Creature of Habit
Ever since I learned to read, I’ve started each day with a bowl of cereal and the sports section. I keep this up because a) Lucky Charms are “magically delicious” and b) I much prefer to begin the day with the escapism of sports than the reality of human suffering. While I guess this makes me a creature of habit I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. We all crave routines that bring comfort and help order our lives. Mine just happens to involve reading about my beloved sad-sack Baltimore Orioles.
When you reflect upon all you do on a regular basis, you soon realize there are many daily rituals. They may revolve around coffee or an exercise routine or even the way you load and unload the dishwasher (knives downs, spoons up!). We need routines to ease the chaos of our fast-paced lives and help ground our daily existence.
I’ve come to see ritual as an innate function of our humanity. Children are drawn to repetition and find comfort in the familiar – just ask any parent about the vaunted “bedtime routine.” While it varies slightly from home to home it generally involves multiple cups of water, reading Goodnight Moon ad nauseum, and profound questions just when you’re ready to collapse (“Mom, why does God cause earthquakes?”). Sure, there’s a fine line between bedtime ritual and sleep avoidance but the third trip to the bathroom in the last five minutes falls into the latter category.
Children do deeply crave ritual. For them, and for all of us, it creates a sense of safety, comfort, and order. We put our pants on the same way every morning so we don’t have to think about it; we do a crossword puzzle every night before turning out the light so our eyes know when it’s time to droop; we go to the same mechanic for an oil change every few months because we trust the guy and who can even find the Yellow Pages?
Religious ritual is a routine of both power and comfort. When a member of the Jewish community dies, friends and family sit Shiva. Whether a death is expected or sudden, ritual kicks in which strictly defines the hours and days that follow. This brings holy order to what can be a time of bewildering chaos.
One of my religious routines is to say Morning Prayer at the church each day at 8:45 am (after my cereal and the sports section but before my coffee). These are set prayers with rotating readings from Scripture that take 10 to 12 minutes. Sometimes I embrace this daily prayer with joy and at others it feels like I’m just going through the motions. But it doesn’t matter because over time this ritual serves as an anchor to my day, my week, my life. Sometimes people join me and at others I pray it by myself either out of a book or online (how did monks ever survive without the internet?).
The danger with the routine of ritual is that it can become rote. For many, the Lord’s Prayer falls into this category. How many times have you said it without thinking about the power of Jesus’ words? It rolls off the tongue like the Pledge of Allegiance or the alphabet but it takes intentionality to really pray it. And yet even when we are apparently just mouthing the words, something is happening. I’ve been with many people at their deathbeds who, while seemingly “out of it,” mouth the words of the Lord’s Prayer when I pray it with them. Ritual runs deep in our souls.
So being a creature of habit is not a bad thing. As long as our routines don’t become obsessive they are embedded with comfort. Even when they involve reading yet another losing box score and bemoaning the fact that you’re way too old to eat Lucky Charms.