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Terrance KleinFebruary 08, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

A Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 15:15-20 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 Matthew 5:17-37

Have you ever—wait, I already know the answer. So rather than ask, “Have you ever walked into a room only to ask yourself what you went in there for?” I will ask, “Do you find that happening more frequently as you age?”

If so, the neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin has good news to share in his Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives (2020).

[T]hese kinds of slips are normal and routine as we age and are not necessarily indicative of any dark, foreboding illness. Part of what explains this is a general neurological turn inward—every decade after our fortieth birthday, our brains spend more time contemplating our own thoughts versus taking in information from the external environment. This is why we find ourselves standing in front of an open closet door with no memory of what we went there for.

Anyone who has taught children and young people knows that the smallest distraction can derail them. This is because their brains are “wired”—to use our current neurological metaphor—to take in stimuli, but, as we age, our brains become more focused upon inner processes. In short, young people are easily distracted, and, as we age, we become more easily lost in our own thoughts. Neurology confirms conventional wisdom.

Here's another example of that, one directly related to our Scriptures. We now know that habits, repeated activities, “rewire” neural pathways. The brain rewrites itself to perform its expected tasks more easily. This explains both why “practice makes perfect” when it comes to piano playing and why habits, such as late-night snacking, are so hard to break. Our brains are designed to default. Repetitive behaviors reinforce themselves. New ones are much harder to adopt.

But, of course, that’s been the teaching of the church for centuries. Our moral habits matter more than single actions because, for better or worse, they reinforce themselves. Already in the fourth century, St. Augustine of Hippo taught that our first decision to sin is quite free, but each time we return to the same sin, our freedom decreases. Hence the need to be vigilant in the formation of any habit, salutary or sinful.

If you memorized the older Act of Contrition, you are familiar with its concluding promise: “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.” The only way to douse the fire of a bad moral habit is to take away its tinder.

The prophet Sirach told us:

Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him (15:17).

It is just that we seldom choose, once and for all. Or rather, we too often fail to see that even our small choices have ways of reinforcing themselves. One might say that we are wired to set ourselves in stone, he. Hence the ever-present need to question what might appear to be no more than passing impulses.

Jesus tells us that an anger indulged will take us where we do not, at least initially and apparently, want to go. Likewise, the metaphorical burning of sexual sin does not begin in the loins. It is a small flicker of the mind, which we choose to indulge.

But let us not close the Book of the Gospels without pondering its good news. Good behaviors also reinforce themselves. A kindled fire will grow. It all begins with the new spark, which we call grace. To quote from a bit earlier in St. Matthew’s Gospel,

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire (Mt 3:11).
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