The beginning of a New Year is the highpoint of self-actualization rhetoric in American culture and I typically jump in with both feet. The idea that we can change our habits and routines so everything stays in perfect balance and we’ll be thinner, fitter, happier and more productive this year than last year is so enticing! But, for a reformed hyper-planner and self-aware Type 1 perfectionist, this time of year is a very slippery slope for me.
Sure enough, the past few weeks, I’ve been “in my head” and less in touch with my heart; relying on myself instead of God, expecting everything to work out just right if I plan properly, and missing the moments of connection all around me. However, simultaneously I’ve been reading a very interesting and helpful book: You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith. Our pastor, who recently moved across the country, preached from this book for several weeks before he left last year. I loved the sermons and looked forward to deepening my understanding of how our loves are shaped by liturgical practices, both inside and outside the church.
Dr. Smith argues: “In ways that are more “modern” than biblical, we have been taught to assume that human beings are fundamentally thinking things.” Most of our efforts toward discipleship focus on collecting information as if “we can think our way to holiness – sanctification by information transfer.” This approach is diametrically opposed to biblical wisdom, where Jesus continually refers to the human heart as the center of our being. Of Christ, Smith states, “He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”
This argument really hit home when Smith asked “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do? Have you ever found that new knowledge and information don’t seem to translate into a new way of life?” I imagine everyone who’s currently struggling with maintaining a health related resolution has experienced just this gap! We know what is healthy, but that doesn’t mean we always do it! Smith goes on to suggest: “What if it’s because you aren’t just a thinking thing?” Indeed, what if our “epicenter of human identity” is what Augustine articulated when he said, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you…”?
Smith goes on to describe the Augustinian alternative: “…since our hearts are made to find their end in God, we will experience a besetting anxiety and restlessness when we try to love substitutes. To be human is to have a heart. You can’t not love. So the question isn’t whether you will love something as ultimate; the question is what you will love as ultimate. And you are what you love.”
If loves aren’t cultivated by information transfer, in other words, we can’t collect ideas in order to transform our loves. How are our hearts oriented? Smith explains that loves are shaped over time by the liturgical practices in our lives. Rival liturgies are the habits we have, which over time shape what we perceive as the “good life” or the end to which our life is headed. The book includes a lengthy metaphor of the shopping mall as the modern “church” in America; illustrating how everything from the cathedral style architecture to the economic transaction at the altar of consumerism. It’s really interesting and comical too. I could relate to the feeling of aimlessly strolling through a mall (or more commonly Target!) looking for something that I “need”.
The biggest takeaway from this book, for me, is the idea that what we ultimately love and desire is shaped, over time, by our daily habits. If our family routinely spends the weekend shopping, then being a consumer is what we cultivate as “the good life”. If we watch television each evening, our worldview is shaped to mirror that which we see in popular culture. If we read classic, wholesome books with our children, then their desires are shaped by things that are good, true, and timeless. When we pray before dinner, attend the Divine Service each week, read before bed, and spend time as a family, our loves are oriented toward God and family. These little daily habits shape what we value, desire, love and ultimately you are what you love.