Last Thursday, in just our second class of the semester, I had the opportunity to introduce my ethics students to the master of all things ethical. The key to Aristotle’s understanding of the life of human flourishing is that such a life depends on the formation of the best habits—the virtues—to guide one’s life. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, good habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. Habits are established by repetition and, once formed, are often very difficult to change. Accordingly, one should take great care that one’s moral habits are the right ones (virtues) and not the wrong ones (vices), since the wrong habits, once entrenched, will be next to impossible to replace with better ones.
I have taught Aristotle’s ethics for many years and believe that although Alfred North Whitehead was probably correct when he said that all of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, the best thinking about ethics begins with Aristotle. And his insights concerning the importance of habits are relevant beyond the ethical realm. I find myself in the best physical shape of my life now in my early sixties because several decades ago my grudging daily trips to the gym somehow turned into a habit that I no longer had to talk myself into. Reading psalms with Benedictine monks in Minnesota three times a day during my 2009 sabbatical established a habit of reading the three or four psalms appointed for each day in the Book of Common Prayer that continued for several years after my sabbatical ended. Between my alarm at 5:15 AM and getting to the gym by its 6:00 opening time I read the day’s psalter aloud (or murmured it, lest I awaken the dogs and Jeanne). I am convinced that this simple habit both helped transfer important changes in my life from sabbatical to real life, and also contributed to the preservation of my sanity as I juggled full-time teaching with the additional full-time duties of running a large academic program for four years.
But then I lost the habit, under the strangest of circumstances. My next sabbatical arrived, and with the prospect of unlimited time to rest, re-center, read, and write in front of me, somehow the daily regimen of early morning psalm reading fell by the wayside. I no longer needed to arise at 5:15, I rode my new bicycle obsessively instead of daily workouts at the gym, I applied myself energetically to my sabbatical writing project, and somehow my simple ten to fifteen minutes alone with the psalms every morning didn’t make the cut. I made no conscious decision to end the habit—I just did. If Aristotle is correct in saying that well-established bad habits are very difficult to break, it turned out—in my case at least—that good habits can be broken very easily. I didn’t even realize consciously that my psalm reading habit had gone by the wayside for several weeks; once I noticed its absence, I made a few half-hearted attempts to start again over the following months. But they didn’t take.
I returned to the classroom for the first time in fifteen months a week ago, and decided that along with a return to a 5:15 wake-up call, I would attempt to re-establish my psalm reading habit. With only a week under my belt, the returns are promising; coming back to the psalms has been like becoming reacquainted with very wise friends who have been away for a while. My renewed acquaintances include:
Monday, August 29: Psalm 139
The opening psalm on the list for my first day back was one that, depending on my mood and what’s going on in my life, has been either very disturbing or deeply comforting.
O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away . . .
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast . . .
Sometimes this Psalm reads like a description of a divine stalker, but more often the mere improbability that the creator of the universe cares about lil’ ole me is overwhelming. If I were inclined to be an atheist, or at least an agnostic, it would probably be because of this very point—the idea that God cares about human beings in any specific sense at all. Most of what we observe and experience screams against it. Our obvious insignificance screams against it.
Psalm 139 offers hope in the face of insignificance. Perhaps there is one place where I do not need to be an impostor or be overwhelmed by my insignificance, a place where I am known better than I know myself and am valued more highly than I could ever manufacture. The other day at convocation, NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicolas Kristof told the hundreds of students and faculty in attendance that at those times when one feels insignificant, like a single drop of water in a very large bucket, a drop that can’t possibly make a difference, we should remember that buckets are filled by one drop of water at a time.
Tuesday, August 30: Psalm 146
The final entries in the collection of 150 poems are praises of various sorts—noon prayers at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the place where I first learned to inhabit these ancient poems, include one of the final five psalms in rotation. I always looked forward to Psalm 146, which for me summarizes what God—and therefore those who profess to follow God—cares about the most.
It is the Lord who keeps faith forever, who is just to those who are oppressed.
It is God who gives bread to the hungry, the Lord, who sets prisoners free,
the Lord, who gives sight to the blind, who raises up those who are bowed down,
When John the Baptist sends some of his followers from his prison cell to ask Jesus whether Jesus is the Messiah, “the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus responds in the language of Psalm 146. Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are being fed, strangers are being welcomed, and those imprisoned are being set free. That’s how you can tell when the divine is in the house, when human beings are in tune with what is greater than themselves. Imagine how different our nation, our world, would be if the above lines were the defining touchstone for success.
Thursday, September 1: Psalm 1
The compilers of the Psalms chose to kick things off with a description of happy people, those who “delight in the law of the Lord.”
They are like a tree that is planted bedside the flowing waters,
That yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade;
and all that they do shall prosper.
I have always been fascinated with trees, but have come to love them in a deeper way over the past several years. Their stability, rootedness, and beauty have become iconic for me. I write about trees frequently in this blog: within the past few months I have written about Tolkien’s Ents, arboreal survival strategies, oaks of righteousness, and how the removal of a 150+ year old tree on campus this summer was traumatic for all involved. In an interview with Krista Tippett, theologian Ellen Davis said that “anything in our world now that slows us down is to be valued and maybe as a gift and even a calling from God.” The fact that the first analogy in the Psalms for the person who “meditates on God’s law day and night” is a tree silently proceeding through its seasons of fruitfulness and prosperity confirms Davis’ insight. I may not meditate on God’s law day and night, but fifteen minutes a day is doable.