We can learn some things about producing successful spiritual lives from creative agents in other fields.
The writer/actor/director Woody Allen famously said: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” That quotation has been repeated often by others and altered slightly for all sorts of purposes. And the reason is that, while such a thing as success is hard to quantify in percentages, the sense of the sentence rings true.
Allen says he first used the line in talking to aspiring young writers. “My observation was that once a person actually completed a play or a novel he was well on his way to getting it produced or published, as opposed to a vast majority of people who tell me their ambition is to write, but who strike out on the very first level and indeed never write the play or book.”
The Southern short story writer Flannery O’Connor similarly talked about the habits of writing that lead to success. Despite suffering from lupus, she maintained a strict writing schedule. “I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”
Aspiration needs perspiration for inspiration. If you want to achieve strength and depth of spiritual character, desire is the first thing. We get what we want, not what we say we want.
The achievement of desire’s intent next requires time and attention. Paying attention means making time and minding it. Sitting before a blank sheet with pen in hand, or a canvas with brush at the ready, or with a Bible on your lap and reading glasses poised on your nose: these are postures that allow inspiration to drop in.
Insights come from patient, practiced seeing. You have to see something before you can see into it. Monet painted haystacks and the Rouen Cathedral over and over in all sorts of light and weather. He was looking at the same thing each time he painted, but what he saw each time and showed to us was different because of the time of day and the effect of the elements.
Prayer can be rote until it’s not. You can say the same words of the Shema or The Lord’s Prayer over and over, and then one day it hits you — something new, something fresh. And it wouldn’t have if you hadn’t been saying it again and again.
Hymns in church get in our heads and stay there for when we need them. In fact, we know that people suffering from various forms of dementia can often sing along to beloved hymns long after they have forgotten the names of their beloved spouse and children. But the songs first have to get into our heads to do that.
Not sure about the other 20 percent, but showing up probably is 80 percent of spiritual success.
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