This series ends with the same questions that it began with; which relationships ought we prioritize in life, and how is that accomplished by love? In order to answer this, prior questions needed to be asked and answered, such as: What types of desires do we have as human beings and why? To who or what do these desires order us? Of what types of relationships are humans capable? Having considered these questions in previous installments, we can move to answering the main questions with which we began. The answer is at once simple and obvious yet demanding and easily forgotten. The proper ordering of life puts God first and takes time and discipline.
The famous Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 states that Israel ought to love God with all their heart, strength, and soul. Jesus repeats this in Mark 12: 29-31, and adds that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. Now as we have seen, especially in parts one and two of this series, human nature has both material and immaterial powers and characteristics. The defining immaterial human power is reason, which is a power rooted in the soul. So these two great Commandments compel us to utilize all of our talents, powers, and gifts – both material and immaterial. One simply cannot fulfill this command by doing anything less.
Sweat the Small Stuff
However, in order to use these powers well we need time to practice and to develop them. One does not become a saint in a day, nor does one develop deep love by doing one kind deed. In order to truly love with all our heart, strength and soul, we need to develop our heart, strength and soul. Clearly then if we want to ensure that we are following this Commandment we must ask ourselves what we spend our time on.
I think the best way to structure our time is to prioritize the small things. What I mean by this are the quick and ubiquitous experiences of life. For example, say goodbye in the morning and greet your family in the evening with true care and attentiveness. Other examples include paying attention to mundane things like dishes, laundry, food preferences etc. that you know those you live with care about, and addressing them without being asked. Take opportunities in everyday life to show gratitude and appreciation, and to give of those who ask when you can. Say thank you and mean it when someone holds door for you. Hold a door for others and give to those who beg for their daily bread.
All these things seem very mundane, trivial, and small. But think of all the time that goes into these experiences. If it takes you ten minutes a day to say goodbye in the morning and hello in the evening to your family that adds up over 60 years to four full months of goodbyes and hellos. That’s four months to tell your family how much you love them and want to see them. If you see someone begging for food on the street just three times a week, that’s 1,040 chances over a lifetime you get to aid a brother or sister in need. Now, if it takes one hour a night to have dinner with your family, that adds up to two years over a 60 year period, dedicated entirely to sharing a meal with your loved ones. That’s two years of time to listen, give advice, pray etc.
The question is, do you want to spend those 2 years, 4 months and 1,040 opportunities developing bonds of love with your family and neighbors, tearing up those bonds, or wallowing in the mediocre middle? These experiences are the backbone upon which the development of our heart, soul, and strength are built. By serving and loving those around us, we are serving and loving God Himself (Matthew 25: 31-45). If we do not devote ourselves fully to these experiences, then we will have used our time poorly. And if we are not faithful in small things, how can we be faithful in large things (Luke 16:10)?
The Necessity of Discipline
Now, it is not always easy to stay attentive to the importance of engaging in these small experiences correctly. We are all familiar with fatigue, laziness, crises, and all of the other factors that exert influence on our relationships and experiences. Life can be and is hard. However, life’s struggle does not diminish the need or importance of using time well but, on the contrary, enhances it. Having properly ordered relationships, cultivating the ability to love truly, and having strength to endure provides a foundation upon which to rely in life’s onerous moments.
The fact remains, however, that staying disciplined in this way is a strenuous task. What course of action can be pursued to stay disciplined? I think this question is largely answered by the third installment in this series. God does not leave us to our own devices. He has given us His grace to sustain and empower us. The sources of His grace can be found in the Sacraments and in prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.
It is important to note, though, that God’s grace requires and works with our desires and discipline in order to grow and reinforce them. God will not make us strong and holy against our will. He will not do the work for us, but He will do it with us. We must therefore remain ever mindful of the importance of our daily experiences with family, friends, and neighbors and never tire of seeking God’s grace to guide us through the narrow gate.
Discipline is also required because life is not only hard but long. Life is spread over many years and experiences and we often do not know where it will take us. We must therefore be ready to meet whatever may befall us. Discipline and grace are the means by which we can be ready to serve God wherever we may find ourselves. And this time of Advent is perhaps the best period in which to consider how we are spending our time. We can reflect on our life’s course and redouble our efforts by the grace of God to keep the two great Commandments of love. In this way we can truly celebrate Christmas not only as Christ’s birth into the world, but into our hearts as well.