On Findin’ Character Kickin’ In…

You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.
Henry David Thoreau

            In this, my third year of transition from teaching as a vocation, I decided this spring to leave my garden fallow. In over 20 years of living here, I’ve never left my backyard untouched – twenty four years to be exact.  In these 24 years, I have grown vegetables, grown watermelons, grown various flowers and flower gardens int he soil and in outdoor pots, etc. The most consistent and yearly undertaking of mine throughout these two decades is to establish four rose garden which contain roughly a 15 – 20 beautiful rose bushes. I have one along the house and another in the rear yard, with two  – a square and a circular rose garden – as centerpieces to the yard.  They have been planted as testaments to my four beautiful daughters.

Almost a year ago in August, I began a chaplain residency program in a suburban hospital.  If you know anything about a residency program, you know that it can kill you both physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  In addition to the long hours and overnight calls, I was also driving at least 3 1/2’s hours a day to and from my place of employment. In light of this grueling schedule, this spring I decided – for the first time – to leave the garden fallow. I decided to do nothing – not to reseed the grass spots left after a winter of my dog Jay’s defecating, not to plant any new rosebushes where a few from past years may have died, not even to purchase any cheap annuals to plant in the planters or even to buy and sow an $8 bag of wildflowers amongst the remaining roses bushes.

In my 24 years living here, I have slaved over this backyard: last year alone I roped off 95% of it from my dog Jay and proceeded to rake and reseed up to 50 different dead spots made from his first winter of taking complete ownership of it by usingeveryareaof it as his personal toliet. Last year I also sowed annual wildflowers amongst the roses and planted annuals in pots as I normally do, etc. This spring I began to notice and now, have finally realized as I sit here in the middle of the summer and having completed the residency program, that my backyard is still – without the work being put in – absolutely beautiful.  The perennials that I planted along the southern fence – and struggled with over the last two years – have all return and are the fullest they’ve ever been.  Each of my rose gardens, save for two or three rose bushes which did not make the winter, are all full and in bloom.  This second summer, even without re-seeding it, my lawn looks fabulous.  And finally, to top it all off, the annual wildflowers which were not supposed to return, have returned and filled the places they were last year as if they were perennials or as if I had resown them anew this spring!

~Morning Prayer is like Breakfast for the Soul –

Who Wants to start the day hungry?~

            What’s happening in my garden is also happening in my prayer life.  Having to leave very early in the morning to drive almost 2 hours through traffic to get to work at 8 AM, I had to let go of my morning prayer routine in order to enter into and complete the residency program.  Of course, yes I did pray a rosary and listen to the daily Scriptures in the car and then pray a podcast on the morning drive (Day Breakon the Relevant Radio App), but this morning drive time prayer was at times difficult and rarely gave me the comfort/peace  that taking an hour in the morning did for the last 30 + mornings of my life.  Now, having completed the residency I’m finding that my prayer life and garden is also very much intact.  All the work and time – by the grace of God – that I put in over the years has formed a spiritual character which was grounded in and formed by graced regular habits of morning prayer. Now like my garden, I’ve lost nothing in this time away at all… In this time of stepping away to grow and respond to God’s call in a new way in my life, I’ve not lost a single iota from the great gifts received by regularly integrating prayer into my morning over the years.  Like my garden where the flowers have changed over the years, the prayers and spiritual exercises have also changed, yet the overall character of the whole – my morning prayer time and spiritual garden – has remained, arguably even growing deeper in the time I stepped away.

In short, a lifetime of habits have formed a character which, “kicked in” and continued to grow on that graced trajectory already set, even though I had no time to put in the work as I was accustomed to. I’m sitting here now in my yard as I write this, reveling in the power of God’s grace to build character through the daily struggles, even in a sinner like me.  Praise Him!

Author: P. J. West, Jr.

Paul J. West Jr. is a cradle Catholic and native Chicagoan who has ministered in Catholic Schools, parishes and hospitals for over two decades. His current ministries are focused on both hospital chaplaincy and writing. Prior to this, he ministered as an educator for almost twenty five years teaching religion, scripture, philosophy and ethics at four Chicago area high schools and adults at the Chicago Catholic Scripture School. His parish ministry has included preaching, teaching, writing and serving as a Eucharistic minister. Mr. West, who is native south sider, has been married for almost 30 years to Dr. Joy West. They have raised four beautiful daughters who are all hardcore Bears and White Sox fans!!!!

4 thoughts on “On Findin’ Character Kickin’ In…”

  1. Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post! It is the little changes which will make the greatest changes.

    Thanks a lot for sharing!

  2. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having problems locating it but,
    I’d like to shoot you an e-mail. I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might
    be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I
    look forward to seeing it improve over time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.