Holy Routines: Finding God in the Boundaries of Time

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On a Saturday, I left my husband and the boys at home and drove to the WalMart in our small city for my weekly grocery shopping. When I had parked and began checking my purse for the shopping list and pen I knew were there, I noticed that my cell phone was not. I must have left it at home. For a few seconds I panicked. What if someone needed to get in touch with me? But then I remembered I was close to home, would be gone for only an hour or so, and the world didn’t hinge on my availability.

As I shopped untethered by the transmitted signal of a nearby cell tower, I thought of Vicky Beeching’s essay in the New Statesman. After dropping her mobile phone next to the tube track in London, she found herself similarly disconnected by a lack of her iPhone for several hours. In addition to having no contact with friends and no capacity for looking up directions, she also found herself more aware of the natural pauses and rhythms of her day, gaps she would normally fill with email checking or social media posting.

Smartphone-free, I noticed throughout the afternoon and evening that I’d regained the natural pauses that happen between events. No screen to gaze into while commuting, no email to check in the coffee queue, no Instagram photo to snap of my dinner before eating it. Life had breathing spaces again. Moments to process thoughts, rather than just consume yet more information. Yes, I felt oddly disconnected from my virtual community; oddly alone, but in a way that reminded me how much I needed to do so on purpose.

Perhaps it is the “in between” and “on purpose” of Beeching’s revelation that lie at the center of a life built on routine and ritual, a life sometimes at odds with our fast-paced, plugged-in existence.

Routines Are Rigid

As a young woman, I eschewed all appearance of routine and ritual in my daily life. People who stuck to a strict schedule in their waking and working and their eating and sleeping appeared rigid to me, decidedly un-fun. Life had too much to offer to drive the same routes or order the same menu options. I played fast and loose even with my getting-ready-for-the-day rituals: sometimes I showered at night, sometimes in the morning. Sometimes I got up early, ready for the day. Sometimes I forgot to set the alarm and barely made it to work.

The daily chaos from a lack of routine might work for some people. For me, it did not. I kept seeking fulfillment in less structure while the one thing that would help me be productive and find my way was a little more structure.

David Brooks talks about this in an op-ed piece. “People who lead routine … lives have a bad reputation in our culture,” he writes. “But life is paradoxical. In situation after situation, this pattern recurs: order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.”

Routines Are Necessary

Ironically, as an older woman, I have not only reversed course, but most days, I find it hard to even be happy without some semblance of order to my hours. Routines help me wake and shower and eat and pray and find my way to productivity. Small rituals like morning coffee and a few minutes of Bible reading open the door to my day. Without them, I’m left rattling the handle, keys jangling as I try the lock. When I am on vacation, I plot out an artificial schedule so I’ll have a peg to hang my rituals on.

I find a kindred spirit in Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, whose research and writing centers around the idea that what we do every day matters more than what we do every once in a while. In a blog post, she talks about her own rituals and how they help ground her in life.

I’ve noticed that some people really enjoy being away from their usual routines; they try to avoid having a lot of habits; they feel freer, more energetic, and more creative when their lives are less predictable. I’m just the opposite. I embrace habits and routine. For me, discipline brings a sense of freedom, and I love the sense of my day unfolding as I’ve planned.

In my midlife, I have become what the younger me feared, so structured I sometimes miss the Spirit’s leading, so rigid that I risk meaninglessness with my rituals. Yet just as the high tides and the autumn leaves and the sandhill cranes and the harvest moon conform to the patterns they were created for, so my soul finds rest in the ebb and flow of sleep and wake, work and play, hunger and satisfaction, and the ordinary activities that usher me in and out of their rhythm.

Routines Are Deliberate

When I must, I abandon the routines during periods of crisis or help for others or business travel. These rituals are not my life. I can live without them. Yet when I am away from them, I yearn for their order; I long for the way they bring me daily, weekly, monthly, annually to my work, to my rest, to my meals, to my worship, whether I am ready or not. Even in my predictable middle age, I fear I often would not choose to go to the places I am needed if my rituals did not walk me there deliberately.

In her essay “Life in a Different Kind of Time,” Lucy Winkett talks about the importance of rituals in our lives as a way of marking time. She says our fast-paced lives mark time with the second hand; rituals mark time with the hour hand, “imperceptible movement, no less true but a lot less anxious. Rituals help us do nothing less than live a different kind of time.”

But is the word “ritual” reserved only for our religious or sacred acts? Or are the daily routines, the natural pauses between our regular starting and stopping, also occasions to mark time differently? Winkett says yes.

If rituals help us navigate the thresholds of life when emotion is high and the tectonic plates of desire, fear, hope and despair collide, then the truth is that I travel a long way not just when I’m celebrating the Eucharist but while I’m walking the dog. Ordinary life is full of grief and miracles. Rituals are performed at the boundaries, on the border. What we do almost every day, sometimes without noticing, is step over the line.

So whether it’s a warm cup of tea or a daily commute or the open-hearted awareness of ordinary life, we do well when our routines bring us often and regularly to receive what God has for us in the boundaries of time we might otherwise miss.


Holy Routines

We have asked some members of our community to share their holy routines. At first glance, these routines may not seem holy at all. However, in this series, Holy Routines, our writers extend an invitation to you to walk beside them in the actions and interactions and spaces that often seem ordinary but also usher them into the presence of God. We hope that spending a few moments in the holy routines of a few friends will inspire you to see and meet God in daily moments you may be tempted to rush through, or where you feel tempted to overlook the presence of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this series will give you permission to savor the sacred in the ordinary moments of your day.