This Lent, we need to change our habits

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Lent is here. Again. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to “give up and take up.”  As much as I can begrudge the Lenten “time to get out of your spiritual comfort zone,” I admit, Lent is worth it.  I further admit that this year I find myself reflecting on—and appreciating—the practical wisdom of Lent.

For all it’s grave institutional faults, the Church’s wisdom thankfully endures.  I argue that’s best seen in our annual observance of Lent.

Lent is founded on a basic principle of human action: that change occurs by habit, not by knowledge.  What do I mean?  There are, in essence, two ways of overcoming our personal defaults: by conforming to right knowledge, or habituating into right action.  We can frame this another way by saying we can take the Aristotelian or Socratic approach to Lent. 

Many consider Socrates the “father of philosophy” and the greatest philosopher to ever live.  I don’t disagree.  But where Socrates sought knowledge, he failed to recognize that not all issues are intellectual issues.  Socrates believed that right knowledge leads to right living.  If I know what justice is then I will be just.  If I properly understand what love is then could I love.

We know from our own experience that this isn’t always the case, especially when it comes to our turning away from sin and towards the Gospel.  St. Paul recognized this well.  In his letter to the Romans, he writes “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do.”  Paul knows by experience the fault in the Socratic approach.

What we need to do is change our habits.  Yes, knowledge is important, but the knowledge is not enough. As Christians, we know repenting and believing in the Gospel takes more than knowledge.  We need to take Aristotle’s lead.  We need to, with God’s grace, habituate ourselves into living deeper in Christ.

Aristotle held that growth in virtue occurs by repetition.  Virtue is, in short, a good habit. Over time, virtues make acting well easier and easier.  By doing the good deed do we become good.  I become brave by acting bravely.  I become prudent by repeatedly exercising prudence.

I propose it’s the same in the spiritual life.  In the same way, by doing the praying, the fasting, the giving, Christ takes effect in us.  The sitting back and intellectual approach does not work in Lent.  Lent calls us to habituate ourselves anew.  This habituation does not occur by our own efforts alone.  We still need to cooperate with Grace.  That being said, Lent calls us to do our part.  We form the good habits of a little extra prayer, a kind act towards our neighbor once a day, giving to the poor in some way.  We do this repeatedly, and Christ habituates Himself in us.

This is the wisdom of Lent, and I’m glad for it.  Let us take up anew the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Even when we don’t want to do it, let us be confident that the process works.  Psychology has repeatedly shown that it takes 21 days to form a new habit.  Christ has given us 40.  We can do this.

Dan McQuillan teaches in the Humanities Department at Portsmouth Abbey School. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from St. John’s University.