Conversion to Christ does not automatically make us virtuous.
Frank Sheed

We always start in a deserted parking lot. On a Sunday. When nobody is around, and the risks of major catastrophe are limited.

The parking lot just north of Jackson Middle School is ideal. There’s plenty of room, and the yellow parking grid in the middle creates a natural oval lane on the outside for those tentative, jerky accelerations and decelerations that every beginning driver will make. It’s where I started with Meg and Crispin, now both accomplished drivers, and it’s where I started with Cecilia a year or so ago.

Cecilia is my fifth-born and my fifth to successfully learn to drive. Plus, she’s very good – probably my best (but don’t tell her siblings) – but not because of anything I did different as her instructor. “First things first,” is how I introduced her first lesson after she got her permit – just as I had with her older siblings. “There are two pedals – gas on the right; brake on the left – but you only use your right foot.” No clutches and stick shifts for us (regrettably). “Right foot only – that’ll save you a lot of grief. Just pretend your left foot is dead when you’re driving. Pretend it’s not even there.”

It doesn’t matter, of course. As soon as Cece started up the car, and gave it a bit of gas, the left foot instinctively drifted to the brake – and we got our first jerk of the day. “Nope – right foot only,” I say by rote. “You’re either gassing or braking – or neither – but right foot only.”

A nod, a grunt, and we were off again. A few more jerks, a few more reminders about the left foot, and very soon, we were circling the Jackson parking lot smoothly, effortlessly – a tad too quick, sometimes, but a couple of screeching turns soon cured that problem.

If you have teens, you can probably figure out what came next. Circling one way, circling the other; decelerating on the turns, accelerating (gently) on the straightaways; stop, signal, go left, go right – a few days of that, and we were ready to leave the parking lot and hit the residential grid (at 25 mph, mind you – “keep right, but watch those parked cars and mailboxes”). Then, after a pep talk, it was a trip down to the library on Miami Street – two lanes, 40 mph! – and, like magic, Cecilia soon found herself behind the wheel on highway 31, with only occasional suggestions from dad (of greater or lesser insistency).

And now Cecilia is on her own – passed her driver’s test first time! – and she’s very good, like I said. Good instincts. Courteous. Conscientious. She even checks the oil at regular intervals, and she lets me know if the ol’ rattletrap is rattling more than usual – an important point: She’s well aware that her driving abilities are limited by the soundness of the vehicle she’s driving.

All our household drivers are used to our perpetually failing fleet, and, given our limited means, they have no illusions that we’ll ever own a car with less than 100,000 miles on it. Nonetheless, they take it for granted that they’ll still have access to mechanically intact vehicles, no matter how rusty, if they’re to drive themselves (and their younger siblings) anyplace – school, work, errands. Thus, although I rely on them to be alert and responsible drivers, they rely on me (and our mechanic) to ensure that they’re piloting safe machines.

That is, no amount of driving skill can make up for a malfunctioning vehicle.

Granted, it’s a self-evident assertion, but I think it’s also a helpful picture of the moral life – and one I’m brazenly adapting, I confess, from Frank Sheed. In his masterful Christ in Eclipse (1978), Sheed compares the Christian’s growth in holiness – the interplay between nature and grace – to a piano virtuoso. No matter how accomplished a musician he might be, and no matter how much raw talent he is blessed with, the quality of the music he can produce is directly related to how fine an instrument he gets to play. If it’s in poor shape and out of tune? It doesn’t matter how skilled or talented he is. The music will turn out bad.

The same holds true for my driver-teens – and all of us. Following Sheed, we can think of our natural dispositions and habits – our “genes and such,” as he writes – as the cars at our disposal. Maybe we’d have preferred different makes and models, but we’ve got what we’ve got, and we have to make do. Besides, beginning with baptism, and continuing with the other sacraments, we can receive the supernatural gift of grace – God’s own life in us! We might have to navigate life’s challenges and hazards in broken-down jalopies, but we can be assured that God has empowered us to complete the journey toward our heavenly destiny.

Yet grace is not magic. “There is no spiritual shortcut to getting rid of bad habits,” Sheed writes, and the Catechism backs him up on that. “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross,” it reads. “There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle” (CCC 2015). By all means, we should avail ourselves of sacramental grace whenever possible – daily Communion, even, when at all possible – but we can’t stop there. We have to do the hard work of mending our vehicles, curbing our natural faults and shortcomings, so that God’s grace can all the more take hold and transform us into saints. If we fail and break down, we get help – in the confessional, especially – so that we can get back on the road as soon as possible.

And there are other lessons here that parallel our driving lives.

First, we must avoid judging other drivers too harshly for their erratic behavior – maybe their cars are on the fritz! Instead, we can pray that they locate their problems under the hood and get them repaired pronto, and we can offer assistance when appropriate. Such encounters can also remind us to be vigilant in assessing and tuning up our own moral vehicles before we start shaking our fists at others. “Too many inveigh against the evils in society because it takes their mind off the evils in themselves,” Sheed observes. “So with the reprobation of other’s sins, which happen not to be our own.”

Then there’s my function as dad-driving instructor – something that started well before Cecilia was old enough for a learner’s permit, and which continues to this day despite her relative independence. “Be a role model,” reads the “Beginning Teen Drivers” pamphlet we received from our auto insurance company. “New drivers learn a lot by example, so practice safe driving yourself.”

It might be that I’ve joked about “do as I say, not as I do” from the driver’s seat from time to time over the years, but I know that my actions are constantly being scrutinized by my current and, especially, future drivers. It’s an awareness that strengthens my resolve to choose “ought” over expediency and convenience – if not always for my own spiritual benefit, then for theirs.

In fact, that resolve is frequently reinforced by the very ones I’m supposed to be teaching. “How fast are you going, Dad?” Cecilia used to ask pre-license. “The sign says 35” (slow down...). And then there’s always this one: “Don’t forget to buckle up, Dad.”

(*click*) “Thanks for the reminder,” I’ll say. It’s never too late to learn.