May 31, 2018—We human beings are creatures of habit.
We brush our teeth in the same direction, we take the same route to work, we fold our clothes or make our beds in pretty much the same manner day after day. We like to sit in the same pews at church and eat the same kinds of candy bars. We shop in our favorite stores and sometimes we even have a particular method of shopping (look at the clearance rack first, then go for the new arrivals, and finally zero in on the item we actually need).
Maybe you don’t do all of the above, but I suspect most people reading this blog have at least some of these habits.
We want to break our bad habits (there are those candy bars again) and learn some new ones (why is the treadmill so boring?). We laugh at how predictable we are, and we excuse our grandparents because they are “set in their ways.” But truth be told, a five-year-old can be just as anchored in habits (good or bad) as any octogenarian. If we love a habit, we say we’re in our groove, and when it makes us restless, we decide we’re in rut. But either way, our habits shape our days.
Here’s something I find interesting: even though habits shape our lives in so many ways, there’s one area of life where we consciously reject the force of habit: our spiritual/religious life. We say we don’t like “empty rituals” and that “rote prayers” don’t have much meaning for us. Nothing seems to be worse than just “going through the motions” when it comes to our faith.
Why do we feel this way? I think it’s because we want our relationship with God to be alive, spontaneous, authentic. We crave genuine intimacy with God — not just some mechanical pattern that we cycle through mindlessly. In other words, we want to be wide awake when it comes to responding to God’s grace, mercy and love in our lives.
That’s a beautiful thing, and I commend it to everyone. But maybe we need to rethink this idea that “habit” and “mindfulness” are at odds. What if the cure for rote religion is not getting rid of rituals, but rather learning to express our faith mindfully — even in the midst of our most routine ways of behaving?
This is the fascinating idea at the heart of one of the most provocative books I have read in quite some time: You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, by James K.A. Smith.
Even the title is a wake-up call: is there spiritual power in habit? Smith would say yes — and the secret, to meeting God right in the middle of our habits, is prayer — and love.
Smith, a Christian philosopher and professor at Calvin College in Michigan, argues that discipleship means a lot more than just learning the facts about the Christian faith. It’s a matter of learning an entire way of life — shaped not just by what we know to be true, but by what we love. Naturally, Christians will say we love Christ. But do the habits of our lives reveal that love? Or, are our habits shaped by other loves — the love for security, for comfort, for the respect of others, for money, for power?
Dr. Smith says that if we don’t cultivate habits that are anchored in our love for God, then by default we will fall into habits that are shaped by our lesser loves: habits oriented toward pleasure, or entertainment, or shopping, or whatever we like to do to pass the time.
Whether we like it or not, we organize our lives around our habits. So what if we took control of that all-too-human tendency, and devoted our lives to creating beautiful and sustainable habits of prayer, of meditation, of contemplation, of expressing love for our neighbors as well as for God? What would that look like? How would it transform our spiritual lives?
This fall (starting September 10, 2018) I’ll be teaching an online course through Columbia Theological Seminary called Living Prayer: The Spirituality of Everyday Liturgy where I’ll invite the participants to join with me in reading and reflecting on You Are What You Love, and in supporting each other as we seek to foster good habits in our day-to-day prayer lives. But not just habits that turn into rote repetition: we’re looking to foster sustainable, joyful, life-giving habits, the habits that will get us into our groove rather than stuck in a rut.
Perhaps you will join me in this online experience. Let’s pray together, support one another as we seek to find the most optimal and life-giving ways to respond to God’s love and mercy in our lives. And then let’s harness the power of habit, and transform our lives!
Carl McColman is a contemplative writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual companion. He is the author of several books, including Befriending Silence, Answering the Contemplative Call, and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. His writing appears in the Huffington Post, Contemplative Journal, Patheos, as well as his own blog on Christian spirituality and contemplative living, www.carlmccolman.net.