A Balanced Day, Part 3
May 13, 2020 COVID-19 Faith Reflection—A Balanced Day, part 3
My adult prayer life owes a debt to monks. After graduating from the university, I spent a month at a monastery in Rhode Island to discern if I was a monk. In two weeks’ time, I knew that I was not a monk. They went to church five times a day! The kicker was when two of us monastic visitors took a free afternoon to go the movies. We walked down the dark aisle of the movie theater, genuflected, and took our seats. Thank goodness the darkened movie theater hid our force of habit.
My month-long monastic immersion gave me the habit of daily prayer. A day does not pass when I do not spend several periods of prayer, at least fifteen minutes each, to praise God and pray for others. I wish that everyone could take a month at a monastery to gain the habit of daily prayer. If you cannot, there are other ways to develop the habit of daily prayer.
Before the libraries closed in the Big Shutdown, I made a commando run to the shelves. One of the books on CDs that I dumped into my book bag on a glance and whim was a book called “Good Habits, Bad Habits” by Wendy Wood. I listened to it driving around in my car with Maxie in the back seat. She was indifferent, but I enjoyed the book.
“Good Habits, Bad Habits” surveys decades of research on how we form habits. Habits are what we do without thinking: brush our teeth, drive the car to work, wash our hands. They free us up to concentrate on what most requires conscious attention such as watching for anything unusual on the road.
One of my big takeaways is how puny our willpower is compared to the power of habit. Teeth-gritting willpower is effective for one-time efforts. But for repeated behavior, habit wins every time.
For instance, you might sign up with the local gym. You fill out the application and pay your new member’s fee. Your credit card is set up for the automatic withdrawal of the monthly fee. You pump up your ipod with music. You go to the mall and buy a pair of the latest cross-trainer shoes and one of the hi-tech shirts that wick away the sweat. With your new work-out look, you hit the gym.
The first week, you feel good. You are in the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Saturday, you sleep in. Sunday afternoon, you decide that time with the family is more important. Monday morning of Week Two, you cram in a short work-out before work. You don’t return to the gym until Saturday. The only reason you show up is because you promised to be on the pick-up basketball team. By the end of the month, your resolve to exercise is in the same pile as your diets.
What went wrong?
Our brains are wired to respond to rewards, receive cues from our surroundings, and shut down when faced with too much friction. For me, I needed a month’s immersion in a monastery where everyone was going to prayer five times a day. I needed cues from the church bells calling us to prayer, the communal expectation of participation, the ease to show up, the repetition, the accountability, and the reward of running with “the herd”, in addition to the desire to pray. Willpower and discipline were necessary but only a fraction of what was needed to get in the habit of daily prayer.
Willpower is equally feeble in eliminating bad habits. The percentage of Americans smoking cigarettes has dropped in half from over 40% to less than 20%. Knowing that smoking cigarettes causes cancer did not kick the habit. Millions of Americans did not wake up one day and dump their smokes because it was no longer cool. The decline in smoking is correlated to laws that ban it in restaurants, bars, airplanes, and trains; taxes that have helped triple the price of cigarettes in the U.S. in the past twenty years; the purge of cigarettes from vending machines, and of tobacco ads from TV and the radio. As smoking was made more inconvenient, expensive, and invisible, millions kicked the habit.
The daily habit of prayer, necessary to a balanced day, is possible. In the parish office, we have taken up the custom of praying the Angelus at noon. It is short enough to memorize and easy to find on ibreviary app. I set an alarm on my phone to ring at 11:56 a.m. I drop everything and walk to the reception area of the parish office because the last person to arrive has to lead the prayer. I know that others will be there—positive peer pressure! Believing that praying the Angelus daily was good for the parish staff was not enough to make it happen regularly. Willpower alone was not enough. We needed all of the cues, rewards, and repetition to make it a habit.
There’s an article that summarizes parts of the “Good Habits, Bad Habits,” book.
. Dr. Wood has a website about her research on habits
. I am sure that there are countless books and programs that make use of good research to form good habits and break bad ones. Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step programs are excellent ways to break addictive habits and live “normal” again.
All of this talk about habits is not foreign to our faith and morals. We have a church word for habits—virtue! The virtues are dispositions or habits towards achieving a particular good. In regards to our craving for a balanced day, the Church gives us the habit of moderation and balance. Tomorrow I will talk about St. Thomas Aquinas and his teaching on the cardinal virtue of temperance.
Beware of an email gift card scam! The subject line of the email includes the text “Christ Blessings” or something similar. It might provide a link to a screen very much like Office 365, Dropbox, DocuSign, etc., that ask for your user name and password. Please do not provide any login credentials from an email request like this. These are attempts by hackers to gain access to your account(s). Any requests allegedly from me or the parish staff for donations, gift cards, assistance, etc… is a scam. Please pray for the robots and move on.
Returning to Church
Nativity Longwood .
on Wednesday, May 13 at 9:30AM