I wake up and immediately walk to the shower. After that I head downstairs for breakfast and read the Divine Hours. Then I start writing before taking over with Ethan for the morning.
That’s my routine. Those are my habits. If I want to pray or write more in the morning, I need to change the pattern of habits that I’ve put together.
Anything that we accomplish can often be reduced to our accumulated habits throughout each day. Our habits can set us on destructive or life-giving paths. When I read about the impact of habits on our day to day lives in The Power of Habit, it was like I finally understood why I fail at some things and succeed at others.
For instance, buying a couple quarts of ice cream and watching TV each night could dramatically undermine a goal of losing weight. Not that I know anything about that from personal experience…
If I wanted to exercise regularly, I needed a new routine. I had to set aside a chunk of time every day to exercise. I found that I have the most success if I exercise at the same time every day, naturally transitioning from work to work out. I needed to know that a particular time each day was set aside for exercise.
Habits aren’t just related to losing weight or improving productivity at work.
If we look at the prayer practices of monastic communities, such as fixed hour prayer, the same principles of habits and routines are at work. They structured their lives in such a way that prayer always had a time and place. The didn’t leave prayer to chance. They knew exactly when it would happen.
That isn’t to say that spontaneous prayer can’t happen. It’s just that regular prayer will most likely happen if it’s part of an ingrained habit.
I’ve been reading the Rule of St. Benedict, and I’m struck by how much monks relied on discipline and habits. It sounds like they made the Christian life into a lot of hard work.
Sometimes routines get a bad rap, as if we’re just going through the motions. However, a routine that turns into a habit can create significant space for life to flourish.
There’s one major draw back with habits: They are really hard to start. Over time, they become natural and even easy as we crave the peace that comes from prayer, the energy we derive from running, or the accomplishment of a hard day’s work. Habits create space for practices that give us joy and hope, and so they become their own reward. Suddenly the difficulties of finding time to pray are replaced by the difficulties of not praying enough.
Best yet, the Ignatians have left us with a simple way to take stock of our days and to identify the patterns and habits the either give life or harm us. It’s called the Examine.
I’ve been using the iOs Examine app, and it has completely transformed how I look at my day.
The Examine begins with a simple overview of my day, asking whether I feel hopeful or discouraged. Then it asks a series of questions about what’s going well: What gave me hope, what drew me closer to God, when did I experience God, when did I love, etc. Those are followed by questions about what’s not going well: when did I fail, what is keeping me awake at night, what is stealing my peace, etc.
By doing the Examine every evening, I’ve found that there are patterns for both the good and the bad things in my life. There are healthy and unhealthy habits.
For instance, staying up late has been a real problem for me. I often stay up late because I want to read a book or watch hockey. On the one hand, I just need to deny myself some luxuries. On the other hand, I stay up late to read and watch hockey because I have house work to do. A little leisure time isn’t a bad thing, so the habit I need to change is my approach to dishes and cleaning, getting them done earlier in the day.
I’ve also found that the mornings can be rough times for me spiritually-speaking. My anxiety gets going before I even realize what hit me. I’ve made some changes to my routine that I’m hoping will help me begin the day with greater awareness of God’s presence, such as introducing worship music into my mornings and making myself sit in silence before transitioning from breakfast to work.
Examining myself, being honest about my failings, revising my habits, and then actually doing stuff about it feels like work. I have to be disciplined. I have to make changes.
The more I alter my lifestyle, the more I’m removing obstacles to my faith. I can sense less anxiety throughout the day. I have more hope. I’m more aware of the negative influences in my life. I know when I’m most likely to struggle. It’s like I can finally zero in on the things I was made to do and the things that undo me.
That isn’t to say everything is amazing right now. Rather, I can see the ebb and flow of my spirituality. If I’m discouraged, I have a better sense of why. If I’m hopeful, I’m able to see things I should continue to duplicate in the coming days.
The more space I create for God, the easier it becomes to rest in him. I’m more aware of how often I jump into my day without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I can see how prayer has been difficult some mornings and, most importantly, why that is so.
I have so much more hope than I’ve ever had.
I know that I can’t make myself more Christ-like on my own power. The Examine isn’t about what I can do. The Examine is about finding the things that obstruct God’s power in my life. The Examine has helped me seek God and to actually receive from God.
Who can expect to grow spiritually or to be “fruitful” without first receiving from God?
In a sense, spiritual growth is supposed to be easy. I can’t do it. It has to be God’s power. However, I can make it REALLY difficult for God’s power to work in me. By addressing my habits, I’ve created more space for God in my life.