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Establishing Good Habits

"Habit is a difficult thing, and it is hard to break and hard to avoid....Therefore, the more you understand the power of a habit, the more should you endeavor to be rid of a bad habit and change yourself over to a good one." —St. John Chrysostom (quoted in Concerning Frequent Communion, p. 169)

One of the main characteristics of these blessed spiritual warriors was their strictness in keeping their rule of life. We could see this also in our own Elder, and he demanded the same of us. He told us that the beginning of acquiring character and personhood lies in insistence on following an ordered and systematic way of life. By making the decision to maintain an invariable regime, man acquires resolve and bravery, something very important and essential in our life since our contest is a struggle and, indeed, a fierce one....No other human factor is such an aid to success as our firm and steady resolve and a carefully worked-out regime....It is incontrovertible proof that regulation in life is the main factor in spiritual progress. —From Elder Joseph the Hesychast, by Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, pp. 174-177.

It is heartening when we in the 21st century find that contemporary experts discover, using scientific methods, what the Church has known and practiced all along. One such recent discovery is that it takes about six weeks, or forty days, to make a certain practice into a habit. The period of forty days has since Old Testament times been that amount of time necessary to prepare for something significant or purge oneself of something negative. Today, the Church invites us to a forty-day fast twice a year: once before the Nativity of our Lord and the other before our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.

Keep in mind, that when we speak of habits, we may either mean something good or something bad. In the case of the Christian life, we are often speaking of replacing bad habits with good ones. This process is called repentance, since the bad or sinful habits lead to death and away from God, whereas the good habits or virtues lead to God and eternal life.

We often emphasize changing our ways at the beginning of the New Year or during one of the prolonged fast periods of the Church, but any time is a good time to begin forming a good habit. In fact, the best time to root out the bad and institute the good is always in the present moment. “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor. 6:2)

Motivation is an essential element for a person to be successful at instituting a new and virtuous habit. We must realize that not all is right in our lives; something needs to change. Once we realize what that something is then we become increasingly sensitive to it, until we become motivated enough to want to do something positive about it. This is the moment when we are most ripe for change. For example, the Prodigal Son was wasting away his life in a foreign land with his father’s money, thinking everything was great. It wasn’t until life got ugly and uncomfortable that this lost son began to realize something was wrong. He looked around him, seeing the mud, the husks and the swine, and he began to remember his former life with his family. His nakedness, hunger and loneliness in contrast to his former life of bliss and fulfillment brought him to his senses. He had a moment of realization that he needed to change, to get up out of the mud and return to his father with a humble, contrite and repentant heart. This is the first step toward developing a good habit.

The second step is to realize that change does not happen without struggle and effort. Sometimes that struggle is the adjustment of our schedule or lifestyle to incorporate whatever habit we are trying to establish. We should also realize that there are forces working against our efforts towards the good and virtuous. The holy Fathers of the Church have typically listed three such negative forces. First, we must contend against our own sinful inclinations and passions, our weaknesses of the flesh and our mortality. Secondly, we must be aware of the Evil One and his demons, who ceaselessly wage spiritual war against us and our noble purposes. Finally, we must remember that we live in a fallen world whose values oppose those of God. To forget any of these aspects of the spiritual war and not be willing and ready to struggle against them with the help of God is to not be serious in our goal of establishing a good habit.

Continually keeping our motivation fresh in our minds can help us overcome the forces against us. For example, if the habit we are trying to form is to be more diligent in saying our daily prayers, perhaps a helpful thought is to remember how beneficial these prayers are in keeping us in communication with God. As Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain put it, it is vital for the spiritual soldier to remain in communication with his “base.” If we firmly keep our goal before us, it will help us to remain committed to our purpose.

A third principle to keep in mind in establishing a good and virtuous habit is that much force of will and effort will be necessary, especially at the beginning. This good beginning is vital to sustain our effort. St. John of Sinai, the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, taught: To lag in the fight at the very outset of the struggle and thereby to furnish a token of our coming slaughter is a very hateful and dangerous thing. A firm beginning will certainly be useful for us when we later grow slack. A soul that is strong at first, but then relaxes, is spurred on by the memory of its former zeal. And in this way new wings are often obtained.

It is important to remember that we may be either fighting against momentum in the wrong direction or are faced with no momentum at all, but inertia. Either way, physics provides the principle that teaches us that much force and energy are required to move our hearts, minds and bodies in the right direction.

Finally, the last step is to put our good intentions into action. This should go without saying, but unfortunately it is where we most often fall short. We need to actually begin the process of repentance and establish whatever virtue or good practice we are trying to make into a habit. Most people have good intentions, but not all have active prayer lives, healthy bodies, organized finances or clean homes. The first three steps are important to understand and keep in mind during the struggle, but ultimately all is naught if we do not move from contemplation to action. Furthermore, it is vitally important to remember that an action not sustained profits us nothing. How many health clubs grow rich on people who take initial action and join their clubs, but do not sustain their use of their membership for longer than a couple of weeks.

There is no substitute for self-discipline when it comes to forming good habits. Having a realistic expectation of the resistance that we will face, will help us to set up the correct routine and stick with it. If we run with patience the race that is set before us, God will give us the strength and grace to continue. John of Sinai also wrote, “All who enter upon the good fight, which is hard and close, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they expect the celestial fire to dwell in them.”

From an anonymous source. Posted with permission on 1/2/2007.