It is easy to agree with the statement: habits are difficult to form and hard to break. By habit I mean a tendency to repeated action based on a previous period of accommodation. So, one resolves to take a walk each day. She walks on Monday. This is not a habit. It is a healthy action. But then she does it every day that week. Some days she feels like it and somedays she has to push herself to do it. After about a month or two of these daily walks she has to skip a day. This throws her into a state of uncomfortableness. Something is not quite right. She actually feels different. This is because the resolution to take a walk once a day has grown into a habit. Even her body is used to it and misses it when she can’t walk for a day. It is now harder for her not to walk than to walk. Walking has ceased to be an exertion or a waste of time. It has become a valuable habit of her life and contributes to her very being.
When we move to the area of morality, we find that the same laws operate. When we give into a particular vice, for instance stealing, we find that it is not easy to do in the beginning. The fear and the working of our conscience contradict us when we see an object that is not ours but that we crave. But as we begin to get more proficient at stealing and get used to enjoying the spoils of our vice, we do it easily and almost automatically. We have developed a habit of vice.
Conversely, when we seek to become more virtuous, that too follows the same laws. For instance, when we seek to become more courageous, at first it seems unnatural. It feels better to avoid things that scare us. But gradually as we do more courageous acts we develop the habit of virtue. Courage becomes easier even if the dangers we face increase.
This is one of the things we seek to do each Lent.
Because of our fallen human nature, we have a tendency to regress, no matter how strongly we try to advance in the spiritual life. Our yearly observance of Lent gives us an ongoing opportunity to advance in our relationship with the Lord, by finding those things in our lives that have been the cause of our lack of progress. It can take the place of fasting from people, places and things that get in the way of our spiritual undertakings. It could be food or some other behavior like growing screen time at our computer. To this we add the more positive seeking of opportunities to give to relieve poverty and the lengthening or intensifying of our communication with God through prayer.
What has happened often in my life is that when Lent is over, I ended up keeping the habit that I developed in Lent throughout the rest of my life, even if it a small thing.
While our thoughts are very important, especially in the beginning of our plans, what defines us is what we put into action. In thought, we can say that we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. But if does not translate into actions: devout genuflections, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, regular Holy Hours of Prayer before the Lord’s Presence, then our faith in His Eucharistic Presence is non-existent. It is only when beliefs are turned into actions that they become real and not just figments of our imaginations.
Conversely, we can avow our atheism but if we are reverent in Churches, caring toward believers and non-believers, forgiving, and generous to the poor, we are living as if there is a God and hence may be more faithful than a Church goer who is irreverent, uncaring and avaricious and acts as if there is no God and no judgment of his actions.
This is so because our decisions, which flow seamlessly into our action, constitute who we truly are. We may have ideas and thoughts about who we think we are but in reality, the truest picture of who we are in God’s eyes is to be seen by the accumulation and quality of our actions. Action constitutes our being. Hence the habits we form, that is, how we live our lives in the concrete, is what is to be judged by Christ when we die. Not by our plans, agendas, aspirations, ideals. This should be a sobering truth for all of us.
St. Catherine of Siena returns over and over again in her spiritual works to the insight that we must enter ‘the cell of self-knowledge’ to accurately see who we are and in what direction our souls are going. This can only be seen in the habits of action, often unnoticed by us, that we develop in our lives.
This Lent we may have made a resolution to read one of the Gospels and meditate on it. But this idea does not become real until we pick up one of the Gospels and begin reading Chapter 1, verse 1. And this does not become a habit until we have done it day in and day out for a week, two weeks, a month. It is not a habit until we cease thinking about it and just do it. Our future eternity is based on building a set of habits which are God centered and by which we live our lives. Habits are our human being.