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Frittered Away by Detail

by Dr. Tom NealJanuary 26, 2018

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. — Henry David Thoreau

My New Year’s Resolution is to cut away all the fat, all the excess, all the frivolous or directionless investments of time and energy that distract me from what is essential, and from those who are essential in my life. I have a short, doable list of specifics, but that’s the general theme. And, like salvation, this resolve is not a once-saved-always-saved decision, but one that requires a daily renewal of vows.

Fulton Sheen once said that rivers are only strong and deep when they have sharp and firm borders that define their course with purpose. The Desert Fathers argue that among the greatest obstacles to progress in spiritual maturity is “dissipation,” the helter-skelter life. For the Fathers, the endless flitting from thing to thing without sustained attention, without a defined purpose that serves worthy goals, chokes off the virtues of temperance, fortitude, and patient endurance. The dissipated may do many good things, but few of them well, none with consistency, and all absent of the ability to build that virtue that alone carries you from good to saint: perseverance.

Early last fall, I was being pressed against the wall of my limits and knew I needed to reassess my commitments. I re-connected with an old friend I always go to when I want unvarnished honesty from someone who knows me too well, and who understands the challenges of balancing marriage, raising children, work, and the rest of life. People like that in your life are gold.

Among other things, he encouraged me to engage in a week-long time audit. He said, “My father used to always say, if you want to know a man’s priorities, follow the check ledger and follow the clock. Where your time is, there is your treasure, and where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He added that in his experience people tend to be the most defensive when you question their use of time or their money spending habits, “because everyone knows by instinct both lay naked your real priorities.”

He jotted down a list for me on a napkin and asked me to see how I fared in investing my time into these nine categories: focused time for prayer, focused time with spouse, focused time with children, exercise, eating with others, eating alone, personal leisure, work, sleep. He also required a separate spreadsheet for me to examine the time (how much and when) I spent looking at any screens and the purpose of viewing.

Let’s just say, though carrying out the audit was challenging (a lot of work!), the results were eye-popping on all fronts. But the beauty of an audit is it eliminates all space for rationalizing distortions of how I in fact spend my time and allowed me to come up with a plan that addressed concrete issues. And some of the changes I have made have already yielded peace in my life and my family’s life.

We often think of peace as that “oceanic” feeling of tranquility when we feel good about life and have no angst or cares. However, St. Augustine defines peace as tranquillitas ordinis, “the tranquility of order,” and by order he means a life intentionally organized around the demands of justice and charity. As Pope Paul VI said, “if you want peace, work for justice.”

Peace requires that you bring an order to your world that begins with ensuring you are being faithful to your primary life commitments in a sustained and enduring way. This requires simplicity. Simplicity does not mean a mere absence of “stuff” in your life as much as it evidences a unity of focus, i.e., living so everything conspires toward the service of your primary commitments. This form of simplicity requires a resolve based not just on passing feelings, but on lasting virtues—which means it takes hard work.

As my oldest son once said when he was four years old, repeating the proverb he mistakenly thought my wife had been saying all his life: “I know, mom, patience will hurt you.”

Only a well-ordered life allows for genuine spontaneity, opens an authentic space of freedom for the Spirit to blow where He wills—which is always in the context of good order (1 Cor. 14:33). Those who live by emotional whim, who justify disorder by referring to what God has supposedly “placed on my heart,” ignoring the presiding role of good judgment and the necessity of exercising the hard virtues, don’t experience spontaneity. Rather, they live in disorder constructed around personal preference dressed in religious garb. And it is my experience that these emo-gnostics, more often than not, cause others who rely on them to suffer far more from the effects of their canonized egoism than they do themselves. But they often don’t notice these casualties, as their priorities are built around their own immediate needs which, they believe, God always blesses.

To bring peace into the world, you have to take charge of your life, assume responsibility for your use of time, consider your primary commitments, think of how your decisions affect others, act with purpose and intention, plan and assess regularly how you are doing, and establish a relationship of accountability to keep you honest and cover blind spots. This is a marvelous asceticism, a personal discipline that can grow a garden of virtues and benefit many people’s lives around you who depend on you being faithful to first things first. Our life is to be a living liturgy, and if you look at the Church’s liturgy, well, it’s really, really well-ordered and planned, with intention. It’s what St. Paul calls the offering of logikēn latreian, “rational worship” (Romans 12:1), which is far better than emotional worship: I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship.

One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, voices well my own vivid awareness of the need to intentionally steward my time: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” May 2018 offer a new opportunity for consecrating time to God, of stewarding this most precious gift that comes to us but once and passes through our hands into eternity. May my every moment become a worthy, intentional, just, and love-drenched offering. Not much time left, so let’s get to it… 

O Lord, you have shown me my end,
how short is the length of my days. —Psalm 39:5

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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