Friday, October 18, 2013

The Habit of Hope

                “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is from the musical, “My Fair Lady”. It was taken from the novel Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. The musical starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Harrison played Professor Henry Higgins (the phonetics professor) and Hepburn was Eliza Doolittle. It was about the relationship between a cultural elitist and a slum girl. Eventually, despite extraordinary differences, they begin to form a deep bond. When the relationship is threatened, Higgins cries out, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face. She almost makes the day begin…her ups and downs are second nature to me now, like breathing out and breathing in, I was serenely independent and content before we met, surely I could always be that way again, and yet… I’ve grown accustomed to her voice, accustomed to her face.”

                 Here we have the core of the human mystery; it is that we find lasting spiritual meaning in life to the extent that we develop the “habits of the heart.” We read in Proverbs 3: “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. Do not let your loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart…trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” We have the teaching of spiritual formation by means of spiritual and virtuous habits. It is really about the formation of allowing our soul to express itself by means of the habits of the heart.

                 Habit is when a practice or a way of living becomes “second nature to us now, like breathing out and breathing in.” Habit is defined by Aristotle as a second nature of embodied knowledge; it is the overcoming our lack of control by pursuing the habit of practicing virtue until it becomes “second nature” to us. We learn what is right and wrong, but head knowledge must be turned into heart knowledge by means of practice. Habits of the heart are a metaphor for embodied practical reasoning. It runs into our very bones. Knowledge of God must be by means of habit translated into knowledge of the heart. “My commandments…bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.” Proverbs 3)

                 Habit is driven by the energy of the soul that moves the intellect and the will from abstract reasoning to practical reason which means that our will is driven by the loving and enlightened heart. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” Rationality is deceiving and the will gets weary and lazy; therefore habits of the heart (practical reasoning) are essential to the spiritual life. Habits are difficult to change; they make us content and successful in our action.  In the spiritual life, we choose between habits of vice or virtue. It is not within the nature of a person to remain morally neutral. Spirituality is a call to a life of virtuous habits.

                 For Thomas Aquinas in his book on Ethics, a habit is a relatively permanent acquired modification of a person that enables the person when provoked by relevant stimulus, to act consistently and with ease with respect to the objective. We cannot replace a habit of vice by means of intellect and the will; rather, habits of vice are only replaced by habits of virtue. Habit is the mediator between our behavior and the intellect and will. Aquinas insists that habits are different from instincts because habits are responsive to reason. By reason, he means the power of decision making and personal strategizing that changes character. Habit is unlike disposition in that habits are not easily lost. Habit is not an instinct; it is far more than a hunch or an insight, a feeling, an urge, a mystical awareness or therapeutic clarity. It is more than an attitude or a disposition that easily changes.

                Habits have their great persuasive force over our character because our spiritual and moral habits are founded on our beliefs. What is a religious belief? “First, it is something we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, for short, a habit…the essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by different modes of action to which they give rise.” (Pierce Charles Sanders, The Essential Pierce, Vol.1, p.129).

                Habit defines the indispensable nature of Christian spirituality and the living of a spiritual and moral life. The Christian life is not an intellectual enterprise. It is not the acquisition and sharing of spiritual and humanistic insights. Living a Christian life is a matter of living in a personal and communal lifestyle of spiritual habits, such as the habit of worship, of prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, personal and communal interpretation of scripture, establishing and sharing in intimate Christian friendships, examination of conscience and acts of loving compassion. 

Based on the norm of habit in Christian formation we might ask some easy questions.

 Question: What is the best worship service we ever went to?

 Answer: The one we didn’t feel like going to.

Question: When do we pray best?

Answer: When we don’t feel like it.

Question: What are the most effective acts of charity we ever performed?

Answer: The ones we did not feel like doing.

Question: When was our commitment to the church the most pleasing to God?

Answer: When we were feeling empty and discouraged.

The point is that life as a journey of hope is not about the feeling of hope, or an intellectual insight into the nature of hope; rather, it is about developing the spiritual and moral habit of hope.




  1. Bill, a refreshing read and thank you. My personal interest in habits of the heart is also about cultural and systemic habits of the heart such as explored by the late and faithful Episcopalian Robert Bellah. His book Habits of the Heart explores the common habit of the heart named by Alexis de Tocqueville whose observation was about what he thought was the special and unique mark of the American culture psyche to have an innate spirit of social, mutual care and cohesion among the citizenry, calling it the essence of the American experiment. Bellah's sociological studies indicated fracturing of this habit of the heart, this cohesion of social values. One specific observation was that he saw the brightest light for this habit of the heart among religious congregations and notably Episcopal groups. He was thirty years ago trumpeting out a warning that our experiment by De Tocqueville's definition was in jeopardy in general. What of our own Church? What of hope based on a mutuality of care and sacramental consciousness attached to the strong foundation of the Book of Common Prayer, of a disciplined life of common and practical sense and reason, of the Bible as a repository of our transcendent truth that defies technical or reductive analysis? What of a community of hope who weathers the gyrations of the moment?

  2. Brilliant Bill, absolutely brilliant.