My mom didn’t much like housecleaning, and our house reflected that fact, save for one spot. (I don’t fault her, by the way; there were nine of us and now that I’m a mom of little people, I realize that a clean house with kids is basically a miracle, i.e., something not explicable by natural or scientific laws and therefore attributed to an act of God.)
The one spot that could have given the impression that Mom actually liked to clean was the assortment of shelves and cabinets that held cleaning supplies. Cloths and cleaning rags abounded. Powders and liquids of many types. Magical potions from her foray into Amway or some advertisement that convinced her.
Reflecting on those shelves from my vantage point today, I realize what was happening. She hated cleaning (probably because the task felt truly insurmountable), but she wanted the house to be clean, so she was looking for a shortcut — a purchase that would work like Mary Poppins and take the work away. It was a psychological trick to calm her down when she undoubtedly wanted to shout her head off at us, or throw every damn thing in the house away.
Like mother like daughter, I find I do the same thing, and not just with cleaning. I’m hoping in the new year to get out of the worst shape I’ve ever been in (and yes, our Catholic new year started at the beginning of Advent, four weeks ago already, but you can read here about how that went), so I bought an exercise mat and stability ball. Buying them is one-click easy on Amazon. Neither have been opened. Having the tools is not the same as having the results.
And that’s true in housekeeping and exercise, but it’s also true in the spiritual life.
A priest I once knew would talk of the “rule of the gerund” in spiritual growth. Recall that a gerund is the “form that is derived from a verb but that functions as a noun, in English ending in -ing.” The word traces back to the Latin for “do.”
The rule of the gerund means there is no clean house without cleaning. No getting in shape without exercising. No growing in love without loving. And as we should remember particularly this year, no learning to forgive without forgiving.
The rule of the gerund is what undercuts my new year’s resolutions every year. Even if I write them down on a nice Bible bookmark or in some lovely looking journal or on a sticky note for my bathroom mirror — just like the cleaning products on Mom’s shelves — the resolutions won’t be accomplished if I don’t “do.”
St. Francis de Sales said it this way: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; in just the same way, you learn to love by loving.”
On our listicle of 56 Ways to Be Merciful During the Jubilee, we here at Aleteia phrased it thusly: “Practicing mercy in our lives actually does take practice.” Nike has its own version: Just do it.
I hate the “rule of the gerund” — ’cause it’s hard!
And yet, there’s something empowering about it. The rule of the gerund is a reminder that love — or any virtue — isn’t some magic potion that I either have or don’t have on my shelves. There’s no secret to getting love, or getting it back. It’s more simple than that. It’s just deciding for that little “ing” even if and when I don’t feel like it.
But, of course, that’s not simple. Because it means letting go of the idea that there will be a Mary Poppins, and getting down to work. Even when I hate it.
My husband and I are in a season of our marriage when a lot of demands from outside are pulling at the seams that knit us together as a couple. Instead of responding to the stressors by trying to strengthen our teamwork and forging a united front that can stand up to the assaults, I find myself digging my heels into my annoyance and frustration with him. I’ve been going to confession and praying about it, and we’re just weeks away from the inauguration retreat of a family ministry that promises to strengthen us as spouses and parents. But I know that all those things — even the sacramental graces — will be mere promising products on the shelves if I am not ready to add in some “ing.”
All of this is good to remember as we make our new year’s resolutions.
Resolutions — for the year or for a shorter time — have to be simple and applicable to daily life. There shouldn’t be more than a handful of them. And they have to be measurable — meaning that I could look over my day in a nightly conscience exam and give myself a check mark if I fulfilled them or not. (Think, for example, of the difference between “I will show my husband I love him” and “I will choose to love my husband by thanking him for something each day before he leaves for work.”)
In other words, perhaps not in the way I phrase them, but at least in the way I live them, my new year’s resolutions have to include the -ing.
Kathleen Hattrup is Aleteia’s senior editor.