Fledgling thoughts on Liturgy, Aristotle, and Birthdays

This last week has been very busy for me. It was my birthday week, and seeing as my family always takes four or five days to celebrate all the Birthdays that fall on that week, let me say, I had no free time. No free time especially to work on my new post on Natural Theology concerning Anselm’s Ontological Argument, but it occurred to me this week the importance of these sorts of events. To mark things that happen.

I have a long term post goal to eventually present a full post(or even a series) on Aristotle and the Liturgy, where I discuss the importance of habituation in our lives, that we might always reflect on God. But this is side-research for the moment, but relatedly I would like to present a few fledgling thoughts on why it is important to keep memorial of events, and to celebrate.

“We are adapted by nature to receive [virtues] and are made perfect by habit” 1 Human beings by nature are habitual creatures, and we grow into our habits and our strengths more often. This then is why if we want to grow in relationship with other people, we must habituate spending time with them, that we can receive virtues from them, and they can receive them from us, and in this exchange we grow more and more virtuous. If we wish to grow in Godliness, we spend time with God and adapt our minds to orient towards him, and for this we have the Liturgy.

But what is a habit? And how do birthdays and holidays and such things help us deal with that? Habit in this case, is not a passive action. Sure there are habits we have that are passive, such as gesticulating a certain way, or using a certain phrase or checking our phones absently. But when we use the word habit in the sense described above, we’re using a more active word. The Greek word, hexis. Hexis describes a condition in which someone must actively hold themselves. If not, then it is strange that Aristotle describes the good life as a life lived by virtuous habit. Not by choice, not by activity, but by passive habits, like checking one’s phone. This hexis is practically the opposite of what we mean by ‘habit’ today.2

“In Book VII of the Physics, Aristotle says much the same thing about the way children start to learn: they are not changed, he says, nor are they trained or even acted upon in any way, but they themselves get straight into an active state when time or adults help them settle down out of their native condition of disorder and distraction. (247b, 17-248a, 6)” [^3]

Hexis is what happens when everything else is put in proper order. It is the state of actively maintaining a state of affairs. A garden cannot prosper if it is full of weeds, but the plants do their own growing, a gardener just keeps the weeds away. Similarly disciplining virtues is a matter of avoiding extremes, of cancelling out bad ‘habits’ and creating a neutral ground through which our mind and character can grow actively.

And this is one of the reasons for the liturgy. By starting and ending our day in good ways, in the objective experience of God, regardless of how we feel or what we want, we shape that day in some way. Similarly, in the Bible we see that whenever God moved his hand and caused something, the people of God put up a memorial or founded a feast, or wrote it down. Why? To remember. When you begin to level out your day of distraction and then are reminded of those things which matter, you can better focus on them. Lent clears away our distractions, reminds us of our weakness, so that when Easter comes we can better see the Triumph of Christ. Advent prepares our minds for the incarnation that we can truly appreciate the wonder of God becoming man.

Holidays then are set up to remind us of things, so that we can allow them to press upon our minds and change us. Christmas reminds us of the wonderful gift and humility of God, that we might also be gracious and humble. Easter reminds us of Christ’s death and resurrection, conquering sin, Satan, and death in the process, so that we might be more fearless in our lives, and less afraid of death. So that we might more faithfully confess our sins, for their sting has already been taken. Birthdays as well, though sometimes time consuming and annoying(at least for me, when it takes up four days of my time.) remind us of what we care about most. Family, friends, and the joy that God gives us. But it also reminds us, as Christ tells us that we must be ‘born again’. We had nothing to do with our First birth, and we had nothing to do with our spiritual birth. And we have nothing to do with our birthdays, merely that they continue on in God’s grace. And that perhaps is a great reminder, to trust in the Lord for all the days of our lives, that we might make it to our next birthday.

  1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II:1, 1003a 
  2. While habitus  is a perfectly good translation of hexis into Latin, it’s through this little detour that things get muddled and we get to the modern idea of ‘habit’. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s