Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Saturday, January 08, 2005  

The Peculiar Resistance to Practice

Many people never become good at playing guitar or golf or at drawing because they don’t practice. The guitar, for instance, is easy to learn to play, but very hard to play well.

The same is true with religion and faith. If you don’t practice your religion, you won’t really be very good at applying it; and faith is like a muscle -- it only gets stronger with disciplined use.

I write this because I had a disturbing experience with two dear friends of mine, Sandra and Bill (not their real names).

Since my wife and daughter are away, Bill invited me for coffee after Mass last Sunday. I met them at the restaurant, and it was breakfast they meant to have which was fine since I was hungry.

After our food arrived, I looked up expectantly as we would all make the sign of the cross and say grace together, but they were oblivious so I made the sign of the cross before eating. (When I eat alone, I usually just make the sign of the cross since speaking out loud with no one else to join in seems a bit much or odd to me.)

Keep in mind that Sandra and Bill are people who never miss a Mass, and have been meeting weekly with us in a small group for about ten years now.

Another peculiarity is that in our group we have read many books of the Bible fully like Isaiah, Proverbs, the Letters, Ecclesiastes, and John which are never read fully in church, and what everyone in our group will say (except me) is that they had no idea these ideas, images, sentiments, observations, insights, and reflections were in the Bible.

It seems that many Christians never read the Bible outside of church. That simply astonishes me. I would never recommend that anyone pick it up with the idea of starting at the beginning and reading through to the end (that’s a recipe for failure), but that people don’t pick it up and leaf through it to find a book that seems worth exploring, well, it pains me a bit. I mean, I won’t be reading numbers, Leviticus, or Deuteronomy anytime soon, but I have read them with great interest in the past. They are fascinating chronicles of a people inventing their religion and culture (and in the process helping to create ours).

Also, it is very easy to simply read a chapter of any book every day. (And then the pages fly past in a year's time.) It's not that onerous a task. People lie when they say they're too busy. What they mean is that they refuse to slow down their mental engines to absorb what's in the Bible and to reflect on it.

Another member of our group, Dorothy (Dot), has been very active in church service for decades in the RCIA (Catholic Initiation of Adults), as a lector, and on committees and such.

She retired early from her work due to disabling rheumatoid arthritis, and has suffered a long litany of severe and crippling pains and operations (neck fused, ankles fused, teeth breaking, back pains from a lawn chair breaking underneath her (it had been damaged by the store and she won a settlement). Dot is frail and hobbled, but no matter had badly she feels and crippled at the moment, she insists on coming to our meetings even though it can be quite difficult and scary to transport her.

We would meet in her house if we could, and save her the trouble of movement, but she is pathologically incapable of organizing it so that it is useable. You can hardly get in the door. There are thousands of books (unread) scattered in piles, newspapers, magazines, a couple of cats underfoot making more messes, and a general disorder that makes getting anywhere an ordeal. That Dot hasn’t tripped and damaged herself further is a miracle in itself for she often comes near collapsing from ankle or knee pain on the best of days in spacious accommodations.

Over the years we have all offered to organize her possessions, clean her house, and set up her living arrangements to her benefit and ease but she refuses, or no sooner does someone begin but she finds everything as it is indispensable where it is. She also had to declare bankruptcy because she spent compulsively for items and gadgets that she had no need of. The kind of person who goes broke saving money on bargains.

Dot is the packrat you read about in a newspaper of how the paramedics could hardly get into the place to rescue her.

Yet, if asked, Dot would tell you she is devout, faithful, and eager to improve.

As I observe my friends, I keep wondering what it is about myself that I may be oblivious about that they see clearly as flaws.

One of the reasons I try to have little to do with people is that we’re all so screwed up. It’s amazing we can work together at all.

The other day I was walking my dog. A middle aged man with a salt and pepper beard on a bike, wearing one of those ridiculous cyclists outfits and helmets, rode slowly past me. I didn’t know that those pants (even black) were somewhat transparent when stretched across a backside, and so I saw a lot more of the fellow than I cared to.

After riding past me the man circled back around and rode up towards me. I was on the sidewalk listening to my walkman radio, and so I wasn’t paying any attention listening to Medved instead.

“I guess it’s harder to pick up dog poop when the grass is wet,” he said to me.

It took me a second to realize he was talking to me, so I pulled off the headphones and said, “No, I don’t have any problem doing that.”

“You do pick up after your dog, don’t you?”

“Huh?” I said in brilliant repartee.

“Well, a lot of people just let their animals crap on other people’s yards and don’t pick it up.”

“Oh,” I thought as it began to dawn on me. This guy is some sort of Berkeley-ite busybody whose a poop Nazi hassling people who never did a thing to him feeling invariably smug and superior for caring for the environment.

So I pulled a couple of plastic bags out of my pocket, and said, “I always carry some bags for my dog.”

“Okay, well, no offense intended.” And he rode away.

I walked away a bit offended, and started to think of all the things I should have said like, “I appreciate civic minded diligence as much as the next man but when you see me violate decency and good neighborly manners, then you can take me to task, if you don’t mind.”

But the only thing that occurred to me to say to the fellow when we were speaking was this: “What kind of a busybody are you?” Which I thought was rather lame and so did not say it.

On the one hand, I approve of people who take their neighbors to task for violating the basic codes, and counting on the fact that others find it hard to complain to wrong doers and thus the selfish and lazy get away with their little depredations, but on the other hand, I’m not fond of busybodies going after others who never did a thing to them.

There’s no Golden Mean in this world. If you’re easy, people take advantage. If you’re a bit hard, people don’t like it and shun you. It boils down to us tolerating each other more or less and not liking it much.

I often tell people that Americans (or some others) are generally very decent, friendly, and nice -- until, that is, you get in the way of something they really want to do or have. Then the fangs are bared.

My experience in day to day encounters with clerks and people on my errands is almost always pleasant and calm, but just try and go over to that grocery clerk’s house and complain about his dog’s barking all day and night and see what kind of response you get; or yell at his kid for misbehaving and see how nice that genial fellow really is.

The people who need constructive criticism are rarely able to take it, whereas the people who are able to take criticism rarely need to hear it.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 11:01 AM |