One of my wife’s and my favorite movies is What about Bob? In this early-90s comedy, Richard Dreyfuss plays Dr. Leo Marvin, a psychiatrist who has just released a new book, Baby Steps. “It’s about setting small, reasonable goals for yourself,” he tells his new patient, Bob Wiley, played by Bill Murray. “When you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, but think about what you have to do to get out of this room; then when you’ve reached that hall, deal with that hall, and so forth.” Bob takes the advice quite literally, baby-stepping around the office, and he becomes overly attached to Dr. Marvin, and hilarity ensues. Dr. Marvin’s psychological advice could apply just as well to the spiritual life—and why shouldn’t it, if the principles are sound? The root word psyche means “soul,” after all.
As I’ve gone through life trying to be a better Christian, and often failing at it, I’ve learned at least one lesson, though knowing it and doing it, as always, are two different things:
The pursuit of holiness does not happen in a one-time decision; it happens in each decision we make. One step at a time. Baby steps.
I have often fallen into the trap of thinking that the former of these is the way to go. I will look at my life and realize that I am not praying enough, not being charitable enough, not spending enough time engaging in the spiritual life. I will then try to conjure up a wave of resolve and fervor and dramatically declare to myself and to God: “Henceforth from this moment, I shall pray thrice daily, and speak only good to others, and read from the lives of the saints, etc.”
This resolve usually lasts somewhere between one and 36 hours, drying up through inattention. This happens because I make the mistake of believing that this grandiloquent moment is entirely sufficient to re-ignite my spiritual life. But while a spark might be enough to start a fire, it isn’t enough to sustain it. You have to keep feeding it.
Of course, it is God who supplies the fuel of our spiritual life, giving us His grace, a sharing in His own life. But while God provides His grace, we must accept it. God may bring us the wood for the fire, but we have to throw it on.
This is where we do our part. Every time God supplies the grace to enter into an act of friendship with Him, we must respond by accepting it; when God reaches out His hand, we must reach out and take it. When God brings us a log for the fire, we must pick it up and set it on the blaze to keep it burning. It is not a one-time event. You don’t make a fire by declaring, “I shall make fire!” You make a fire by making it.
When I wake up in the morning, I have a choice: I can pray to God thanking Him for his blessings and asking for His help this day, or I can eat breakfast and read blogs. (I might tell myself, “I’ll eat breakfast, then go back and pray,” but in practice this rarely happens.)
When I am angered or annoyed by someone, I have a choice: I can spout invective against them, cursing them and the horse they rode in on, or I can first consider what I may have done wrong in the situation, then pray for that person and their forgiveness of me.
When I have some recreation time, I have a choice: I can always choose to watch an episode of “Doctor Who” or “The Twilight Zone,” or I can at least sometimes choose to read This Tremendous Lover or Pope Benedict’s book on St. Paul.
I grow closer to or farther from God (or linger in place) with each decision I make. The path to holiness is forged one step at a time. One baby step at a time.