“You had a great game!” I’m complimenting my eight-year-old grandson as we drive home from his Saturday indoor soccer game. He’d played hard, running flat out, and scoring five goals.
“You and Papa bring me luck, Nan,” he replied.
“I don’t think it is luck so much,” I told him. “I remember you practising lots. You’ve been practising since you were four years old; you were always outside kicking the soccer ball around.”
A smile and a grunt were his response. Later, I heard him outside, once again kicking the soccer ball around.
“Try kicking with your right foot,” his mom called out to him.
“I can’t lift the ball up that way,” this left-footed player shouted back.
“That’s why you practice,” she replied.
What are you good at? Kicking a soccer ball? Playing the piano? Dancing, singing, writing? Whatever it is, it’s likely you got that way by practising. It’s the way we get to be good at anything. Interestingly, it might even be a way to become a good Christian. Remember the days when we used to talk about “practising Catholics?” At the time, it was about whether or not one attended Sunday mass regularly, but there might be a deeper idea there.
There are a few things to say about practising that might apply. First, we practice something because it is important to us and we want to get better at it. So we do it repeatedly with the aim of learning the nuances of the actions, fine-tuning our responses, training our muscles to perform at higher and higher levels. We spend hours kicking the soccer ball, playing chords on the guitar, or singing scales. We do this over and over again until we become proficient at it, until the necessary actions are second nature to us. We don’t need to consciously think about where to place our feet when we go to kick the ball, or how to hold our fingers when we play a chord. These become habitual, a part of who we are.
Second, our goal in practising is not perfection, but continual improvement. We accept that we might never shoot a hockey puck like Wayne Gretzky, play the guitar like Bruce Cockburn, or sing like Adele, but we want to be the best we can be. We know that with faithful practice, our skills will continue to develop to the point of proficiency, where a certain ease takes over and our mistakes become fewer. So the errors we make don’t cause us excessive discouragement or lead us to give up. We know that we are learning, training and that sometimes we miss our cue, hit the wrong note or strike out. But that’s OK; it’s part of the process. practising is about our commitment to improve.
The same principles hold true for us as “practising” Christians. We practice because it is important to us and we want to become better. We hold to the gospel values and want them to live, move and breathe in us. That means, however, that we have to practice them until there is a certain ease and proficiency in us, so that living them becomes second nature to us, a habitual way of acting.
Concretely, it means that we becoming forgiving people only by practising forgiveness in all the circumstances of our lives. We become patient only by practising patience, especially when we want to erupt in impatience! We become generous only by practising generosity, and so on. It is our fidelity over time to our practices that effects change in us. The virtues become a part of us as we actually become forgiving, patient, generous people.
As “practising” Christians, we also recognize that we will fail at times in our efforts to be faithful followers of Jesus. After all, as someone once said, “Nobody does Jesus like Jesus!” We desire to be loving, compassionate and generous but sometimes we are short-tempered, hard-hearted and selfish. practising Christians take their cue from the story of the man walking by a field where he sees the monks from the monastery tilling the soil. He asks one of them, “What do you monks do all day?” The monk’s answer is simple: “We fall down, we get up; we fall down, we get up; we fall down, we get up.” practising means we commit to keeping on trying. We recognize that it is perseverance and persistence that count; fidelity to our practice is what gets us where we want to be.
St. James tells us that to hear the Word means to do the Word, so we practice to make the Word real in our lives. To speak of Christ’s love and compassion means we must practice Christ’s love and compassion. To speak of a God of justice means we must practice being a just person. We practice so that we might develop both an ease and a proficiency in living the gospel values, cultivating such habits of the heart that our lives themselves are changed.
Being a disciple of Jesus requires conversion and transformation; it takes effort and work. Just imagine if we didn’t practice: we’d never get it right! This Lent, what is it that you need to do so that you might, indeed, be a practising Catholic once again?
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.