“What do you need to say?” I ask, dangling my daughters milk cup in front of her eyes, I stand waiting wondering at what age it is reasonable to expect a child to say thank you without a prompt. After all, we were those gung ho parents who had our baby speaking sign language at 1. She has been learning to say thank you for over two years now.
I am weary of prompting her but know it is important. And I do expect that every time I instruct her I am laying a foundation. My hope is that as she says thank you, it is leading her down a path towards thankfulness. My desire is that she will be someone who notices the kindness of others and mentions it, who respects the people around her and what they do for her. And so I wait until I get my thank you. She runs off sipping milk and I start thinking about St. Benedict and our reading group.
We still have another two weeks to reflect on The Rule of St. Benedict so I hope no one will mind me skipping ahead to the last paragraph. Reading it, Benedict asks a question,
Are you hastening towards your heavenly home?
His question stuck with me because one thing I know for sure is that I am hastening. It seems I am always short on time. Probably more than anything else, I can hear the chorus of my own voice repeatedly telling my daughter, “Come on, get in the car, hurry up, get buckled in, we don’t have much time.” Every day feels like a rush of activities which are barely getting accomplished only to get me through to the next day which is the same only with slightly different activities.
But what am I hastening towards, and why am I in such a hurry to get there? Where am I headed?
To borrow a line from the Didache (one of the earliest and most well known pieces of Christian writing)
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.
I think Benedict probably understood the world in this way. Every day, every choice, is a choice in a direction. It is either a choice that leads towards life in Jesus or a choice that leads to death, to our own self destruction or to the destruction of someone else.
It sounds a bit dramatic at first but what is life but a series of choices which each have their own consequence followed by more choices which in turn have their own consequence? And I’m not talking about major choices here like going to college, getting married or moving overseas. I’m talking about all the little tiny choices that lead us to make those big decisions. I’m talking about saying “thank you,” to the waitress, tucking in my shirt, holding the door open for the person behind me, showing up late for a dinner party, or sweeping the floor after dinner.
It isn’t that there is always a right answer. Sweeping the floor may be a way to make my home feel welcoming, it may communicate to my family that I care about them and about them being comfortable. Or I may sweep because I’m obsessed with having an immaculate home to the point that I neglect the needs of my family and am not any fun to be around. The first is a choice towards life, I am sweeping the floor in order to build up my family and take care of my home. The second is a step towards death to destruction of myself and my relationships. For me the realization is this, there is a reason I am sweeping the floor, if I stop and think about it there is a reason for, and a result of, everything I do.
I’m not saying that we beat ourselves up about our choices. Certainly there are many choices we make where we can’t even know the ramifications. Many times it is simply beyond our control, something we intend for good ends up hurting someone, where something we didn’t put any thought into ends up being a great help.
What I am proposing is that we consider that each choice is a choice towards something, that that we don’t exist in a vacuum and even our smallest choices have real consequences on us and our families and on the way we relate to God.
I wonder how differently I would live if I paused more often to recognize the implications of my actions? What if I considered whether what I am choosing to do or say seemed to be moving towards life or death, towards healing or towards pain. I wonder what my life would look like?
For Benedict it looks like a Rule of Life. A rule that takes into account the importance of every decision. Benedict saw that big mistakes usually followed after lots of little mistakes. So in his rule, even the smallest offense, breaking something, or thinking something, was to be confessed and resolved.
The world is happening around us and so much of it is out of our control. But there is more under our control than we realize. What if we did as the Didache instructs and, fled from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it? What if I took to the rest of my life with the same persistence that I take to teaching my daughter to say thank you?