How easily the golfing pro drives a ball 280 yards! How gracefully the Olympic skater glides across the ice! How effortlessly the master teacher communicates even difficult concepts! But we are not fooled. We know that behind the apparent ease, grace, and spontaneity are years of discipline and training—the habits that have shaped the golfer, ice skater, teacher into a pro.
Dr. M. Scott Peck’s bestseller The Road Less Traveled emphasizes discipline grounded in habits. A habit is a disposition to perform certain actions according to a pattern. Grateful people say “thank you” for even a small gift. Courteous individuals are respectful of others in word and manner. Prayerful people turn their minds and hearts to God on a regular basis.
Habits come in two flavors. Positive habits are called virtues because they give life and nurture relationships. But poisonous habits, vices, such as lying, cheating, and insensitivity, are death-dealing to the self and to the common good.
Just as healthy intellectual habits help us learn and habits of thrift help our finances, so our spiritual routines enable us to accomplish our goals: union with God and unity with one another. Raising our minds and hearts to God is essential for achieving our destiny. Prayerful people develop good habits, solid virtues, that help keep them attuned and responsive to God’s call in the events of daily life.
Reading through part four of the Catechism, I see that a number of habits emerge. Here are seven that will further our intimacy with God and lead to building God’s reign.
1. Walk with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden. Genesis also shows Enoch and Noah finding God in the realities of creation, “walking with God” with hearts “upright and undivided.” In the words of the Catechism, “This kind of prayer is lived by many righteous people in all religions” (CCC, 2569).
In shopping malls, people are in the habit of walking around and around for exercise, talking about common interests. Wise spouses regularly set aside time for sharing their lives, maybe while taking a walk.
Prayerful people walk with God every day. This walking can be done kneeling beside your bed to thank God for a restful sleep or to ask the Lord to guide your day. This walking might take place while driving to work or take the form of singing in the shower at the joy of being alive. Feeding the birds might serve as a reminder of God’s loving providence.
Walking with God embraces a sense of companionship. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel had lost their hope, that habit of awareness that sustains a trustful reliance on God’s help. Suddenly the disguised, Risen Lord walks with them and explains the Scriptures. The hearts of the disciples once again are ablaze with a new fire. Walking with God is transformative. (You’ll find the story in Luke 24:13–32.)
Walking with God is a faith experience. The great Jewish writer Abraham Heschel reflects, “The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God. One cannot pray unless he has faith in his own ability to accost the infinite, merciful, eternal God.” Faith is that profound conviction that God is with us and for us.
From a different angle, it is not so much our walking with God as it is God walking with us in the cool of the evening, in the heat of the noonday sun, in the early hours of dawn. The habit of faith connects us to the Origin and Sustainer of all life. This habit, both a gift and a task, keeps us conscious of God’s abiding love and fidelity.
2. Reverence Beginnings and Endings. A year ago I had the opportunity of traveling to and from Chicago with a friend of mine, now in his mid-70s. As we began the 200-mile journey, my friend made the Sign of the Cross and prayed the Hail Mary. Upon our arrival in the Windy City he did the same.
He told me that every single time he rode with his parents they went through this same ritual. The family began and ended trips with a prayer. They began and ended their meals with a prayer. It was as natural as breathing and it was not done carelessly. The words came from the heart and were uttered with conviction.
Prayerful people have the habit of reverence, especially as they begin and end each experience. Of course, that same reverence will permeate the entire happening. St. Catherine of Siena, a Doctor of the Church, speaks about the soul who lives with reverent prayerfulness: “She holds all things in reverence, the left hand as well as the right, trouble as well as consolation, hunger and thirst as well as eating and drinking, cold and heat and nakedness as well as clothing, life as well as death, honor as well as disgrace, distress as well as comfort.”
Not all events have equal weight. Just a second or two may suffice in starting and stopping lesser moments of life. But major decisions, like selecting a partner for life, pondering a change of employment, discerning one’s vocation, might demand many hours and even days of prayer and reflection.
It comes down to taking seriously our lives as a covenant relationship with God. We do not live or act alone. God is with us every step of the way. Our challenge is to be mindful of that divine presence and to act in accord with God’s will. In the Catechism we read: “‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ [1 Corinthians 12:3]…. That is why the Church invites us to call upon the Holy Spirit every day, especially at the beginning and the end of every important action” (CCC, 2670).
3. Rely on God’s Promises. People getting married promise each other their love and fidelity. In signing contracts, employers and employees commit themselves to mutual obligations. A mother drops off the kids for a movie and promises to be back in two hours. Promise-making and promise-keeping hold families and society together. Once trust has been broken, once promises are not kept, things fall apart.
Our God is a promise-maker and prayer puts us in contact with what God has vowed to do. And what are some of God’s promises? One is that God will be with us always. It is a promise of presence and abiding concern. Another is God’s promise to give us a new heart (see Ezekiel 36:25– 29). Perhaps we do not feel a need for a new heart and a new spirit but, honestly, there is a hardness and a meanness within each of our lives that needs a new spirit. What is called for is not bypass surgery but a heart transplant.
A third promise is the gift of divine life. God’s presence is powerful, a new heart and spirit is transformative, but God’s gift is a promise of infinite Love. Daily prayer exposes us to the mystery of God’s self-offer. This is the life of grace, this is the incredible mystery of God’s supreme commitment to the world.
In a powerful scene from Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, a wife comments to her husband on the motive of marriage: “I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise.” She takes off her ring and looks at it. “That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage.”
God’s marriage to us, God’s covenant, is the promise that comes to us in daily prayer. It calls us to respond with fidelity to a God who is worthy of our total reliance.
4. Pray Constantly. Our prayer life has its ups and downs. When the weather is fair, when we are healthy, and especially when things are going our way, prayer can be fairly easy and constant. But come the storms of fate or illness or defeat, we often find it hard to fall to our knees. We fail to heed the admonition at the beginning of the preface of the Mass that says: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere give you thanks, Lord.”
Can we pray constantly, given the fact that we live in a world of many distractions? We are even advised by tradition and wisdom figures to give full attention to the here-and-now. Is it possible and realistic to pray always?
Authentic friends love one another constantly. Even though they may be separated by geography or apart for months on end, their love not only does not diminish but grows. Below our daily involvements there are other levels of consciousness and awareness. In the midst of baking bread, one’s heart can be attuned to God’s abiding life; during the course of a lecture, the Spirit can be invoked; while plowing a field, the farmer might well be aware of Christ’s presence in the beauty of the autumn.
This habit of praying constantly is like our breathing or the beating of the heart. For the heart to stop or the breath to cease means death. When we fail to pray our soul begins to wither and die. Constant prayer keeps us spiritually sound and healthy.
Thus we are encouraged by the Catechism: “‘Pray constantly…always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father’ [1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 5:20]…. This tireless fervor can come only from love. Against our dullness and laziness, the battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting, and persevering love. This love opens our hearts to three enlightening and life-giving facts of faith about prayer” (CCC, 2742). These three are: It is always possible to pray; prayer is a vital necessity; and prayer and Christian life are inseparable.
5. Act Truthfully. One aspect of prayer is conversation. God speaks to us through Scripture, nature, the teaching of the Church; we speak to God in words of adoration, thanksgiving, petition. But prayer has another level that takes us from the realm of verbal exchange to the incarnating of those words into actions. Theologians call this orthopraxis, the doing of the word or prayer in our daily life. Others call it putting your money where your mouth is, or “walking your talk.”
Jesus tells us that in the end the sheep and goats will be separated, not by how deeply they believed, not by the depth of affection in the heart, but by their treatment of fellow human beings. The sheep enter the Kingdom because they fed the hungry and gave drink to the thirsty. The goats are embraced by darkness because they failed to visit prisons and take in the stranger.
The habit of acting truthfully is simple and clear: Truth is put into action. That assumes we can grasp the truth (or that the Truth can grasp us) and second, that we have sufficient freedom to act on it.
We need here the virtue of prudence, the habit of making right decisions. Put simply, prudence is seeing, judging and acting. But there can be hitches. We don’t always see well, either the truth of our own being or the complex truths of our world. Sometimes we hesitate because all the facts are not in. This can lead to a life of procrastination (the art of catching up with yesterday!). Then again, we may know the truth and make correct judgments, but not have the energy, courage or conviction to put the truth into practice.
Some advice from the Catechism: “To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it with ourselves. Here, another book is opened: the book of life. We pass from thoughts to reality. To the extent that we are humble and faithful, we discover in meditation the movements that stir the heart and we are able to discern them. It is a question of acting truthfully in order to come into the light: ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’” (CCC, 2706).
This fifth habit relies upon a threefold grace: prudence, humility, and faithfulness.
6. Persevere. Our century has been turbulent. The scars of world wars, the brutality of the Holocaust, the ethnic cleansings, the alienation consequent upon oppression, all provide sufficient evidence for discouragement, if not despair. It is not surprising that some people quit on life, giving up the ghost before the ghost of death comes.
I heard a powerful story of a husband and wife who were traveling in the north of Belgium. They came across a notice that in the afternoon a concert was to be given in a small church in the local village. They went with few expectations. But to their surprise, a 93-year-old pianist, blind and infirm, came out and played selections from Mozart for two hours, holding the small audience of some 50 people in awe.
This comment was made: “For over 80 years, cutting across an age marked by wars and devastation, this woman shared with the world the beauty of classical music. Despite the darkness and violence, she persevered in bringing beauty to the world. She refused to quit.”
Our times are not hospitable to stick-to-itiveness! When things get tough in relationships, we split. When a new course of studies becomes difficult, we withdraw. When God is silent, we stop praying. If we don’t get our way immediately, we’re out of here!
Another alternative from the Catechism: Finally, our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have “great possessions” [cf. Mark 10:22], we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; wounded pride, stiffened by the indignity that is ours as sinners; our resistance to the idea that prayer is a free and unmerited gift; and so forth. The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray? To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance (CCC, 2728).
7. Keep Watch. The ancient Romans used an expression: “Age hoc!” It was a cry for people to pay attention, to be alert, to keep vigilance. This advice is valuable while difficult to live. To be present to the mystery of life is an art mastered by few.
The habit of attentiveness confronts our addictions, those areas of our life where we are not free. Dr. Gerald May writes: “Addiction and its associated mind tricks inevitably kidnap and distort our attention, profoundly hindering our capacity for love. Attention and love are intimate partners; for love to be actualized, attention must be free.”
When the Gospels so often speak about blindness and deafness, we realize that all of us suffer from these maladies. We do not see and hear because we are not free. We are not attentive to God’s invasions of grace because our consciousness is held captive by people, things, or events that have become obsessions.
The habit of watchfulness, vigilance, and attentiveness demands continual exercise. It also demands the grace of God. It is here that human intention and divine life come together. God’s Spirit empowers us to be attentive; that same Spirit enables us to carry the attentiveness into practice.
This passage from the Catechism deserves careful study and prayer:
In Jesus “the Kingdom of God is at hand” [Mark 1:15]. He calls his hearers to conversion and faith, but also to watchfulness. In prayer the disciple keeps watch, attentive to Him Who Is and Him Who Comes, in memory of his first coming in the lowliness of the flesh, and in the hope of his second coming in glory [cf. Mark 13; Luke 21:34–36]. In communion with their Master, the disciples’ prayer is a battle; only by keeping watch in prayer can one avoid falling into temptation (CCC, 2612).
The character of our personal life and that of our society is conditioned to a large extent by the formation of habits. The quality of our spiritual life is shaped by the same reality. Habits of the soul will ultimately determine our destiny.
Phyllis McGinley’s Saint-Watching has this line: “The habit of kindness thrives on practice. Charity is an infection hard to shake off.” So, too, prayer is a habit that thrives on practice and will lead us into the infectious land of love.