As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. ~Henry David Thoreau
Some researchers have concluded that if you practise an activity for one hundred days (others have said forty days) then it will become a habit and you will have it for the rest of your life. It is I suppose something to do with the neural pathways in the brain; which I know absolutely nothing about. Nevertheless it does seem that we reinforce those pathways by repeating actions that eventually become habits.
Of course, we well know that there are good habits; that is, those that are life-giving, and there are also bad habits that we could say are life-denying; or at least, just unhelpful. Okay, so here is your assignment this morning. I would like you to make a mental list of your good habits going to bed early; being punctual; showing kindness to people . And the list, I hope is very long. Now thats done, make a list of your bad habits Im not going to speak these out aloud; for fear that I may incriminate myself. But we know that we do have habitual practices that do not get us to where we would like to be.
Habits are in fact a thing of the heart. That is to say they go to the very centre of our being. They are not really connected that much with our thinking or even with our ability to make choices. They are in fact habitual and woven somehow or other into the fabric of our being and let me say, they are not easy to change. I remember someone describing giving up smoking cigarettes. He said that when he didnt smoke he felt inauthentic because the habit of smoking was woven into his identity. He was a smoker and he was not a non-smoker. So it took some time, one hundred days perhaps, of non-smoking to alter his identity; his perception of himself.
Habits of the Heart
Faith and religion are fundamentally habits of the heart. They are not just belief systems, nor are they just places to belong. Thats the point the author of the letter to the community in Colossia is trying to make. Its about changing their habits. But most importantly it is about changing their hearts:
These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things - anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.
Now interestingly, habits seldom change by someone telling you that they should change. Nor do habits change just by believing new and different beliefs. Habits are woven too deeply into our lives to change that easily. In fact it is not the habit that one must focus on, it is the heart; the centre of our being that must be transformed.
The story is told of a young soldier who in the 18th century decided he wanted to become a Quaker. Now as you may know the Quakers are pacifist and therefor they are committed to living a life of non-violence. The young soldier asked the Quaker leader William Penn. "Sir" he says, "When I become a member of the Quaker community, what should I do with my sword?" William Penn replies "Carry it for as long as you can!" You see for Penn and for the writer of this letter, it is not primarily the habit that must be changed, rather it is the heart. And when the heart of the young soldier is changed, only then can he authentically lay down his sword.
Too much of our religion has been about the habits and not enough about the heart. Again the community at Colossia is encouraged:
Dont lie to one another, seeing that you have changed your old ways and practices and have now clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.
True, it is good to be honest and truthful, well in most cases. But the language used here in this letter is an expression of changing that which is at the centre of our being. "Now that you are clothed in the new self renewed in knowing the image of the Creator " This is the language of the heart. The language of the essences of our being.
I find it amusing and at times irritating that people will say, "Oh thats not a very Christian thing to do." Of course what they are saying is that Christianity is a code of conduct and that to be a good Christian one should be nice, kind, thoughtful and probably compliant. Now there is nothing wrong with being kind and thoughtful, but nice should only ever be used in reference to a cup of tea, "Oh this is a nice cup of tea." People are not to be nice. They are to be authentically human and growing daily into maturity and spiritual depth and being nice I suspect, will get in the way of that process.
Cultivating the Habits of the Heart
I am sure that the onus is on each of us to cultivate in our lives the Habits of the Heart. Here is my arbitrary list of habits that should be integrated into each of our lives. There are five of them, but I know there are many many more. Some come from the Biblical narrative; some come from modern thought and exploration and some come from my own lived experience. But I think they are all relevant to the world in which we live to today:
In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
And I will finish with a poem from Shamaan Ochaum Climbing Eagle, that I think is relevant while somewhat tangential to this reflection: