Those Things Which We Ought to Have Done

The confession in the office of Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer speaks of having “left undone those things which we ought to have done.” I have been thinking recently about what some of those things are. For me, this is not just a confession about the large, obvious, or specifically religious failures: the works of charity or sacrifice that we know we might do but haven’t. It’s not even just about the painful failures of love, when we let down people we care about by failing to do things that we can see we ought to do. I think it’s also about the mundane failures; it’s about procrastination, the things we have left undone for no good reason.

These things are part of my duty, but I have set them aside out of sloth or pride. I put off doing laundry because it is physically and mentally tedious; I put off paying bills because this allows me to pretend I have more money at my disposal than I really do. I put off grading students’ assignments because I’m unwilling to surrender my time and attention to figuring out what they were thinking, where they went wrong, and I fear not knowing how to answer their questions. I put off writing to friends because I can’t think of anything brilliant to say. I keep putting off things that I have put off for too long already out of a distaste for confronting the consequences of my procrastination, hoping to avoid apologies that become more necessary as more time goes by.

Sloth prompts me to avoid the unpleasant tasks — to avoid even thinking about them, in fact — and to use my time self-indulgently. Pride suggests that I deserve better than this, whatever that might mean. Vanity tries to guard me from the need to apologize or feel inferior.

Now, I could stop doing most, or some, of this nonsense. The fact that I will recite the same confession again next week (you didn’t think I actually say Morning Prayer every day the way I ought to, did you?) doesn’t compel me to keep making exactly the same mistakes. It is possible for me to do better. So I could close by declaring the things that I am going to do now, the tasks that I have been neglecting and am now going off to accomplish. But I can’t help feeling that this would be missing the point slightly.

Earlier this morning, as I thought about this, what came to mind was Jesus telling Martha not to worry about so many things: “But one thing is needful.” This may be obvious by now, but I’m not really the sort of person who needs to be told not to spend too much time doing housework. But maybe I need to be warned not to feel too self-satisfied when I do get some of my mundane tasks done. There are still greater things left undone.

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