Four habits for keeping you spiritually safe and sane.
How good is your memory? As people age, they may remember their favorite song from high school or the jaunty little tune from a commercial heard on the radio decades ago, but they cannot remember what they had for breakfast yesterday.
Now let’s ask a tougher question: How good is your memory when you are under stress? That can be a matter of life or death. People working in fields where error means disaster (and worse) — for example, airline pilots, soldiers, firefighters, doctors — all agree: “People don’t rise to the occasion, they fall to the level of their training.” In times of crisis, people do best what they have rehearsed repeatedly and well.
How can that fact be put to good use when we find ourselves in times of despair, temptation, or even spiritual dryness?
I want to recommend four words to live by, that is, words that can be easily committed to memory, understood, and repeatedly acted upon. They can become such a habitual part of ourselves that they can guide us when we are in times of spiritual distress and danger.
The four words are these: alacrity, docility, humility, generosity.
ALACRITY: William Shakespeare, in his play Richard III, spoke of “alacrity of spirit” (from the Latin alacer), which is a cheerful readiness. Unlike a wariness or guardedness that is oriented towards self-preservation, alacrity is an alertness oriented toward meeting the needs of others or answering the call of the duty of the moment. And this alertness is maintained gladly rather than grudgingly or resentfully.
HUMILITY: Alacrity is complemented by humility, which really is a kind of truthfulness, a habit of truth-telling regarding both God’s super-abundance and our own poverty. God is all good, holy, wise and loving—and we are not. God is fully self-sufficient—and we are not. God is always joyful and content—and we are not. Secularism tells us that we do not need God, and Satan tells us that we can make ourselves like unto God, and humility tells us the truth, a painful truth that can spare us much harm and prepare us for even more good.
DOCILITY: The two sides of humility prepare us for docility (from the Latin docere and docilitas)—to be teachable. In light of God’s fullness and our own emptiness, how can we not be eager to receive? If we find ourselves in chains, how can we not welcome the truth that will set us free?
GENEROSITY: The openheartedness and openmindedness that come from docility should lead us to the cheerful openhandedness of generosity, which is so readily expressed in the Latin: Do ut des—“I give so that you might give.” An illustration may clarify that pithy Latin phrase: When I was about four years old, my father kept a garden in the backyard. The most beautiful flowers were the tiger lilies. They fascinated me. One day, my father clipped one of the tiger lilies, put it in my hand, and told me, “Go bring this to your mother.” I loudly marched into the kitchen and announced: “MOMMY! LOOK WHAT I GOT FOR YOU!” I was as glad and triumphant as if I had made the flower myself.
What did my father do for me? He did not simply kill a flower and task me with transferring its corpse to my mother. No, he gave me the gift of being able to give a gift to my mother. There was a perennial wisdom at work in that gesture.
St. Ignatius Loyola has taught us that those who love delight in exchanging gifts, in giving what they have to the beloved.
When God gives us a gift, he also gives us the gift of being able to give a gift. He gives us the gift of becoming a gift-giver too, in imitation of him. So understood, generosity becomes a privileged opportunity to share in the delight of loving as God loves.
What’s the moral of this story? Simply this: With God’s grace, we can train ourselves to be provident, truthful, wise and giving, in imitation of God. When we are dry or dull or despairing or tempting, calling to mind these four words—alacrity, humility, docility, generosity—can help us to find grace and light in times or even in seasons of darkness. Resolve to practice these starting today, and, over time, they can become habits-at-the-ready when the storm winds begin to blow.
When I write next, I will speak of renewing our understanding of contrition. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.