Every morning, I plant myself in front of the bookshelf in the corner
of my room. On one shelf are set out my icons—St. Patrick, St. Anne,
and St. John Maximovitch—and various other objects, most of them
gifts, that help focus my attention. I light two candles, cover my
head, and begin to pray: “I give myself to God this day. I praise my
God this day. I ask God to help me this day.”
Every day, the same words. Every day the same prayers. Every single
day, I pray the same confession, intercessions, and praises from a
little book that was given to me when I was confirmed.
Very often I hear people say that ritual is a good think until it
becomes rote. Ritual can focus our attention but that only works so
long as the action is conscious and intentional. When it moves from
thoughtful to habitual, it’s not longer useful.
I say hogwash.
To the contrary, ritual doesn’t become truly valuable until it becomes
rote and habitual.
I’m a teacher so let me explain what I mean by drawing an analogy with
learning. I’m a big proponent of direct instruction, meaning I think
it’s important to break tasks down into their constituent skills and
teach those skills directly. When it comes to basic skills, I’m a big
proponent of drilling. There are some skills and concepts students
absolutely must have at their fingertips. There’s no substitute for
learning those things by rote.
What I’m trying to do is help my students form good habits. I want
them to think, read, and write well by default. That isn’t going to
happen unless they practice certain things over and over until they do
them without thinking. When it becomes unconscious and habitual, I can
say they’ve learned—and very often, they’re ready to build the next
Virtue works the same way, at least as Thomas Aquinas viewed it. We
practice choosing the good over and over until it becomes our natural
inclination. When we reach that point, doing the right thing is as
natural as following your gut instinct. It’s a bit like the way many
of us know grammar or spelling. It just looks right. Or it looks
wrong. It’s not logical or rational. We may not be able to explain it
fully. But if we’ve been trained well by our teachers, we can trust
that if it seems wrong, it probably is.
The point is that there’s something of value in knowing something so
deeply it’s reflexive. This is exactly the way I connect with ritual
in my own spiritual life. I pray the same prayers each day because I
know from experience that it’s only after I’ve learned them by rote
that I can pray through them. Through this ritual, I practice
returning to God every morning in the hopes that it will become more
and more the instinct of my wayward heart.
Don’t mistake me. This isn’t a screed against extemporaneous prayer. I
have nothing against praying in my own words. I do pray spontaneously.
But I also know how quickly my prayers become languid and thin when
they aren’t disciplined by something external—something that can help
me measure when I’ve turned my heart back to God fully.
It is perhaps ironic but I am much less likely to pray fully the way I
should if I simply let the words spill out. Left to myself, I cut
corners. I am not proud of this but it is nonetheless true. I use a
litany of intercession because without it, I will rush through in the
hope of getting to my coffee five minutes sooner.
Paul tells us that spiritual life is like athletic training and so it
is. My ritual is about putting one foot in front of the other,
developing a rhythm, creating some muscle memory so that the way I
pray—turning to God in repentance, praying for others, praising God
each day for the gift of life—becomes truly and deeply habitual.
In the end, the best that I can hope for is that my love of God and my
return to prayer becomes so much a part of me that I do it without
Annie teaches and writes in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her
husband and three kids. She is a teacher of history and theology at
Regents School of Austin. Her book: The Real Austin: The Homeless and the Image of God is available here and here. You can also find her at blog and on Twitter