Winning’s Easy, Governing’s Harder
Just gonna start thinking out loud. I’ve been listening to Hamilton: An American Musical (*insert wild, shameless plug for possibly the greatest musical of our time*) a lot lately, and the line that I made the title of this post has always really struck me. And I think now I see a little bit of why.
There’s a big difference, at least in this life, between the winning of a victory and the extending/sustaining of what you’ve won. In other words, it’s one thing to drive out an enemy or claim something for yourself, and another, more challenging thing to keep what you’ve defended or claimed safe and in order. Winning a battle is no walk in the park, don’t get me wrong; it takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of holding yourself to high standards, keeping your eyes focused on what you’re fighting for. But once that battle is done, to keep what you’ve fought for in place, keep it true to its trajectory, make decisions with what you’ve fought for in mind, and build up a defense against what you’ve fought against (both internally and externally)–it’s something that’s never really complete, because life is so dynamic that bringing the truth, the reality that you believe in to bear on the present is a constant task you have to undertake and live according to.
This is true of a lot of things in my own life. My faith, for example. The Catholic Church was brought into being two thousand years ago after Jesus conquered sin and death at Calvary, so the victory is won, the kingdom is established. But bringing that kingdom to every corner of the world, defending it against the relentless losing strokes of the enemy, reminding its subjects Who they serve and how to serve Him–all that is the story of salvation history, and it’s still going on. And it’s not that much of stretch to say that the Church has never had such a difficult time opening the eyes of the world to the truth about itself and the God Who made it. Still that “governing” stage goes on, sustained by the life of grace which has always to be cultivated by continually seeking union with Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body.
More personally, it’s true of my own life. I’ve won huge victories against depression and anxiety, battles I was never sure I’d win. Thanks to God’s healing and strength, I can actually say that I can live my life and take each moment with overarching joy. But now I have no excuses for the sinful habits that developed and festered underneath the perpetual storm clouds; the sun is shining on me now, even when it gets rainy, and it’s up to me whether it shines on deeds of light or darkness. The battle to live my life is won; now I must govern it. And shoot dang, it’s tough. The weeds of sin grow really tangled roots really fast, and it’s been ages since I properly tended the garden. Now it’s exhausting to make it through a single row.
So what’s the solution here? Keep exhausting myself, only to plop down and chuck the weeds back onto the ground where their seeds can just take root again?
Honestly, that’s been my solution for a long time now. Weed a row, plop down, undo all the work, go to Confession, wash, rinse, repeat. It’s like watching the same seven seconds of a movie over and over again until you’ve forgotten how the movie ends and you look up to find out you’ve wasted two hours on those same stupid seven seconds on repeat. Not exactly ideal. Feels a lot like “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” The clouds were blocking out the sun and my memory of it for awhile; now that the sun is a constant, I’m finding I let myself get pretty caked in mud and crap, and I get so tired of rubbing it off and keeping myself away from it that I just plop back down in it and let myself get covered in it again before I remember how badly I want to be clean.
So how the heck am I supposed to do this? How do I go from momentary victory to lifelong governance towards the good?
I think there are three things I’ve learned that I need to put into practice on this:
1. I ACTUALLY NEED TO PUT THE THINGS I’VE LEARNED INTO PRACTICE.
It’s one thing to know what I need to do, and another thing to do it. I’ve got the principles, but if I don’t govern myself according to them, they just remind me how far away I am from living according to them, and the walls of the hole I’m in just become more clearly defined. If I want to actually move forward, I need to act on them. The Catholic principle that grace builds on nature presupposes that we actually order our nature towards its proper end, that we actually act for our good, for the good. God didn’t make us as automatons that just need proper programming; we’re meant to be loving children, freely living according to His Law, which reveals to us our fullest flourishing and happiness. If we want that, we have to act, and act boldly, according to that. Laziness is all too easy to get caught in, as is complacency. Excuses just aren’t going to cut it; excuses only get us to mediocrity, or maybe normalcy, not holiness.
2. I SHOULDN’T TRY TO DO THIS ON MY OWN.
If I’m going to live a life of virtue, I need to step out of the way. We’re pretty much powerless to live a good life on our own, people; we’re fallen. We have to remember that. We’re broken at a very deep level. Baptism heals that break (praise God!), but we’re still affected by that. But the Good News is that we’re not asked to do this alone. Christ came and died for our sins and rose to restore our everlasting life. And He gives us the New Law, the Holy Spirit. That’s the great thing about the gift of the Holy Spirit as the New Law: we don’t live under a merely external set of principles that only serves to let us know how frail and faulty we are. We are given one of the very Persons of the Trinity to dwell within us and direct all our actions, all our thoughts, all our words, to be in accordance with the will of God (if we let Him), one Who gives us the power to live the life we are called to. Any attempt on our part to do this alone is going to fail. To live well, first and foremost, we have to give up the idea that we have the power to be holy without the only One Who is truly holy. To live well is to surrender.
3. IT’S TIME FOR HEROIC VIRTUE.
Put simply, “good enough” isn’t good enough anymore. Christ made us for more than mediocrity. That’s why we are given crosses to carry, after all: to share in the redemptive work of Christ, to bring meaning even into what seem to be the most meaning-destructive moments of our lives. In the moral life, mediocrity is settling for not committing the big sins, and the devil is all too happy to take advantage of that, tempting us until we find ourselves deep in sin when we thought we were doing “just fine”. There just isn’t room for that. Our decisions aren’t just about the here and now; we’re dealing with eternity. Our eyes need to be fixed on Heaven, and every decision we make needs to keep that in mind. There’s this brilliant monologue in Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot where St. Augustine of Canterbury shocks everyone around him, even fellow priests, by insisting that they open the doors of the cathedral, even though that means that the very soldiers who seek to end his life will be able to murder him. Right in the middle, he says this: “I give myself to the law of God above the law of man.” By every earthly standard, he should have kept the door closed; above all, his job, according to the world, was to stay alive if he could. But he put himself at the service of a greater standard, one which he understood meant that his life was called for, that this was the moment in which to give everything, even the precious gift of life, for the sake of serving God and Him alone. We may never have to give our own lives so dramatically, but we are all called to such radical obedience to God’s will. We’re all called to be martyrs, even if we’re never touched by the sword.
All this being said, if there’s anything I learned in prayer this past Lent, it’s that our furious self-improvement has to be tempered by the hardest kind of patience there is: patience with ourselves, patience that persists in demanding the best while not giving up when we do the worst. The same patience as the One Who hung on the cross, seeing every sin you’ve committed and will commit, stayed on the cross for your sake, and bothers to come in the Eucharist just to say He loves you.