Bishop Lee asks whether we can make Lent a season to create habits which help us form a more Christ-like character.
In 1989 a book by Stephen Covey became the go-to manual for aspiring businessmen and women. So far, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has sold over 25 million copies worldwide and continues to be mined for its wisdom. Covey’s second habit was ‘Begin with the end in mind’. At the risk of being morbid I wonder how many of us have mentally penned our obituary – what we would like to be remembered for.
Several years before training for ordination I read a best seller from a rather different stable. God of Surprises by the Jesuit priest Gerard Hughes was the go to paperback for exploring spirituality and Christian faith. It was an introduction to the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish knight who had a profound conversion after being wounded in battle. Published in the mid-16th century, Ignatius’ spiritual exercises remain a treasury for reflection on our lives and their meaning.
I vividly remember coming to the end of the first chapter and finding the first exercise set by Gerard Hughes: write your own obituary. Readers were encouraged not to hold back on any hopes or aspirations and dream big. The exercise had an impact I was not properly aware of at the time. Only later did I realise that many of my musings did not express the fullness of who God had truly called me to be. In that exercise, and well below the surface, some of my defences had been breached in relation to what was possible for the future.
In recent years I have done more work on an epitaph as a result of an exercise in a book by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz with the unpromising title The Power of Full Engagement, another volume aimed at Executives. Their exercise involved identifying three people who I have most admired and respected and identifying the qualities which resonate with what I value. Thinking about yourself, what might be the qualities which you most want others to see in you? Perhaps patience, courage, and integrity, or maybe compassion, generosity and resilience. What about creativity, boldness, and inclusivity? You may especially value vision, rigour and honesty, or humility, determination and concern for the poor. Take a moment to check your top three from those mentioned or add others which speak to you.
This exercise was aimed at naming some core values which would assist in fashioning either an epitaph or purpose statement. This in turn would summon us to be the person we desire to be and help fuel changes to make that more of a reality. Loehr and Schwartz describe our deeply held values as a source of ‘spiritual energy’ to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and address them. Central to this is creating what they describe as rituals – things we put in place to guide or reinforce our intention to change and in time turn into habits. For example, potential workaholics might create a ritual of turning off our smartphone to give full attention to our friends or family – or perhaps even hand it over to them!
Beginning with the end in mind is not just the second habit of highly effective people, it might just be a better way of becoming the person God sees us being. Lent seems an appropriate season to reflect on our epitaph and put create some other wise practices.