This Lord’s Day we were remembering the paralytic, who sat by the pool waiting for a chance to get into the water at those times when an angel stirred it, so that he might be healed. After 38 years, Jesus came by and healed him.
Father John in his homily highlighted one aspect of the Gospel story: how we are like that man in our seeming paralysis when it comes to overcoming our sins. Priests often hear in confession the lament of the Christian who continues to battle the same weaknesses and failings year after year, feeling that he makes little progress.
I think a lot about the truism that habits are like a second nature to us. As we read in Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”
It sounds very little like one chipper exhortation you might have read: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Well, yes, why not just start today? When I read that on Tuesday, I remembered the paralytic, and I thought on my own unchanged bad habits. After his 38 years, wasn’t it in fact too late for many things? (The assumption is that one might have been greater; the reverse is probably more true, that it’s never too late to start a downward spiral.)
For myself, let’s see…how many years have I been cultivating certain of my bad habits? More than that, I’m afraid. But it’s a simple thing: “The only thing that stands between me and greatness is me.” (Woody Allen)
George Eliot is credited with having made that bold assertion, “It’s never to late to be what you might have been.” She was the subject of a New Yorker article from February of this year, “Middlemarch and Me,” by Rebecca Mead, who questions the validity of the quote and whether it even reflects the true outlook of the author Mary Ann Evans.
Mead has been a lifelong lover of Eliot’s books, Middlemarch in particular, and she points out some hints that the author leaves in her novels, as well as forthright confessions from her journals, to show that her general attitude was wiser and more modest.
In Middlemarch, we read of the main character, “Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better.”
Mead writes: “Middlemarch is not about blooming late, or unexpectedly coming into one’s own after the unproductive flush of youth. Middlemarch suggests that it is always too late to be what you might have been — but it also shows that, virtually without exception, the unrealized life is worth living. The book that Virginia Woolf characterized as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’ is also a book about how to be a grownup person — about how to bear one’s share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy moments of hard-won happiness.”
Let’s look back at the Paralytic by the Sheep’s Gate Pool. He must have had some way to propel himself, perhaps one limb that was functional, so that he could sit there for much of his life hoping to get down to the water first. He certainly had patience — and perseverance, to keep trying.
Father John said that even if we feel we have nothing more than a big toe’s worth of strength against our sins, we must keep struggling. Because we never know when Jesus will come to us. When he came to the cripple by the pool, He Himself was the source of the healing, and the man was delivered from his afflictions and was able to walk and carry his bed. For most of us, we will not receive the equivalent healing until we are resurrected in the coming Kingdom.
In the meantime, we will have failures. Maybe we will even think we are failures. It is very discouraging when one realizes what Samuel Johnson found: “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” On another aspect of this human experience, Dorothea said in Middlemarch about her husband’s intellectual labors: “Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.”
The most helpful sort of activity to persevere in, if one wants to be on the path to God, is prayer. “A long perseverance” of this sort would never be disappointing. The very moments of prayer have the potential to be Heaven itself, in the presence of the God Who is Love.
“In patience you possess your souls,” we read in Luke 21, and Mark Twain elaborates: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”
Whether we are being too easy on ourselves is the question. If we are being lazy, of course, that is one of the sins we are trying to overcome. And pride in thinking we are equal to any task, we can be anything we put our minds to — that also must be set aside.
Mary Ann Evans put it this way in her journal: “The difficulty is, to decide how far resolution should set in the direction of activity rather than in the acceptance of a more negative state.”
But I like best the way St. Seraphim of Sarov speaks about this, and will close with his gentle words: “One should be lenient towards the weaknesses and imperfections of one’s own soul and endure one’s own shortcomings as we tolerate the shortcomings of our neighbours, and at the same time not become lazy but impel oneself to work on one’s improvement incessantly.”