You are here this evening (or reading this now) because you are wanting a better life. And by “better life” we probably mean a happier life, a more peaceful life, free, meaningful, purposeful. Because you are here and are part of this MOMs group, I know that you are already taking your faith to the next level—maybe some of you are just beginning; some of you, however, are already experts. That said, I am going to try and put this talk “down the middle of the fairway”—hopefully not being too boring to the experts, hopefully not too overwhelming for those who are beginning. At any rate, know that it is a joy for me to be with you here tonight, to be with Catholic women who are engaging in the faith and striving to become saints. That’s awesome.
I’d like to thank Yvette and Suzanne for inviting me to give this talk. They have asked me to speak on the topic: “Our Lives Changes When Our Habits Change.” It’s a pretty expansive topic and is meant to be very practical.
In order to send us on the right trajectory, let us consider for a moment the ancient people of Israel who were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt. What did their lives consist of? Busy-ness, work, meaninglessness—and a desire to be free. But to what purpose was that desire for liberation directed? To the worship of God. They wanted to be closer to God and they knew Pharaoh’s slavery was keeping them from God. So they began to pray, to cry out to God, for a change in their lives.
Thus began the process of liberation. First, they desired it. They knew they couldn’t just “back into” the new life. This desire and this understanding that it couldn’t come by simply their own efforts drove Israel to collectively kneel in prayer before the God who saves. So it goes with us: not only must we acknowledge that many of us are enslaved in the things of the world, but we must also desire to be free—and so desirous that we get on our knees in prayer for this liberation.
God hears Israel’s prayers and thus begins to bestow a series of graces upon them. He sends Moses; then plagues; then Passover; then the passage through the Red Sea; then the Commandments; then the manna in the desert. A few things can be said about God’s process of liberation.
First, God is with Israel. He is with us. But God also sends His representative, Moses. Our freedom, therefore, is going to be in union with the Church and Her leaders. We need someone to lead us; someone to teach, someone to guide. Let us pray for our priests and for our husbands to take up this grave responsibility with great diligence and charity!
Second, God responds with plagues. We don’t like to remember this part of the story, but part of Israel’s liberation came through some terrible events. Conversion sometimes must come through hitting “rock bottom”; or through illness; or through a loss of a job; or through boredom; or even through a death. We may be tempted to curse these “plagues,” but Israel saw them working towards her liberation. So too, let us know that all things work to the good for those who love the Lord.
Thirdly, God bestows His powerful grace. There is no such thing as cheap grace, or weak grace. Grace is powerful. The passage through the Red Sea—pre-figuring our baptism—is powerful. The Passover—pre-figuring the Eucharist—is powerful. And these are just images of the graces we receive in the Sacraments every day. God’s grace is powerful—in the sacraments, in the Commandments. Our lives will change through a fruitful receptivity to the Sacraments and the Moral Life. Call often upon God’s grace!
As a conclusion to this first section, let us consider a “point for prayer.” We often have an agenda on how we want our lives to change. But, really, we must ask: How does GOD want your life to change? That will lead to the greatest change, the happiest life, the most peaceful and liberating, right? So let us go to God and humbly ask Him with profound openness:
Lord, how do you want my life to change?
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So, let’s recap.
1) Needed to reach a point where their desire to change led them to prayer.
2) God responded by His powerful grace.
These are the pre-requisite steps to this evening’s talk. For now, let’s presume that this is what is already happening in our lives. And if not, well, we will begin tonight. But for the rest of the talk, we are going to talk about a 3rd step:
3) how we respond to God’s grace.
Since we are going to talk about our response, we do need to cover a doctrine that affects the quality of our response—a doctrine that has been incredibly under-taught in recent decades: the doctrine of concupiscence.
When Adam and Eve chose not-God, they chose against the very principle of what had brought order into their relationship and even into the integrity of their being. Disorder entered into their lives—into their relationship and even into the way they thought, felt, and chose. Concupiscence is that woundedness wherein our:
a. Intellect is dimmed and in need of formation;
b. Will is weakened and in need of strengthening; and
c. Passions are rebellious, fluctuating, insatiable, and in need of moderating.
Let’s unpack this.
Our will is the faculty by which we choose. Now, when we choose, we are always choosing what we think is good. Our will is always oriented to what we think is good. However, what we think is good may actually not be good—and that’s because our intellect is dimmed, right? So, we see how it is important it is to have a formed intellect.
It may also happen that we actually do know what is really the good. For example, we may see the narrow way which leads to heaven. But the narrow way is difficult, we see that there is suffering involved. And in our weak will, we choose an easier way—a way that we rationalize as good enough to choose it, but which leads to sin. Jim Gaffigan calls this choosing of the easier way “McDonalds.” (YouTube it). So, our will must be strengthened so that it will choose The Good—even and especially when it is tough to do so.
Our intellect is the faculty by which we think, reason, remember, imagine. It can aid the will in that it says: “Yes, choose this! And here’s why.” But, again, since it is dimmed, it needs formation—not only through study and experience but also by the enlightenment of grace.
Our passions are those appetites and emotions that we feel: anger, sadness, hunger, elation, etc. On the one hand, these can assist our intellect and will only insofar as they are lined up with the properly enlightened intellect and will. For example, a little bit of righteous anger can provide a little “oomph” to stay a few moments longer on one’s knees in prayerful reparation for the world’s sins (or our own).
On the other hand, the passions can also be a mess and a detriment to good thinking and holy choosing. For example, have you ever been in a blind rage or a deep sadness, only to find out later that what you were feeling wasn’t exactly consistent with reality? We can get so angry or so sad about something that really isn’t important—or even real. Passions can easily make a mountain out of a mole hill, blowing things out of proportion.
This is where our intellect must come in: to temper the passions and to point out what IS real. This is where a strong will must come in too: to choose something that might not “feel good” or which might be contrary to what our passions and appetites are telling us to choose.
Passions, therefore, are often described as being the dictator that must be ruthlessly contained and put in its proper place. Passions are like the waves in the storm that we need to beg Jesus to calm.
Yet, you will notice that the world operates on “how we feel” without recourse to the rational and intelligent. I mean, look at how we respond to homilies. When was the last time we thanked Father for his exposition of the finer points of St. Thomas Aquinas. Rather, we thank Father for the “moving” homily. What part of us did the homily “move?—intellect? Often it is the passions.
Ok, so now we have the structure for the rest of the talk. We are going to look at practical ways to strengthen the will, enlighten our intellect, and moderate the passions. Let us remember: this is the 3rd step. We are presuming that we are praying about and for this change; and banking on God’s grace. Without Jesus, we can do nothing.
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Let’s begin by discussing the moderation of the passions.
Oftentimes, our passions move us to say: “I’ve gotta have _____” Or, “Until ____ happens, I will not be happy.” Our passions start to convince us that perfection, happiness, freedom, etc, is going to be found when the passions are satisfied—by releasing anger, eating food, being busy, buying something, etc. But we often find that entertaining the passions does not make us free. On the contrary (and like the dictator, Pharaoh), they often enslave us, zap us of our energy, make us unhealthy, and take away our happiness.
So, we realize that the formation of the intellect and the will—and employing those faculties—will be very beneficial.
For now, we can say this:
1. Never act solely on your appetites.
Take a moment to breathe. Think. Seek advice from an objective person who is not being blinded or persuaded by the passions. Take time to pray. Find the narrow way.
2. Life is messy.
I know you want things to be perfect. But we are on pilgrimage. We are leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land. We are going to have to be adaptable and we are going to have to suffer. Letting your passions rule your life will leave you throwing a tantrum and getting mad that you aren’t back in Egypt. That’s a quick way to be left behind. Sure, we can cry, we can get angry—but sometimes, too, we have just gotta keep going. Life is messy; don’t get bogged down by what you do or don’t have, or by the order that you want.
3. Be ready to sacrifice a few things.
So, take a cold shower once in a while (for the duration of a Hail Mary). Abstain from meat on Friday. Go without wine for dinner. Stay five minutes after Holy Mass. Sign out of Facebook for a week.
You aren’t ruled by your passions. So, show Pharaoh—your passions—that you mean business.
* * *
This moves us directly to questions for our intellect. One of the fundamental questions for our lives is:
Do I need this? And do I know the difference between a want and a need?
So often, we think that we need something—when, really, we don’t. We just simply are wanting it. And why? Because our appetites are run amok. Perhaps, also, because we are comparing ourselves to others. This leads us to another “point for prayer”:
Who do I compare myself to? The popular, the “with it,” the comfortable? Have I ever compared myself to the poor? the saintly? How (and why) can it be that someone can have less than me and be happier than me?
We see this especially in the drive to be “supermoms”—to be totally sane while driving kids to soccer practice, dance practice, girl scouts, school and back again, while working a job, making dinner, being “on” for the husband, and having the perfect spiritual life that prays the Rosary, goes to Mass, and quietly meditates—awake—for a half-hour before bed.
The intellect must be engaged and it will answer two questions:
1. What am I spending my life on?
2. Do I have unreasonable expectations?
Regarding the first question, we must realize that we are spending our lives on things and we need to take a moment and take an inventory on what, exactly, we are spending our time, our energy, and sanity—our lives.
We must come to grips that we cannot have everything. Let me repeat that. YOU CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING. You are a limited human being—and coming to grips with that IS humbling. You might grieve it. You might be angry with God about it. But you are human and you cannot expect to have everything. Because that’s insane. Our PASSIONS want that, but our intellect says no. You can bargain; you can rationalize; you can will to try to have everything—but you will be enslaved. You can’t have everything.
So, if you want family time, you cannot have six sports/dance/etc practices at the same time. We have to choose.
If you want truly happy and affectionate children, you cannot have an overbearing presence that seeks excellence in studies at the expense of spontaneous play, and wasted time hugging and laughing.
We must remember (with the intellect) that our kids are kids. Even teenagers are, to a great extent, kids. Kids are not adults. AND they have concupiscence. Shoot, WE have difficulty knowing what we want and controlling our passions—and we have a 20+ years’ head-start on the kiddos. And yet, we expect them to be more “with it” than we are? That’s insane.
We are killing ourselves—and them—with too many activities and too many expectations. This enslaves us, them, and it sabotages our happiness. And theirs.
Let them be bored. Boredom is the blank slate on which creativity can begin. And yes, you will have to hear the whining (there’s the plague!), “I’m bored!” But we gotta muscle through that. Model creativity. And take away all those devices that imagine things for them. No TVs in their bedrooms. So many kids’ active imagination has been paralyzed by the passive imagining of those devices. This is hard, the narrow way—but we must “will” it. To make forts out of cardboard boxes or tents out of bedsheets again; coloring, painting, ….
I’ll talk about teens and chores in a bit—because we should model maturity too…
* * *
Continuing on the intellect: we must take a moment and ask:
What is the goal of all that we are doing?
If it is anything other than union with God, love, and heaven, then we’ve got our priorities out of order. Monetary success and a comfortable life—when did Jesus ever say that this is the way to heaven? Indeed, He often said the exact opposite! Being uncomfortable—carrying a cross, living simply—this is the way to heaven.
So what is the goal of everything you are spending your life on? What is the goal of your expectations?
Knowing the answer to the RBQs is helpful here. The RBQs are “Really Big Questions”—such as “where did I come from?”; “where am I going?”; “what is the purpose of my life?” etc.
Israel knew that making bricks was not the purpose of life. Knowing and loving God and worshipping Him—that’s the purpose; that’s what drove them to prayer and to beg to be liberated from slavery.
So, a few practical words of advice here.
If you want family, make family a priority. Eat as a family. And no one eats alone. And use your intellect: if your kids are under 6 or 7 and they are running around during dinner time, don’t fret. They are not adults. They are kids. With concupiscence. Their work is to play. Adapt.
And DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF.
In ten years, you will miss the joy of kids running around the table and making a mess. Remember: life is messy. And that’s part of what makes it beautiful. Stop trying to be a perfectionist and so orderly, Supermom. The mess will get cleaned up later….
And kids will inconvenience other adults. Do your best, but don’t get too upset. Frankly, our rigid, gray, dead culture needs to be inconvenienced by the spontaneity of playing children.
Back to family…
If you want family, pray as a family. Fifteen minutes—not at bedtime, but at a sacrificial time: 6 or 7pm…. Kids under 6 can run around a little, that’s ok. Slowly, SLOWLY, bring them in over time.
As an aside: these 15 minutes will pay big dividends when faced with the 60 minutes of Holy Mass on Sunday. I mean, if we tried to run 10 miles all at once, we would die. We would need to work up to that. So too, we need to help work kids up to doing 60 minutes of prayer. Those 15 minutes will pay dividends. Perhaps having one “quiet” hour each week will help too: where the TV and the electronics are all off, and the hour is spent in quiet activities.
Yes, if our house is a beehive, becoming quieter will take time…
Slight detour: we need to teach kids to use their intellect when it comes to our faith, especially when it comes to “intentionality.” What I mean by that is: kids need to learn to take action on their faith through their own initiative. So often, studying about the faith, praying, going to confession, etc—so often, those actions are served up on a platter by the school and the kids never learn to take initiative.
For example, kids go to confession during Advent and Lent every year at school, but then when college hits, they stop going—until they are prompted to take their 2nd grader to First Confession. Why did they fall away in the first place? One of the reasons is that they never learned to think: “I have sinned, therefore I need to go to confession.” Rather, confession was just simply served up on a platter by the school—the kids never learned to make the actual connection.
We need to help them intentionality. Choosing confession because I’ve sinned—and not simply because I’m prompted by the school or by mom. Choosing to read a book on the faith because this helps me grow in the supernatural life—and not simply because Sister at school has assigned homework. We have to engage our intellect in the formation of the intellect of our children and intentionality.
This goes to teenagers and chores too. If we have to constantly harp on our teens to do chores, we have failed in the task of intentionality. You see, teens are easily absorbed in the “me-project.” So, before that happens, we need to take them aside as 7 year olds, 9 year olds, and 12 year olds—we need to teach them how mom/dad is doing chores because he/she loves me; then we teach them that if we love mom/dad, we do the same; then we teach them to start looking around the home: “is there anything else that you see needing to be done?” and we start maturing them: “go and do it—prove your love.” We teach them to own it—such that doing chores is not simply from duty, but from a mature heart that loves and wills to intentionally love.
* * *
That said, we must form our intellect concerning God. Recommendations:
- Read the Gospels, then the Psalms, then Genesis, … (don’t try to read the Bible cover to cover—you’ll stop by Leviticus!)
- Study amazing works on the faith: Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, Cardinal Ratzinger, …
- Read actual books on or by the saints—not just paragraph summaries. You will be stunned—STUNNED!—at how real and human and just like us they were!
- Start reading the Catechism. This is a treasure trove.
- Pray. This is not the “means” to the relation with God. This IS the relationship. And remember: you have two ears and one mouth: use them in that proportion.
* Book Recommendations listed below
Learn more about yourself and others. Read from the book of humanity.
- know yourself from within: what makes you tick, what do you enjoy, what are your weak points that lead you to sin? We all share certain “red flags” that we know lead us to bad choices or stinkin’ thinkin.
An acronym: BALD HAT:
Bored; Angry; Lonely; Depressed; Hungry; Anxious; Tired
If you are feeling these things, be on guard: your passions may be mounting a rebellion! Engage your intellect and will!
- know yourself from without: God looks at you and says, “You are my daughter. I am well pleased in you. I love you.” We have to remember this.
- write this or any motivating scripture passages on your bathroom mirror (use a dry-erase marker)
- do a good Examination of Conscience every few weeks. Go to confession once every three months (or more frequent).
- every night, make a movie of your day. Thank God for his graces; say sorry for your sins. Do this standing up so that you don’t fall asleep. 7 minutes tops.
- go through the “death” of receiving feedback. Ask God for feedback. Ask your spouse where your sins are (we know our spouse’s sins so easily, right?)
Learn what freedom is; get perspective; learn from experience
- read the book Interior Freedom
- experience poverty/simplicity by helping the poor (eg. The Missionaries of Charity)
- live by a bare-bones budget for a couple weeks…
- learn from this… and about God and yourself through it…
- you can’t do all of these all at once. Pick a couple and get to work….
* * *
It naturally follows that we now turn to strengthening our weakened will.
As with the body, our will needs exercise. Strength comes through routine and repetition. This also builds “muscle memory”—which, when it is the will, is amazingly powerful and liberating.
So, to strengthen the will, a good routine is very helpful. Of course, this is often so difficult!—especially when we have little kids. But all of us, no matter how crazy our schedules—all of us have certain “rituals” that we already do in life: from waking up, to “morning things,” to work, to eating, to going to bed, etc. We already have these “rituals.” We can use what we already have there an affix some spiritual routines to them.
So, for example, here are some routines that you can affix to your already-existing rituals that will help you to remember and to be strengthened:
- You already have a ritual of waking up. Spiritualize it. See it as the moment that you are rising from the dead (for your bed does prefigure your “falling asleep” in death). Practicing waking up with the hope of the resurrection: that this day will be full of grace and blessing. “Good morning, God!” instead of “Good God, morning.” No snoozing.
- Have a crucifix on your bedside table. Why? So that when you roll out of bed, you grab it, you kiss the body of Jesus, and say a prayer. Place the cross on your pillow. And (if your spouse is not still sleeping) make the bed.
- notice: the cross is now on your pillow. When you go to bed tonight, the cross will remind you to pray!
- If you look in the mirror in the morning, have a scripture verse written on your bathroom mirror (dry-erase marker) to motivate you
- place a Rosary on your coffeemaker / diaperbox to remind you to say a decade while you drink coffee / change diapers
- have a holy card on your car’s horn … pray it before you take off. Pray it again when you arrive. Change the holy card monthly to keep things fresh.
- Set your phone’s alarm for 9, 12, and 3 to remind you to say a Hail Mary or a decade—or, at least, to remind you of your scripture verse and/or God’s love for you
- If your kids nap, take a nap too. It’s ok. Americans are missing out on the Siesta.
- On your way home from work, stop by a church and visit (adoration chapel or not) and place your work at Jesus’ feet. Ask Him for strength to engage your true vocation: marriage and family. If there is no church nearby, stop in your driveway and give all to Him there. Leave work at work—and with Jesus. He will take care of it.
- It’s ok to give the kids to the husband/grandparents so you can do a holy hour each week. You need quiet time with God: “Come away with me for a while…”
- At bed, pick up the cross and hold it close; make the movie of your day; thank God for 3 graces. Say sorry. You may need to stand while you do this so you don’t fall asleep.
- pray with your husband, an Our Father will do, before you go to bed. For your marriage and family. (What is a priest if he does not pray for his parish? What is a parent who does not pray for his/her spouse and family?)
Yes, this is about having a Rule of Life, kind of like a Monastery—and, like a monastery, requires simplicity and pruning away of the many activities on which we are spending our lives. Remember: you can’t do it all. But contemplation,… heaven… peace… these are worth it, right? That’s why you’re here, right?
And knowing that we are humans and that if it isn’t in our schedule, we don’t do it—PUT IT IN YOUR CALENDAR. Write down your “Divine Appointment” in your calendar. Jesus is your most important client. What day, what times are your divine appointments?
* * *
As with any endeavor, we always do better when someone hold us accountable. Confession helps here, but also friends. Remember: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Seek help from people. Ask for hugs (only with appropriate people, duh).
And be helpful to others, too. You can be their help, their strength. (Oy, how gossiping is so contrary to our growth as a community! It is gossip that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion, remember)
* * *
Finally, practice practice practice. But practice “higher” than you want your normal to be. So, just as when we want to run 3 miles well and with speed, we go beyond the goal and practice running 6 miles, so too when we want to develop a good habit, we must perform actions that go beyond the habit we are trying to develop. Practice higher than what you want your normal to be.
For example, if you are melancholy and want to be a joyful person, you are going to have to go beyond just simply smiling—you are going to have to seriously stretch your spiritual muscles and do some lifting and seek what is good around you—and often. There are good things going on around you. Stop twice a day and think about them. Thank God. …. I know, your will is weak so it wants to choose McDonalds. Your passions are going “ugh!” Well, you have God’s grace! Bank on that! You can be a joyful person!
Or if you are the disciplinarian in your home, remember that the woman is supposed to reveal the affection of the Church. Be more affectionate—even if your passions say you are tired or they don’t deserve it or you don’t feel like it. Be affectionate. And, at the end of the day, if you have corrected your children and your husband more than you have hugged them or loved upon them, yeah, then we need to be more affectionate.
* * *
Remember why we are doing this. We want our lives to change. We know that our culture is no longer Catholic and that we have to intentionally choose now. We can’t simply “fall into” being Catholic and entering heaven…. Think about it. Pray. Conquer the passions. Receive grace. Choose well. Taste freedom.
Here is a list of books that are very worthwhile – and each of these authors have numerous other, very high-quality books worth reading.
Prayer for Beginners – Peter Kreeft
The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home – by Clayton & Lawler
The Spiritual Life:
Interior Freedom – by Jacques Philippe
Discerning the Will of God – by Timothy Gallagher
Spiritual Combat – by Dom Scupoli
The Better Part – Commentary on the Gospels – by John Bartunek
Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux – there is a good audiobook for this, too
Edmund Campion, a Life – by Evelyn Waugh
The Lamb’s Supper: the Mass as Heaven on Earth – by Scott Hahn
See Yourself Through God’s Eyes: 52 Meditations to Grow in Self-Esteem – by Marie Curley
The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic – Matthew Kelly
Magnificat Prayerbooks (a very worthwhile subscription service)
Laudete App for your phone
This part of Catholicism has been expanding exponentially in recent years. Here are a few good places to start:
www.wordonfire.org – resources and homilies by Bishop Robert Barron
www.catholic.com – your go-all place for every question you have about the Catholic faith