“Oh what’s this guy doing? Again? Now?”
Whether its snowing, raining, or the temperature is sub-freezing he’s out there every morning. He and many like him are so common that they sometime “become part of the scenery.” I find that I notice him more when the weather is terrible and I’m in my car shivering. Bothered by the weather, frenzied by the list of tasks to complete before the day’s end, and confused by the seemingly contradictory action of running in “terrible weather,” I drive by hoping my tires splash water on him because he’s doing what I can’t.
Ok, so maybe I’m not that dramatic about the whole situation but it needs to be said that this runner has something that a lot of us don’t: consistency. Over time he’s developed and cemented this routine into his life. Regardless of the weather, regardless of what he “needs” to do on that day, and regardless of what may be going on in his life, you know that at 8:27 in the morning you can catch him rounding the corner on your way to school or work. Granted he may enjoy running but there are undoubtedly days where he wakes up and running with an injured leg in the cold weather, knowing that I’m out to splash him with my car, is not high on his list of “likable activates.” So why do it?
The answer lies hidden within a fact about the human psyche. The day this runner gives into his laziness, the stresses of life, or the weather he will then repeatedly allow his mind to fool him into skipping more “run-impairing-days.” But if today, when there is ice cold rain falling, he has plantar fasciitis in both heels, and he has a crucial meeting at work, he does actually manage to overcome his very rational excuses to “just skip today,” he will forever be able to overcome any obstacle the stands in direct contradiction to his routine.
And our spiritual lives are no different. In the Lent we need to spend time both creating new routines and solidifying weak ones. We should tell ourselves “No! I don't care how late it is, how much I have to do tomorrow morning, or how tired I am. I decided I’m going to do … and I’m going to do it.” Conversely, the first time we fall into a particular or new sin (in the Lent, but more likely at any point in our growth) it is catastrophic because it was often something that we never expected to happen. The horror is that we then become even more susceptible to falling into the same mistake a second or even third time! We become increasingly more desensitized to our own failure every time we fall. “No. I don't care how tempted I am by this sin, how ‘different’ this situation is from the ‘other’ times, or how undetectable this action will be. I decided I wouldn’t … and I’m not going to do it.” The goal when it comes to confronting sin in Lent is to return us to our original, or even “baptismal,” state.
But on the day where we forgo the routine, we are chopping at a sapling. When a seed is planted it takes a lot of time and “nurturing” before it sprouts and shows “life.” If during this crucial and equally sensitive time you take just one swing at it with an axe you could permanently eradicate the young tree. You then need to exude more effort replanting the same “seed” and again wait for it to take root. Too often in our spiritual lives we do this; before we allow our daily practices to become—daily practices, we let ourselves slip. Over time, a young sapling, the routine, will indeed grow thicker and stronger and spread its branches and roots into different dimension of our lives. If I can expand the analogy even further: over time the same tree may even “bear fruit;” fruit that will sustain us during trying times and fruit that others can tastes of for their own.
What’s the best way to do this? First: Don’t think long term. Think: “Today. Today I will accomplish...” and let tomorrow “worry about itself.” If you do what needs to be done today, then tomorrow will be the same. Second: Do it even if you don't feel it. So often I’ve let myself escape nightly prayer because I know I’ve misused the day, fallen into sin, or am just “too tired” and have no emotion towards God. Doesn't matter. Stand up and pray anyway. Sprinkling drops of water onto the seed is better than leaving it dry. Granted, tomorrow I may need to correct whatever made me feel this way but habit building is as much about repetition as it is about the practice itself. Third: Don't look for results so soon. This is one of the more difficult obstacles to overcome. There is no reason to treat a seed like a full grown tree and equally a young tree may not have ripe fruit. It takes a lot of time and conscious effort to build fruitful habits and we should not cease trying simply because we don't immediately feel or notice their effects.