Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?
~ Professor E.M. Ashford in Wit
The Church has called for a “New Evangelization” to meet the situation in which many who would describe themselves as Catholics have moved away from the practice of their faith.
~ Dr. Petroc Willey
“Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
It’s a venerable vaudeville favorite that’s been around at least since the 1950s. In Bennett Cerf’s version, the speaker is a lost pedestrian who has stopped none other than master violinist Jascha Heifetz to ask directions. Cerf recorded this response:
“Yes,” said Heifetz. “Practice!”
The irony, of course, is that, even with practice, few will achieve the skill and artistry that would lead to performing on Carnegie’s stage. A further irony is that the pedestrian was undoubtedly not a performer anyway, and was more likely interested in a ticket and a seat. Yet, the joke relies on a couple assumptions about artistic achievement that are important to musician and pedestrian alike: First, Carnegie Hall-worthy performance is desirable even when it isn’t achieved, and, second, that level of artistic accomplishment takes a lot of work.
Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh referenced similar assumptions when commenting on Elizabeth Bennet’s piano technique in Pride and Prejudice. “I often tell young ladies that no excellence in music is to be acquired without constant practice,” her ladyship declares at one point. “I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well unless she practises more.” To this, Miss Elizabeth readily agrees:
“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I will not take the trouble of practising.”
It’s in this sense that we often apply the word “practice” to faith, and there really is a parallel between taking up an instrument and taking on Jesus. At the very least, there is a similar differentiation between theory and practice: On the one hand, there’s the lofty idea of playing the violin along with the ethereal ideas of Christianity; on the other hand, there’s the effort involved in moving toward violin proficiency as well as conformity to Christ – a distinction even the Catechism (quoting Vatican II) acknowledges:
So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.
Note the word “should” there. Harmony and adherence are the goals; perseverance, in terms of maintaining and practicing, are the means. This perseverance is also central to the Act of Contrition we say during Confession:
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.
We don’t promise, but rather resolve to carry on and avoid sin in the future. And let’s face it: Perseverance is required, for Christianity is a tough business, as any plain reading of the Gospels can attest. “Blessed are the meek, the mourning, the persecuted, and the insulted,” goes the Sermon on the Mount. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil, love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.”
“Alright, Jesus” we shrug and sigh, internally calculating our weaknesses and potential for success. “We’ll give all of that a decent shot.”
Then comes the punchline at the Sermon’s end: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That’s when we scrunch up our internal faces and mutter, “C’mon, are you serious?” The thing is, he’s totally serious, and we can’t really be Christians unless we take him at his word: He wants to make us like himself! It’s seems ludicrous, particularly when we consider our own situations – when we really look at ourselves – we know it’s hopeless. How can we be made perfect? We’re so weak, so rotten, our motives so selfish and banal, even when, on those seemingly infrequent occasions, we attempt to do good or deepen our prayer.
Ah, but it’s not what we see that counts, nor even what we accomplish. “Success and failure [are] to be judged in God’s terms,” writes Hubert van Zeller, “not ours.” A Baptist church kiosk around the corner from my house captures the same idea: “Here’s to the crazy ones,” it reads, “the misfits, the rebels…God loves you!” You see, it really doesn’t matter where we start, or how little progress we’ve made – in prayer, in virtue, in holiness – up to this point. It really doesn’t matter if we’re losers, bumblers, small-minded, or besmirched. What does matter is our desire for God himself, and that we don’t give up – that we start each day saying, “OK, Father, I’m ready to give it another shot,” and then we launch! In comments on prayer that can be applied to the whole Christian enterprise, van Zeller puts it this way:
God knows the limitations which He has imposed upon man, and makes allowances. There is only one test: Are we wanting God? Do we want Him so much that we are prepared to go on looking for Him…in spite of apparently never getting any nearer to Him?
Alright, back to that musical instrument metaphor. Can you hearken back to the days when you yourself took piano lessons? Probably there were some practice rules that your teacher drilled into you, and now you take those same rules for granted with your own kids starting lessons. The beauty of it is that those piano lesson principles are applicable to the practice of the faith, and pretty handy at that. Here’s a few to get you started – see if you don’t agree:
- Practice daily. Think of physical exercise here: You can’t get into shape in a week just before hitting the beach. Similarly, you can’t cram all your practice into one afternoon before your next lesson – or next major life event. It has to be a steady, daily routine of scales and review and repetition – or, in the case of faith, prayer and devotions and sacraments – over and over and over again. Like the drip, drip, drip in a cave that creates huge and lasting formations, regular practice of the faith makes permanent change that positively impact every aspect of our lives.
- Learn from your mistakes. The old saying doesn’t hold true here: Practice does not make perfect, but it does make for progress. Perfection remains the goal, but our practice, regardless of how intense it is, will never be sufficient. God’s grace is the main ingredient in any case, and we can’t get discouraged when our fallen human natures muck up our progress on a regular basis. Take it in stride – God does. Accepting our frailty and shortcomings involves a long view akin to the Creator’s.
- You can always begin again. That’s as true for our childhood instruments as it is for riding bikes. A month or so ago, I got the bikes down from the top of the garage. My nine-year-old, Kathy, had just learned to ride without training wheels late last summer, and she was a bit anxious that she might’ve forgotten how to balance over the winter. But as soon as her bike was down from the garage hook, she was out riding again, no problem. She hadn’t forgotten after all! This is good news for the New Evangelization. When we find those Catholics who haven’t practiced their faith for a long time, we can tell them honestly, “No worries! It’s just riding a bike or playing the flute. If you practiced when you were younger, you’ll be able to pick up pretty much where you left off!”
- Don’t overdo it. That is, avoid scrupulosity. In this regard, a different familiar saying actually does apply: Practice what you preach, and what we preach as Catholics is that God brings us all along in different ways and at different rates. He meets us on our margins, and he doesn’t expect us to turn into saints overnight.
On that last point, Jascha Heifetz, the master violinist from the Carnegie Hall joke, offers some excellent advice:
There is a happy medium. I suppose that when I play in public it looks easy, but before I ever came on the concert stage I worked very hard. And when a certain point of effort is reached in practice, as in everything else, there must be relaxation.
Our goal is holiness and conformity to Christ, so great effort is to be expected. “And inevitably God is the reward of such a striving,” writes van Zeller. “‘You wouldn’t be looking for Me,’ as He reassured Pascal, ‘if you hadn’t already found Me.’”
If that’s true, then effort can be balanced with effervescence. Kick back from time to time along the way. Allow yourself room to pause and laugh and breathe. If you’re practicing the faith as best you can, then you can be confident that God is pleased and will continue bringing you along in his own good time.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.