The power of habits

Back in the day when I was working in the world and spending way too much time on airplanes accumulating way too many frequent-flyer miles, it seemed to me business travelers did three things on longer flights: sleep, work, or read Stephen’ Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The book argues that one should align universal and timeless principles with one’s values. Covey sees principles as external natural laws, while values remain internal and subjective. Covey asserts that values govern people’s behavior, but principles ultimately determine the consequences. If sales volume is measure of the usefulness of this self-help book, then 25+ million copies sold says something. Maybe there are some possibilities for a parallel book about the best practices and habits for Catholics. Might be a Lenten best seller!

I suspect we humans under-appreciate the impact and power of habits – good and bad. I sometimes wonder if we humans are not fundamentally thinking creatures or believing creatures, but desiring creatures. Thinking and believing are key and essential parts of who we are, but I suspect what pushes and pulls us has more to do with what captures our desires, our affections — our hearts. Our identity as persons is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate. It is the heart that needs formation in the Christian life. (“Habits of the Heart” – great title, but already taken by Robert Bellah.)

At our baptism, we are claimed for Christ by the sign of the cross the priest and parents trace on our foreheads, we are anointed as disciples of Christ, and we are washed clean in the waters of Baptism and in the Holy Spirit. And now we are ready to develop the habits for a lifetime. We don’t immediately become saints. We observe, we watch, we listen, and we, knowingly or not, cultivate habits that become a natural part of our lives. Nature hates a vacuum. So, we either form Christian habits of the heart or other habits of the heart will surely find their own place in our hearts.

What would be your list for the habits that well form our heart as Christian people? Here is my list (and the first one should not surprise you, Read the Word of God – have the Word ever in your mind and heart. It is where you meet Jesus and where you can fall in love. In those grey moments when you are wondering what to do, the answer to WWJD (what would Jesus do) is written in the Sacred Scriptures. Where to start? Start with one of the three synoptic (“see with the same eye”) gospels: Mark, Matthew, or Luke – and simply learn the stories – not verbatim, but in your own words.  Words that will be familiar, recalled, and shared. Stories that will find a home in your heart. Telling stories that become a habit of your heart.

Cultivate an active prayer life – no sense falling in love with Jesus if you’re not going to talk with Him. God cannot effectively change, shape and mold our lives unless we share it with Him in prayer. We Catholics are awesome at standard prayers. We have a beautiful collection of them that are timeless, inspiring, and tell their own stories. We Catholics are less comfortable with prayer as conversation with God. It does not have to be dramatic or poetic. Form a new habit of the heart. Sit in a moment of quiet (says the priest with no kids!…) and tell God about your day and how you experienced the day. “That person at work just annoyed me again today. I don’t know what is about them. The just press my buttons in all the wrong ways. What it is about me that gets so riled up and flummoxed?” And wait for a response. Perhaps you might hear the voice of God, experience Wisdom that comes to mind, or have grace walk into your life on two feet to help you answer the questions. The habit of prayer is what keeps us tuned in to God and sensitive to the Spirit. Without the habit of prayer, the noisy demands of the world and our impulses are all we can ever hear.

Set spiritual goals –There is a saying in business, “If you don’t plan for success, you are planning to fail.” Whether it is a business or a school, a family or a sports team, everyone needs to plan. What makes us think it is any different for our spiritual lives? The well-formed heart asks that we set personal spiritual goals and actively work towards them, making the necessary sacrifices to eventually reach them. Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps set their goals long before they stood on the Olympic medal stand. What is your plan to form a loving heart?

And… you know I am going to list seven habits, right? Check back for next week’s column!

2 thoughts on “The power of habits

  1. More than 20 years ago I was a nurse at a retirment community for Friars. One of them had a sign in his room that said something like this: Make it a habit everyday to do something you do not like to do and you will grow in virtue.
    Thats a really hard thing, but I do believe that habits form ones character and I believe you are right that right now we can all use some good ones.

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