a very, very small part -- of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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