Fr. Richard's Sunday Homily, September 9, 2018
Sunday before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Turn Away from Our Bad Habits and Toward the Lord
Epistle: Galatians 6:7-18
Gospel: John 3:13-17
Deacon John came down on Friday afternoon and asked if I thought there would be many people at vespers. I answered “probably not, because it’s Friday night. It’s not in people’s habit to come to church on Friday night, except during Lent.” I learned a long time ago that people have Friday night habits and vespers is not a part of those Friday night habits.
It got me thinking about habits. We often think of habits themselves in the morally neutral sense, neither good nor bad. But we do admit that there are indeed bad habits. We may even admit that we have a couple of bad habits. Or at least one. Traditional bad habits are things like swearing, smoking and biting your nails. Bad habits. Revenge, using pornography, envy, fault finding, feeling sorry for yourself, seeking attention, lying … most people understand these are bad things, but they often do not see them as habits. Yet they can indeed be habits, they usually are habits—regular, chronic, repeated, automatic, customary, ingrained, regularly executed thoughts and actions that do us no good, and often harm others.
However, they seem to be good to us. Good in the sense that they give us pleasure in some way, they comfort us or stimulate us, or satisfy us and that’s why we choose to do them, and through repetition they become our habits. Our bad habits. Yes, of course there are also good habits. My advice on them is: let’s have more of those, please.
St. Augustine talks about bad habits in several of his works. Why don’t we think on godly things, why aren’t we pursuing the Lord with all our strength, why isn’t our sharing in the divine life the most important participation of our lives, he asks? It’s because we are more absorbed in the material world around us, more concerned about body than soul. He says the weight of our bad habits mark our lives more than the weight of the love of God. These kinds of habits burden our spirits and prevent us from making deliberate and definitive choices for good things. They push against us. And so we have a divided will. We may want to do better, be better, live better but our habits make us drowsy and complacent with the status quo that we ourselves have created. Augustine says that the will that persuades a person to go against their good intentions springs from bad habits, and bad habits are formed by the pleasure we gain from sinful acts.
St. Augustine writes that evil springs from misplaced love. We love what we want to experience in the flesh in this material world. We love what is disordered and wrong, harmful and dangerous. But so often it doesn’t seem that way to us. For example, apart from the physical causes, why is it so hard to quit smoking? Sure, smokers know it’s bad for them, even very bad for them, but they continue on because, despite all the bad they know about, they still prefer what they experience as good when they are smoking. So, it goes the same for all bad habits, so it goes the same for the sins that created those habits, and so it goes for the sins those habits keep alive.
How do we deal with such bad habits? He is very clear. We have got to fight. Fight hard, fight consistently, fight with courage and deliberation and fight, fight, fight to gain release from them. It takes vigorous effort, and no matter how tough the struggle we must never give up. But we do not fight alone. It is the grace of Christ which fills in what we need to actually uproot our bad habits. It is not an easy task most of the time. Even worse, sometimes we don’t even recognize our own bad habits. We can justify them, treat them as normal responses to everyday situations. We can become habitually comfortable with our habits. And that’s a bad habit too.
v I also like how Augustine talks about our collective bad habits. He says they form kind of a second nature within us. Baptism gives us our fundamental first nature, so to speak, the nature God intended when he created Adam and Eve. Bad habits create for us a kind of second nature, and we generally are operating out of this second nature, not the nature rooted in grace.
It makes me think of the Mother of God. She had no second nature constructed from bad habits. Mary only had her eyes set on the light of the glory of God and living in that light, understanding the world and her life in the world according to that light. For us, because of our second nature of bad habits, we find ourselves seeking after partial truth and we shrink back from what is divine because it can seem so difficult and so very far away. Why not base our lives solidly on what is here and now? Mary had only one nature and it was turned to the truth of God, the fulness of the truth, all the time. It was not a life without pain or effort or struggle. She lived a genuine human life. Bad habits are not what make us human.
The only difference from her life and ours is that her life was truly turned toward the Lord, while we ourselves go back and forth, so often conflicted about where we should put our hope. We fall into the trap, again and again—how easy it is to choose what is temporary, and how difficult we find it is to choose what is eternal.
Mary said, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” I cannot yet say those words with her conviction and honesty. I have a lot of bad habits that I have given too much control over my life. But I don’t want to give up. I ask you also not to give up. Let’s work to shed ourselves of our second natures through our effort and prayer, trusting in the Lord’s help.
Our neighbor planted sunflowers for us on our side of the back fence. She has tended to them these past weeks and they are finally blooming. There’s one big sunflower blossom. Sunflowers are supposed to be heliotropic, meaning the flowers follow the path of the sun during the day. But this sunflower only points East, so it must be Greek Catholic. These past few days, as I walk from the house to the church, and see that huge yellow flower, reflecting the brightness of the sun, always facing the church, it reminds me of the Virgin Mary, whose life was only ever pointed toward the living God. Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior save us.