The best of intentions

Let me tell you a story. I have been a lifetime smoker. Occasionally I tried to cut down, or to take smoking breaks for a period, but basically I wanted to smoke and – despite all the evidence – I was going to continue. That is, until about four years ago when my wife had a sudden and quite serious drop in health. She had to stop her own smoking habit immediately and conclusively.

Although she made no request I saw immediately that the best help I could give her was to cease my own habit. So I stopped. Strangely I had no sense of tobacco deprivation and I have not had the slightest temptation to smoke again. How did this happen?

To me, the reason was clear. When the motivation was for my own benefit it was simply never strong enough. When I attempted a break I allowed myself to pine for the blessed tobacco and inevitably some incident or occasion led me back to the weed. But when my motivation was quite simply love for the person I care about most, it was instantly and irrevocably game set and match. And painless to boot.

So I was interested to read a study which was published by the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday this week. It concerned the likelihood of people responding to health advice – such as the need for greater exercise – which might be unwelcome. The participants were divided into two groups. One group was simply given the advice, another group was given the advice in combination with self-affirming reflection on their own values. That is, they were invited to looked at their own relevant qualities and potential.

The results were significant: not only was the second group more likely to put the health advice into action but the part of the brain used for recognising the relevance of new information was actively engaged. This has a known association between good intentions and resulting action.

What has this to do with us? We are not short of advice from Scripture, from the Catechism, from the clergy – let alone from our friends on this Blog — on how we should behave in order to ‘become perfect as our heavenly father is perfect’. It is not always easy to take – our basic will is there but our sluggish response holds us back. What we resolve in our morning prayers is forgotten by breakfast.

So the lesson is clear: a straightforward resolution is good, rational and practical. But it is unlikely to persist unless we think about how the resolution relates to the deeper Christian values we hold. And this thought is not nominal, it requires us to see clearly how it is relevant to what we hold dear. In doing that we are understanding that our resolution is motivated by our Christian commitment to love.

So virtue ethics comes to the fore again. It teaches us that our moral lives must depend primarily on the kind of person we are, and only secondarily on what we do. We must avoid concentrating on actions but instead on valuing and developing our virtues. Just as the fruit is the gift of the tree, loving actions are the fruit of the loving person.

(I am hoping before long to write at greater length on the part our material bodies play in our salvation – so this is just a taster. But it would be interesting in our discussion to exchange practical and down to earth ways which have helped us towards holiness.)

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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32 Responses to The best of intentions

  1. St.Joseph says:

    I gave up smoking many years go when it was discovered I was diabetic. A family disease herediary, also when St Pope John Paul 2nd was ill, On the radio one morning catholics were asked to pray for him, so I threw the last packet in the bin and offered it up for his health and mine,
    My late husband gave up a year later, he was tired going out in the garden in the evening
    I gave up watching the Soaps on TV for my New Years resolution. when asking myself this year ‘what am I watching these for,!!!! Realising how they were so awful especially showing before 9 in the evening.

  2. Hock says:

    I find there is something satisfying in totally giving up something I would normally enjoy, especially when doing so instantaneously and completely. It proves that we are masters of our own mentality and will. It can make you feel good about yourself.
    As for holiness then that same self-discipline can be a motivating factor. It does though, in my opinion, require a greater act of will; as doing something additional involving spirituality can be harder than disposing of something temporal.

  3. John Candido says:

    This is a difficult area to write about. It is hard to give advice that may be of assistance to others because these matters are fraught with complexity. The University of Pennsylvania study may be an important way of obtaining a greater chance of success, when trying to alter one’s behaviour for health goals. Its underlying premise may be of benefit to others who seek to alter their behaviour to be more amenable towards spiritual and moral ends. It would be interesting if there were other studies similar to this one, but with a behavioural change that is related to relationship issues, self-esteem issues and general moral and/or ethical behavioural issues. Would such an approach make a greater impact on individuals and the behaviour it seeks to rectify or moderate? The study suggests that it would be an important driver of behavioural change.

  4. Brendan says:

    That’s just it , ” it could be a driver ” for those (non – spiritual ) who rationally pursue the good by practicing virtue ethics – the ‘ love ‘ in a natural sense that Quentin equates with that ” part of the brain that has a known association with good intentions and resulting action.” – in cementing good habits.
    The deeper meditative Christian act ( of grace ) that connects us to the Father via the Spirit through the Son , to the deeper presence/practice of ‘ love ‘ ( agape ) , is by us – life’s fulfillment.
    The initial ‘ driver ‘ however , is no substitute for the ‘ real ‘ thing ( holiness ) when experiencing ‘ agape ‘ , but an aid – albeit a useful one – to realising ones path to perfection.

  5. milliganp says:

    Here’s a personal story from my life. Several years ago, during a period between parts of my career (actor’s call it resting – some mortals admit they’re unemployed) my daughter got me to accompany her to the gym. She didn’t force me to do anything in particular but over 8-10 weeks I lost 20lb and by the end I could run for 20 mins on the treadmill. She had the benefit of an elderly bodyguard called Dad to put off the gym letchers. It’s almost sad I got a new job – and I put back on all the weight.
    I think we’re not supposed to do even good for purely selfish reasons; Christianity is about what we do with and for others.

    • John Candido says:

      I understand where you are coming from milliganp. Exercise, losing weight, feeling good about yourself and how you look, can be forms of egoism and selfishness. A whole series of industries have grown out of these human desires. From the beauty industry, to diet books, diet organisations, exercise equipment businesses, gymnasium memberships, and all the way to the self-help industry of books, courses and individual or group counselling.

      The medical science behind diet, exercise, limiting the consumption of alcohol and completely eschewing tobacco use or other drugs, are broadly accepted by the majority of scientists in these areas. We should bow to the scientific consensus of the day, together with where that consensus takes us tomorrow through new research. Wouldn’t it be better to limit what you eat, exercise etc., in the interests of living a long and productive life, rather than worrying about it being a form of selfishness? What would your daughter, your other children and your wife think and feel about their father or husband being very ill or passing away far too early, because he did not take better care of himself? Clearly they would be devastated by their loss.

  6. Iona says:

    John Candido – I think it would be very difficult to devise a study such as the one you speculate might be interesting, because it would be hard to define what behavioural change(s) would count as a response to the advice given. “Giving up smoking” is an easily-defined behavioural change, so is “taking more exercise” provided you know how much exercise the person was taking before the good advice was given. But there could be a huge range of behavioural changes that might be related to relationship issues, self-esteem issues and general moral and/or ethical behavioural issues.

    • John Candido says:

      I am sure that you are correct Iona. Clearly observable behavioural changes such as quitting smoking or drinking, exercising more, etc., are easier to account for in a study than measuring matters such as self-esteem, or the quality of one’s marriage relationship. Assuming that the change in behaviour in question can be measured both before the application of the independent variable, which in this case is the positive reinforcement of one’s values through individual reflection, and after its application.

      I am sure that there are studies that attempt to look at behavioural changes that are more difficult to assess. Perhaps they will rely more on the subjective assessments of the people in the study itself, which of course needs a healthy dose of caution, to the assessments of independent and impartial observers, which have their own methodological problems such as human error, bias, pecuniary interest, etc.

  7. Brendan says:

    It’s a bit cliched , but …….’amor vincit omnia ‘. I am uneasy about making a case for virtue ethics having much of a claim and surviving in business/commerce practise. The reason to put it bluntly, is that for the committed Christian there is no room for the ‘ego ‘ in The Kingdom of God – the here and now. So I will not survive in this life ? There’s an old saying….. ” If you sup with the devil , use a long spoon.”
    Business has no soul, but thank God people have. My belief is that ‘ souls ‘ are sold too cheaply in the materialistic , consumer environment in which we live and die. The evidence is all around. I am talking about integrity, honesty , fairness , and a certain sense of justice which Christian values instill in the faithful. Of course in the classic sense these can be attributed to all humanity – but the ‘ ego ‘ has to be suppressed or at least kept in obeisance to the God who is the provider and centre of that ‘ love ‘ in us, without which no one can realistically survive this life … whatever we do or think. By the grace of god I regard myself as a survivor. After all the prize is far to big to let go.

    • Vincent says:

      Brendan, I think you are describing the inwardly turned ego — the selfish ego which is looking at what it can gain. The outwardly turned ego is looking at what it can give. In that interpretation the outward ego is necessarily concerned with the growth of virtue so that its gifts may be greater.

  8. Brendan says:

    Yes Vincent, I believe your ( ?Freudian ) analysis of my piece is in line with my own theological observations.
    As we are … ” concerned with the growth of virtue so that our gifts may be greater .” , Blessed John Henry Newman said… ” To live is to change, to be perfect is to have changed often “

  9. Brendan says:

    HSBC … but for ‘faith’ in something beyond oneself it would all be depressingly unbearable . Marana tha !

  10. overload says:

    Another take on the body and the need to keep it pure…
    This is a ‘selfish’ perspective I give in the sense that our personal body is not just an instrument of the Spirit (to do good works and proclaim the gospel), but also (and in some senses first) a temple for the Spirit. So there is a selfish reason in that our bodies belong to God, even of-and-in-themselves, rather than needing to rationalise that we only look after ourselves so that we can be of use to others. It is not about being some super fit, super healthy machine. Not even necessarily about being fit or healthy. Rather, this being “pure” is about not defiling ones own body.
    Exercise (and, for instance, fasting could be a form of exercise) no doubt can have a usefulness which can lead into spiritual discipline; however St Paul says that exercise is of “little” use (even though, speaking from my experience, for those with little faith this could be a very big “little”!), whereas spiritual discipline has use in all respects.
    St Paul also suggests that a major reason why sexual sin is such a problem is because of the defilement it causes to ones own body. Thus ones heart/thoughts/actions may subsequently be effected, in all areas of ones life.
    On this note, on the subject of things taken (certain food / drugs etc. which might cause defilement), I think of a temple/church: there is no problem if a murderer comes in to pray or repent, or with an un-recognised openness to prayer or repentance. There is however a problem if a murderer comes into the temple with the intention of murdering.
    One more thing… we are, in Christ, one body. So it might conceivably be true that if I sin against my own body, I sin also against yours.

    • St.Joseph says:

      I wonder if whipping ones self and wearing hair shirts etc as many saints did years ago as an act of penance. Does the Lord want us to abuse ourselves in this way.
      I dont see anything wrong with exercise,it is healthy and as long as we look after our soul too with the Sacrament of Penance to receive sanctifying Grace and the food that Jesus died for us to feed our soul. The Eucharist.
      I often wonder about the answer that Pope Francis gave to the reporter that asked him
      ‘What are you’ the Pope said I am a sinner. Does any one know what he meant.?
      Is he ‘living in sin ‘!! We are all ‘capable of sin’, however he above all people ought to know the difference.
      I think St John Paul 2nd went to daily Confession!

      • Quentin says:

        St Joseph, when I was a small boy at school I tried kneeling in chapel without the cushion — as a penance. Did it make me holier? No it made me smug.
        I think that Pope Francis was merely reminding us that he, like all of us, falls short. It’s fortunate that we have a redeemer who seems to positively enjoy forgiving us! I suspect that he’s rather bored by a goody two shoes.

  11. St.Joseph says:

    Quentin Thank you.
    Many years ago my Uncle went to Confession in Ireland, and he was very upset afterwards as the priest said to him ‘Dont come back to confession until you commit a Mortal sin.’!

    I suppose the question would be when is a sin Mortal.
    Perhaps that is the reason why the Pews are not so full now for Confession,as one could think that a good Act of contrition is enough with nightly prayers and the Confetior at Holy Mass..

    • Quentin says:

      There are some important points, by implication, in your reply. I must think about this, and see if I can produce a weekly post on the subject. Q

      • St.Joseph says:

        Quentin.
        I think of Jesus forgiving the ‘sinner’ and saying ‘your sins are forgiven’ go now and sin no more!!
        Does the Lord expect us to live a sinless life..
        I wonder if that is impossible? Without being a ‘goody two shoes!’

      • overload says:

        Quentin, we all fall short, or we all fell short?

        St John says that if we claim we have not sinned—have no sin in us—we are calling God a liar. On the other hand he says that God’s children do not continue to sin. He tells us God protects us from the evil one.

        St Paul says we have been crucified to our sinful nature, and it to us: so we cannot continue in sin. We put to death the power of our sinful nature (perhaps our sinful nature remains, though powerless?), with the Spirit.

        St Peter says that we have been cleansed of our sin. All we have to do is work to nurture and grow in our new true self, so as to not forget this: who we truly are now, already having a clean conscience before God.

        For those of us who are Baptised, I wonder, does our Baptism agree with the Apostles words, or “no”, or “not sure”? And if not “yes”, then what does our Baptism actually mean?

      • overload says:

        I have heard many people say that when we are Baptised we are magically cleansed of our sin, even if we are not aware of it. And then we start sinning again afterwards. If this is true, then what is the point of Baptism; is it some kind of wet dream?

  12. Alan says:

    In case it is useful as a point of comparison I too gave up smoking and suffered little. A few days of getting over the habit of having something familiar to do with my hands and I was done with cigarettes for good. Never felt the slightest urge to go back to them. My motivation wasn’t so noble. There was another habit – somewhat more healthy – that I wanted to spend the money on instead and I couldn’t justify the expense of both.

  13. Iona says:

    “The just man sins seven times a day” – sorry, can’t give chapter and verse on that, but it’s certainly Biblical; our PP is fond of quoting it to his congregation when he feels we’re not taking the Sacrament of Reconciliation seriously enough. He also reminds us that there are sins of omission as well as of commission.
    Astonished at that priest who said “Don’t come back until you commit a mortal sin”. – Given the definition of mortal sin (full knowledge and consent) a conscientious Christian could go for years, or indeed the rest of his or her life, without committing one. Yet we are admonished to go to Confession at least once a year.

    • overload says:

      Iona, thanks for that quote, I did read this (proverb 24) recently so found it easily. As I remembered, I think it is not as you say; all the reliable Protestant translations (I’m not sure about the Jerusalem Bible) rather have it along these lines:

      Though the just man falls 7 times, he gets up again; but the wicked shall fall into mischief.

    • overload says:

      Are we not inside generally a just man—Christ—in opposition to a wicked man—under the control/influence of and inspired by Satan—for dominion of self?
      I’m not so sure about our ‘flesh’ (this is a complicated area, and can include various forms of persecution), but when it comes to our hearts, there should be no going concern about who these belong to, since Jesus is King of our heats if we believe; and His Spirit is no weak force.

      I personally do not find it easy to go to confession, and I have not been for well over a year. I do want to go if I can in good faith. Could be diverse reasons:
      – Perhaps my mind is too muddled / abstract to get any clarity.
      – Perhaps subject matter too volatile.
      – Perhaps I haven’t got the desire / motivation (ie. weariness / fatigue)
      – Perhaps I think that I won’t be able to communicate with most priests, either they won’t have capacity to listen or I won’t be able to talk openly/clearly.
      – Perhaps I don’t need to go in the first place!

  14. Ignatius says:

    Generally speaking a bit of self denial is good, training the body for battle as it were. The body mainly wants its own bodily satisfactions which are, naturally, of the senses. So we do well to simply deny ourselves a little. However self abuse in the name of righteousness is harmful to the person. Probably much of our view as to what is or is not self abuse varies according to the culture we swim in. I never found giving up smoking much of an issue but regular fasting these days is hard because I simply forget. Self forgetting beats self absorption any day so a bit of moderation and then just get on with it is probably the best motor towards holiness.
    I have my final assessment for diaconate this Friday and wonder where these 4 years have gone. I also wonder at how little I understand, despite four years of determined formation at the hands of the diocese seminary I’m still an unreconstituted lout or so it seems…. So my advice is forget self improvement and just keep going forwards!

    • overload says:

      Ignatius
      GL with your assessment.
      I agree, generally forget self improvement. Ask God to take care of any improvement (if it is His will), and be willing to put the effort in if He requires it.
      Likewise, although usually I would tend to agree with you about self denial, my opinion now is heading more along the lines of don’t bother: pray about it and be willing and ready for it if God requires it (ie. Jesus didn’t go into the desert of his own human design, he was driven there by the Spirit).

    • St.Joseph says:

      Ignatius.
      Yes your ‘advice forget self improvement and just keep going forward’ sounds good advice to me.
      I am having a Scotch now in a cup of hot milk, helps me sleep, thats my excuse.
      I am eating like a horse now, after losing 3 stone,
      I look on those as a Gift from God.
      I wish you well on your final assessment for diaconate this Friday-I am sure you will continue to do well and ‘keep going forward’.
      I will keep you in my prayers.

  15. Iona says:

    I hope he tells us how he got on.
    Overload, thank you for your reference (Proverbs ch 24) – I have found it in the “New Catholic Bible” and it does indeed say “For though the virtuous man falls seven times, he stands up again” which even in its English translation is ambiguous; it could mean “even if the virtuous man falls…” or it could mean “the virtuous man falls 7 times, but he stands up again…”

    • overload says:

      Iona, I think it is talked about numerous times in the Bible, along the lines: He will keep your feet from stumbling.
      None the less, if a virtuous man is clumsy, tired, carrying a heavy load, always walking/running on uneven terrain, or the enemy is laying ‘stumbling blocks’ in his path, then perhaps he might be prone to falling many times every day—if God allows it. We are told by St Paul (who I think was buffeted by an angel of Satan) that Christ is strong in us, we are weak in Him, and that His strength is made perfect in weakness (not that this is an excuse for complacency; rather I believe there is a need to discern between weakness which comes from our own sin, and weakness which is due to carrying our daily cross).

      • overload says:

        “rather I believe there is a need to discern between weakness which comes from our own sin, and weakness which is due to carrying our daily cross”
        I want to add… I think this can be—or rather seem to be—very difficult to discern, and the devil loves to confuse us and spin us about in this kind of dilemma.

  16. Iona says:

    St. Joseph – that sounds like a healthy appetite!

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