Here’s the setup: You’re about five years old. The nice adult psychologist offers you a choice: one marshmallow (or cookie, or pretzel) now, or – if you wait 15 minutes – two of them. The experiment was originally designed to study strategies that children used to delay gratification, but then something happened. The psychologist (Walter Mischel) was able to track down many of those children ten and even twenty years later to see how they were making out in life. It turned out that the children who were better able to delay gratification at age 4 to 6 showed better life outcomes: higher SAT scores, lower body-mass index (i.e., closer to normal weight), better education results, and more, as they grew up.
What’s this got to do with “ordinary time” in the Church calendar? This:
“Ordinary” has the same word-root as “orderly”: This season is when the Church focuses us on the skills for discipleship, the foundation of which is a life made orderly by certain regular practices: weekly Mass and Holy Communion; daily prayer; truth-telling; forgiving others; caring for the poor; asking not, “what do I want?” but “what does God want?” All of these practices rely on our capacity for self-discipline so that we’re not ruled by our impulses, fears, and addictions. To be an effective disciple we have to learn to “postpone eating the marshmallow.” Even if we weren’t that way at age 5 (or 45), it’s not too late to learn.
I am convinced that one of the major tragedies of recent religious training is that it has focused on ideas rather than on practice. Of course we have to know the major teachings of the Church (a knowledge admittedly too rare today); but that’s not enough. Disciples of Christ aren’t just people who believe certain things: we’re people who act in particular ways, doing some things and avoiding others. If we’re to have the freedom and the wisdom to act well, we need self-discipline. The practices of our faith both teach us and discipline us.
People whose actions are important train for them: airline pilots, firefighters, surgeons – even serious athletes and performers. We only see the show – what’s in the background are the hours and even years of practice that make the show (or the surgery, or the rescue, or the “miracle on the Hudson” landing) possible. In a crunch we won’t perform “up” to our hopes and dreams; we’ll perform at the level we’ve trained ourselves to perform at.
So for example: as we kick off Ordinary Time, in today’s first reading, the Church has us hear from Isaiah, “I will make you a light to the nations.” How are we to become able to show, consistently, the light of Christ that has been given to us? Good intentions are a start but they’re not enough. The four practices Matthew Kelly talks about (prayer, study, generosity, and evangelization) are the practices that let us be the light to the people we meet every day. To do those four things we need to learn not only the what, but also the how: not only “that I should pray every day,” but “how to create a habit of praying every day.” Regular, habitual patterns are what an orderly life looks like; and they’re the foundation for discipleship.
So take the start of Ordinary Time to consider the patterns of your life right now. Of course, if there are destructive patterns – an addiction, chronic resentment or anger, or the like – get some help in resolving those first. But in any case don’t neglect the message of this season: Regular practices of prayer, study, generosity, and sharing our faith don’t come automatically. We need self-disciplined work to put them into practice. But it’s worth waiting for the two marshmallows. Until next week, peace.