Habit Formation

When we distill the spiritual life and unseen warfare into it’s most basic essence we find we it is all about habit formation. The battle is overthrowing bad or harmful habits with holy and good habits. From childhood we establish both good and bad habits and over time these habits get cemented in our thoughts and actions. It’s like muscle memory. The more we think and do good, the more this comes natural to us, and the more we think and do bad the more we cause damage to ourselves.

For a long-standing habit it assumes the strength of nature; but if you do not give away to it, it loses strength and is gradually destroyed. Whether a habit is good or bad, time nourishes it, just as wood feed the fire. Bus so far as we can we should cultivate and practice what is good, so that it becomes an established habit operating automatically and effortlessly when required. It was through victories in small things that the father won their great battles.

-- St. Peter of Damaskos

Once we open the door even just a little to even seemingly “small” sins, the end result can be enslavement.

“Do not think it is a small matter to give into your sinful desires, even if they seem insignificant. Every time you give into such a desire, you will leave an indelible stamp on your soul. This impression can sometimes be very strong, leading to the formation of a sinful habit…Only one simple habit is enough to destroy a person because it will constantly open the door of the soul to all other sins and all passions.”

--St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

A rooted passion takes control of the three powers of the soul, mind, will and heart. This is why it is so terribly difficult to change a bad habit. It becomes apart of our nature.

“For the intellect of man is drawn by longing towards those things with which it habitually occupies itself, whether these be earthly things, or the passions, or heavenly and eternal blessings.”

-- St. Peter of Damaskos

Bad habits or passions are powerful and hard to destroy once rooted in the soul. As outlined before, determination and resolve is absolutely necessary to change habits. According to the Church Fathers, this is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11:12) and “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” This becomes strikingly evident as passions are gradually destroyed and this interior kingdom attains some measure of peace. The process of habit transformation is tedious and requires a lifetime of commitment and patience, and it all begins with resolve.

“If you want to do something good, do it; and if you cannot do it, then resolved to do it and you will have achieved the resolution even if you do not fulfill the action itself. Thus a habit, whether good or bad can gradually and spontaneously be overcome.”

-- St. Peter of Damaskos

This resolve is seen in many of the lives of the saints such as St. Mary of Egypt. A woman consumed with lust and probably many other passions and insecurities, know for a life of prostitution suddenly decides to change and disappears into the near Jerusalem. In a matter of moments, St. Mary goes through the 5 steps of change: complacency, contemplation, determination, and goes into the desert to battle, and spends the rest of her life in watchfulness and prayer.

Once determination is realized, it is not simply enough to try and conquer the habit with bruit force and will power alone. A warrior will find success only when the bad habit is displaced by a good one. The Church Fathers have stressed this throughout the centuries. They talk about this in terms of healing and remedies for the soul. The bad habits cause the soul to be sick and the remedies are counter thoughts and actions that heal.

For instance if a person suffers from gluttony or overeating, thoughts and actions of self deprivation should be established. If food is the problem, fasting is the remedy. This is not easy, but it is necessary. Let your stomach be hungry and turn down tasteful foods. Fasting in little increments accompanied with prayer can help to establish good habits.

Or if one is struggling with a lustful habit (viewing pornography and such), this may be counter attacked by manual labor, fasting and avoidance of laziness. Laziness, comfort and luxury stealthy seduce and lead us to temptation. According to St. John Climacus, there is a direct correlation with satiety, or comfort of the belly and lust:

“He who cherishes his stomach and hopes to overcome the spirit of fornication, he is like one who tries to put out a fire with oil.”

--St. John Climacus

Or if one is struggling with excessive drinking, confession and openness is the first step to slaying this beast. This addiction is often done in secrete and therefore must be exposed to the light first. Then fasting, self denial and constant prayer must follow. Spiritual reading or daily habits of feeding the soul with sacred scripture and reading the inspired words of the Church Fathers is helpful too.

Or if depression and despair are tormenting a person, daily acts of charity and self sacrifice may be recommended. If love of money and possessions is causing a person to be anxious and tied down, developing thoughts of detachment and giving without thinking anything about it can help a person step out of themselves. Again, St. John Climacus:

“Despondency is a pretext for hospitality. She insists that by means of manual labor, alms could be given; and she urges us eagerly to visit the sick, recalling Him who said, I was sick and you visited me. She puts it into our heads to go out visiting the dejected and faint-hearted, and sets one faintheart to comfort another.

--St. John Climacus

Next we will put forth the * precepts of the warrior. If a struggler is incessantly striving to live out these precepts on a daily basis, bad habits will diminish and good ones will bring one closer to the Lord and to inner peace.