Habits, Hobbits and Heaven
An elderly nun ran into an old friend who saw her dressed in her religious garb and exclaimed, “My goodness, Sister Agatha, why are you still dressed like that? Didn’t your church allow you to dress more informally years ago?”
“Why yes,” Agatha replied, “but I dress this way because it’s my habit.”
The humour in her comment may be lost on some, but what she said illustrates the human condition in her words. It’s her habit. The other day, Sue and I sat in a restaurant when all of a sudden her hand flashed out and back. I looked at her and she said, “Mosquito.” Another habit.
A Duke University researcher in 2006 found that 40 per cent of the actions people take each day are not a result of conscious decisions, but habits. When you wake up in the morning, what do you do first, hop in the shower, exercise, grab a coffee, watch the news, take Fido for a walk? Or, perhaps, do you pray?
William James, an American philosopher, psychologist, and doctor wrote in 1892, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” We may think we are making conscious decisions every day, but we aren’t always. Bit by bit, action after action, we are self-programming our brains until the things we do repetitively become habits.
Now, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this. Habits can become shortcuts to save time and mental energy. They can be constructive ways to use our talents and get mundane things out of the way to make room for more important, more creative, or more altruistic activities.
But habits can come in two broad categories, good habits and bad habits. Good habits are those that build a better you, and a better you means you will have a better impact on your friends and family and the world around you. There’s an iphone app, for those who are technology literate, that keeps track on which habits are the most popular with people nowadays. One user of this app decided to list the 7 most popular habits. They are these: Exercise more, Read, Floss, Sleep by Midnight, Eat breakfast, Save Money, Eat more fruit and vegetables. Now, I’m not saying all these people practice these habits. Let’s just say these are the most popular habits people would like to have today.
I would add one to the list which has made a greater change in my life than any of the seven others, daily prayer. Remember the old adage? The family that prays together stays together. It was a truism to our grandparents, still strong perhaps to our parents, but to today’s generation, not so much.
Let’s carry on to that other segment of habits, the bad habits. Bad habits can be so destructive that they can ruin, actually destroy, the lives of you and your loved ones. We can certainly guess what most of them are: smoking, drinking, drugs, irresponsible sex, over-eating, excessive tv watching, and so on.
The ancient Greeks had two important admonitions, “Know thyself,” and “Nothing in excess”, or “All things in moderation.”
Biblical scripture puts it this way:
1 Corinthians 6:12 – “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.”
The problem is two-fold: One, we are imperfect beings. God alone is perfect. Two, bad habits are just so much darned fun. Or, at least, they’re so much fun at first. After a while, the fun groove we are in, gambling, drinking, smoking, casual sex, etc., changes from groove to rut, and we find our habit has become an addiction. Oh, boy. Now, we’re in for it. Now, we find that rut so deep we can’t climb out. Now, we need a lifeline.
Sometimes, we try to use humour as an aid, even when we describe bad habits. There’s the story of the two Irishmen sitting in a pub having a few sweet cream ales. Their table faces the street outside and directly across it on the other side is a house of ill repute. Well, as the two drinking buddies are sipping away they see the Presbyterian minister opening the front door of the house, glancing up and down the street, and slipping inside.
“Did you see that, Clancy? Did you behold what my poor eyes just witnessed.”
“I did indeed, Seamus, I did indeed. I never would have believed it.”
Well, not 15 minutes later, who would that be coming furtively down the street, but the Anglican priest. Hurriedly, he also looks both ways up and down, opens the front door of the house opposite and slips through.
“Begorrah, Clancy, did you see that now, did you see?”
“’Tis a sad day, Seamus, a sad day. A man of the cloth at that.”
But then, no sooner did the two friends settle in for yet another round but who do they see walking stealthily into that house on the other side but Fr. Murphy, their very own priest.
As the door closes behind the man, Seamus lets out a deep sigh and shakes his head, “Ah, Clancy, that’s a real shame. One of them poor girls must be dyin’.”
Denial is often at the heart of habit-breaking. We make a litany of excuses. It is also one of our self-induced habits that we see the worst in others, but not in our own selves. It is another example of how some faults are thousands of years old: In Matt 7: ”Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own.”
My mother-in-law once put it this way. She was holding court in her living room with several of us there, and she was talking – no, gossiping - about a woman she knew. She went on at great length about all this woman’s failings when all of a sudden she stopped. And she said, “But I’d better not say any more. As surely as I can see all of her faults, she can just as well see mine.” My mother-in-law didn’t read the bible, so she wouldn’t have been familiar with the quotation from Matthew. But she nailed its message in those few words.
One wonders why some habits are so hard to break? Why do they drag us down into despair and often into surrender? Why in heaven’s name must we be so imperfect? God made us to be the way we are. We feel he must often be as ashamed of us as we are of ourselves. We might express our shame in words such as “I’m just no good. I don’t deserve to live. I wish I had never been born.”
Take a few steps back and think about it. God made us in His image, we are told. Yet God made us to be imperfect. Yet again, God is satisfied with how he made us. I think I can prove that conclusion, first of all by the bible. Right at the beginning of Genesis, Gen 1:27, it says “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Not only that, but just a few lines further, Gen 1:31, “And God saw everything that he created and it was very good.”
Imagine that. He made us imperfect, and it was very good. How could that be? Fr. Scott Lewis, our retreat director at Manresa in Pickering last weekend first gave me the following insight. Consider our imperfections not in the light of shame or regret. Rather, consider them as gifts of God. In giving us imperfections, God also gave us the gift of potential improvement. He gave us something that he himself doesn’t have. He gave us the ability to recognize faults and, at the same time, the ability to improve ourselves. God himself can’t do that. He is already perfect. There’s nothing to improve. So, God loves us just the way we are, and he will help us get over our bad habits. But we have to ask him first. Jesus taught us how to ask God for help. In prayer. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Yet what’s the point of mouthing the words if you don’t believe them? Without belief, you won’t have the faith to move ahead, and you may not have the faith to get over bad habits. Someone asked me once on the internet if I believe in God and all that mumbo-jumbo that goes with Christianity. His words, not mine. After a moment of thought, I said, “It isn’t important that I believe all that mumbo-jumbo. What’s important is that I believe in all that mumbo-jumbo.
“Oh, I suppose you believe in Santa Claus and hobbits, too,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I do. I believe in hobbits. I believe in leprechauns. I believe in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. It isn’t important to me that these figures may not be literally part of our physical world, although when I look at Donald Vine over there, I sometimes think he really is Santa Claus. He certainly wears the white beard. No, what I believe to be literally true is that such creatures bring joy to the world. When I see that joy reflected in a child’s eyes I see a beautiful story come to life. I see the joy of creation. I see that all’s right with the world.
A long time ago, when I was wracking my head over the prospect of belief in God or belief in only what I could experience with my senses, I came to the conclusion that if I just said, “I believe,” and said it with meaning, all my doubts and questions would fade away, and my life would be renewed. I would be re-born. So, that’s what I did. I said, “My God, from this moment on, I choose to believe in you.” At that very instant, it was like a blanket of anxiety and doubt just washed away from me. It was like the conversion of Paul, although I wasn’t blinded. On the contrary, for the first time, I began to see. It was like the doubt that fell away from Thomas when he dropped to his knees and said, “My Lord and my God,” in full conviction.
God gave us imperfections as tools to improve ourselves and the world we live in. He gave us the chance to be one with our neighbor. If we believe and pray for God’s help, he will answer our prayer. In the epistle of 1 John 5:14-15, it is written, “and this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
Our imperfections are the opportunities God gave us to improve who we are as his children. They are the means by which we change our habits, even the ones seemingly impossible to change. They are pathways to heaven.
My parents were both alcoholics. After the 1956 Hungarian revolution, my father escaped Hungary and went to live in London, England. But he knew that if he were to survive, he had to give up his habit, and so he did, cold turkey. My mother, on the other hand, succumbed to her habit. At the age of 49, she took her own life out of despair. They were both good people. My father attended church on Sundays, though I can’t say he was a strong believer. My mother did not. I don’t know what might have happened if my mother had reached out her hand to God in the midst of her despair, but my strong belief is that God would have put his loving arms around her and given her comfort and strength. I believe that because of the number of times he has done it for me and for others. All we have to do is say, “I believe, I believe, I believe.” And heaven is our reward.
What about heaven? Where is it? What is it? Revelation gives us graphic descriptions of it. But one person’s graphics may not exactly fit another’s, just as a painting by Michaelangelo may not match the style of Van Gogh, although both men were what could be called ‘heavenly inspired.’ But if I may I will offer you these two glimpses, which are not exactly alike, but pretty close in my opinion.
The first one is an excerpt from a poem I wrote one morning immediately after waking up from a dream state. I had dreamt that a spirit was calling me to come and see, and for a brief moment I was pulled part-way over into what I can only describe as the most exquisite moment I have ever experienced.
Straining still with eyes that spent their sight
The call beguiled me to an open door
Rent long and yawning open to the floor
“Come,” it rang more vibrant than before
As wispy fingers off some distant shore
Tugged gently at my soul, my unlocked core
Till I was carried drifting through the door
At once my every fibre lost its might
And nerve and sinew stayed behind the shade
And I emerged more placid and restrained
As peace like snow descended in the glade
To which I’d come imperfect and unmade…..
There’s more, but I don’t want to lull you completely to sleep. Then here are the words from
Revelation 4:1-11, which I hadn’t read before I wrote the poem – “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice I heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit…”
If you want to experience God in all his truth, if you want to get closer to him, if you want to help your neighbor, or if you simply want to have relief from suffering, try to adopt this habit for 30 days. Each morning, as soon as you open your eyes, say softly, “I believe. I believe. I believe.” I believe he will hear you and reply. Listen for his voice. Look for his sign. It will be in your life. I believe after 30 days, you will be convinced, and will never again doubt.
As for me, when my retreat on human imperfection was over last weekend, the first thing I needed to do was to buy gas. So, I wheeled into a gas station and started to back up into the only available bay. Suddenly, a guy on a motorbike whizzed by me and took the slot I wanted. Irritated, I cranked my window down and yelled,
“Hey, buddy, I was backing in to that spot.”
“You were?” he asked.
“Yeah, I was.”
With that, he turned his back on me and started to fill up.
I swore and drove away to the next station. I wasn’t going to sit there watching him use ‘my’ spot. No sir!
Then, as I drove off, it suddenly hit me. God had just given me a little test, and…I had flunked. Well, the nice thing about imperfections is they will always be there, as more and more opportunities to do what even God cannot. To change for the better.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.