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Habit: Friend or Enemy?

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND The Wanderer September 1, 2011

Habit plays a cardinal role in human life. In order to gauge its value, however, some distinctions are called for.  First of all, what do we mean by'"habit"? One thing is obvious: Repetition of the same act over and over again renders many of our activities easier and easier to perform. Very many of our daily tasks are done by habit getting: getting dressed, turning off the lights, and locking our doors when when we leave the house. The list is long. One only needs to watch small children for a few minutes to see that, for them, to put on their shoes and get dressed is quite a demanding task.

On the other hand, one is always amazed when watching cordon bleus on television. They create their culinary masterpieces — the fruit of the complex task of mixing ingredients at the proper time and the proper sequence — with such ease and grace that hyros in the field marvel at them and envy them. One does not become a master cook overnight. One does not become a great pianist in a couple of weeks. Repetition and very hard work are necessary.

This applies to all physical activities, all manual labor. Carpenters tailors, barbers, sport-champions all do things which, to most of us, are arduous and call for a lot of concentration, with an ease that edges onof gracefulness. It all seems so easy.

No doubt, some people are born with talents, which when properly developed, make them masters of their craft. Some are deft already as toddlers. Others are born clumsy (C.S. Lewis bitterly complained about it). The talent may be inborn, but it must be cultivated, and this is normally acquired by arduous work and endless repetitive performances. The more often we accomplish a task, the easier it becomes and the more perfect our performance will be.

Habit makes our daily life easier, faster, safer, more efficient and it is a blessing when dealing with what French poet Verlaine calls "les travaux ennuyeux et faciles" (the boring and easy daily tasks) that an expert housewife performs quickly and gracefully.

It is worth remarking that, when reading the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, every hour of the day is assigned a particular task; nothing is left to impulse or subjective wishes. This framework helps develop sound religious habits wherewith every activity has its specific place, and thereby meaningfully related to God.

This explains why religious people can accomplish tasks with an amazing efficiency which is clearly a fruit of their being God-centered and recollected in whatever they do (as mentioned by Dom Chaurtard in his great book The Soul of the Apostolate).

The same St. Benedict, however, a master of spiritual life, granted keen insights into our fallen nature, does not allow this "holy discipline" to become a straitjacket. There are moments of emergency; there are moments when a moral call from the outside (for example: unexpected guests) demands our attention and help and then, the law of charity asks, nay orders, monks to break these habits.

The Father of Western Monasticism knew the trickiness of wounded human nature and this taught that valuable as good habits are, they can never become a "cage" in which, once imprisoned, we become "slaves" — their slaves. This is spiritually hazardous, for it prevents us from being on the alert to perceive God's will. We should, like the young Samuel, say to God: "Speak, O Lord, thy servant listens." How can one "'hear" if one is totally absorbed by a task the performance of which is a prison? Be it briefly remarked that there are also "intellectual cages" in which many thinkers are imprisoned, Because of their scientific training, they become incapable of following a valid reasoning not based on empirical evidence. They are convinced that foal what cannot be sense perceived and measured cannot be known. They are wrong.

We all know people who are remarkably organized. Everything is planned; everything is done at the proper time. But woe to those who,. for legitimate reasons, disrupture these people’s habits, They are so caught up in their daily rhythm that any disruption is profoundly upsetting to them and can make many "fly off the handle." While learning discipline, they lose holy freedom: that is, the flexibility of giving up good habit when God calls them toio a new task.

There is another trait in us that St. Benedict was so keenly aware of (subtle self-satisfaction in one’s efficiency) that he writes in his holy rule. That if a monk feels some pride because of the perfection of his performance, and feels that the monastery is in some fashion "indebted" to him, he should be immediately be removed from this task and given another one.

Up to now I have limited myself to visible, physical activities and stated that ease and minimum of attention are typical of such habits. These tasks have become "easy" and pleasant because they require a minimum of effort.

Aristotle deserves our praise for having mentioned "habits" in his Ethics. As a matter of fact, he defines virtue as "a good habit." He certainly has seen something deserving our attention. A generous person, when appealed to for a worthy case, will open his heart and his purse with ease and joy. Whereas the miser, aware of this moral defect will struggle, hesitate, postpone, and finally make a donation, but one has a feeling that it was as painful to him as pulling a tooth. He "yields" to the temptation of being generous, but we can read in his face that it cost him a painful struggle.

It is written in the Bible that "God loves a joyful giver." This illustrates the point that Aristotle has perceived, without making any reference to God. The holier a person becomes, the more gratefully and easily he will perform virtuous acts.

But now we should raise a question of crucial importance. We have mentioned above that habits are performed with ease, and a minimum of attention. Does the same apply to moral virtues? Virtue taken by itself just means "a strength." It does not yet, by itself, refer to the ethical sphere, unless we specify that we are now concerned about "moral virtues." Does the virtuous man necessarily perform virtuous acts with a "minimum of attention"? Some might justify this position by quoting the New Testament (an endless source of inspiration for heretics who believe that they alone have received the gift of interpreting God’s word correctly), in which it is written: "Our right should not know what our left is doing." Whatever is written in the Bible transmits a precious message. But the whole question is to ascertain that this Holy Book is interpreted properly — something which is not always easy and often needs help. The Magisterium is one of the very many blessings of Catholicism.

On crucial questions of faith, God, in His Infinite Goodness, guarantees infallibility. Many are the "scholars" who forget to follow the wise advice of Kierkegaard: "The Bible should be read - on one's knees." Some of them, tempted by pride, put God on the ''hot seat" and command Him to justify His message. The serious problem afflicting Protestants is that, not having a Magisterium, everyone is entitled to give his own interpretation. Hence, the innumerable sects that have blossomed since Luther.

It is true indeed, that when doing a noble and generous act, we should carefully refrain from abiding on the goodness of our own act, for our whole attention should be given to moral call issuing from a morally relevant situation on the object side: for example, the misery of a beggar asking for alms. We should be "other directed"' and not marvel at our own moral goodness — which is the fastest way to lose it. That is the tragedy of the Pharisee.

The crucial point I would like to make is that as soon as we turn our attention on non physical activities, a new factor comes in that radically changes the situation. When responding to a moral call, our full attention is required , for the connection between morality and God is so crucial that we should recognize God's voice in every single moral call.

It is true that if we faithfully keep responding to this call, the practice of virtue will become easier and easier. This is, once again, stated in St Benedict's Holy Rule. He knew from experience that, in order to climb the mountain of the Lord, sacrifice, discipline, and effort will be required. Since original sin, our fallen nature is affected by ''the law of gravity" that makes us resent sacrifice, and makes us resent being corrected. But if we,. with God"s grace, persevere in obeying His commands, the reward will be great. Writes St. Benedict writes: "But as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God’s Commandments." (Prologue).

This is not only beautiful but true. The obstacles are great and one of them is definitely that the repetition of certain spiritual acts can be hijacked by the Devil "who never sleeps." The Evil One will tempt us to degrade our prayer life to endless repetitious words, uttered while thinking about something else. It is, alas, conceivable that daily Mass become a routine practice during which we totally lose sight of the awesomeness of what is taking place on the altar.

How profoundly tragic that our relationship with God can become "routine" in which words are pronounced, or actions done mechanically, forgetting totally that not only our tongue, but our very heart is called upon to by fully awakened!

Should not a priest, worthy of this name, every single time that he enters the sanctuary to celebrate Holy Mass, vividly relive the day of his Ordination?. When with a trembling heart, he would, for the first time, pronounce the words of consecration, conscious that he is acting in persona Christi, and that the words he is allowed to utter bring about the amazing miracle of the Transubstantiation?

Kierkegaard. referring to the great danger of performing personal or religious things by routine, wrote: "In heaven, there will be no habit. "

Should not loving husbands and wives, every single time that they embrace each other, relive the great day of their wedding? When, with tears in their eyes and a trembling heart, they, for the first time unveiled themselves, joyfully conscious that God has given them His solemn permission to do so?

Why do so many marriages which begin gloriously, so often degenerate into the routine business of sleeping in the some bed? They should never get "used" to the amazing gift of being permitted to share the intimacy of the beloved's body. When husband and wife embrace each other, it should be ever "young'' and ever "new." The tragedy of an exceptionally talented man, like philosopher Max Scheler, was that as soon as he thought he "knew" a woman, he lost interest in her and turned to another one.

Habit in human and spiritual life is a paralyzing anesthesia — the archenemy of our lives as persons made to God's image and likeness.

When saints receive Holy Communion, every single time, it is to them as overwhelming as the day of their First Communion. We should be aware of the fearful danger of habit in our religious and personal lives, and beg God for the grace of spiritual alertness. For our fallen nature is always tempted to fall asleep.

This statle of being spiritual awakened enables us to be grateful for the gifts received. and will bar us from ever taking them for granted. Our hearts should never sleep. Gratitude is the key to happiness. When St. Augustine in his Confessions writes of God, "O Beauty so ancient and so new," he was referring to this eternal youth of the soul that through grace obtained by prayers, has counteracted the poison of spiritual anesthesia.


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