Many, many years ago, I was a child. I was a cute child, and I know this because children are, by definition, cute. I was shy and studious and read lots of books. My studies and book-reading were under the tutelage of the good nuns of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus, who ran our little Catholic grade school with warm hearts and open arms. There were no ruler smacks, no iron fists, no stern voices. No one was scared of the nuns. We were, however, intrigued by them. They put strange veils on the backs of their heads. They wore long black robes, even on the hottest of summer days, and the robes had hidden pockets from which the nun might occasionally produce a piece of candy if a child had been particularly nice or particularly sad. I asked my mother why the nuns wore such funny clothes. Her reply: Sweetheart, those outfits are called habits; they are part of the life these women have chosen.
Many years later, but still several years before today, the child I used to be had transformed into a busy attorney with all of the attendant pressure and stress and sleep deprivation. And when I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was trying to have a life in San Francisco, meaning: eating out, drinking out, hanging out. In the process, some other important things got thrown by the wayside, which became more clear when I met the woman who is now my wife. On one of our first dates, she asked me what I liked to read; what my favorite books were. My reply: Oh, I don’t really read books. I’m more of a magazine girl. She gave me a strange glance, a sort of “this is a test question, and you’re about to fail it” kind of look, and I had to hastily explain that of course I loved to read books, I used to read books, but that I just didn’t, in fact, read books at that stage of my life. But even as I listened to my own fumbling explanation, I wondered – what had happened to that little girl who read everything in sight? And how could I call my grown-up self a book lover if I was not in the actual habit of reading books?
Last week, I returned to my home state for a visit and I agreed, for the first time in nearly two decades, to attend a church service with my parents. They didn’t try or need to strong-arm me into it. I wanted to go, not for the Godliness, as I’m not at all religious, but for the ritual and the formality and, for want of a better word, the inspiration. The service was nice, although I was disappointed that over the past twenty years they had changed some key elements. Different order of affairs, different songs. The sermon, however, was about the meaning and purpose of prayer and I found it to be quite thought-provoking. Prayer is not something I ever think about. I don’t pray, except when the airplane is taking off, and even that is more akin to a fervent hope than to a bona fide prayer. The minister acknowledged that many people don’t pray or don’t think they know how to pray the “right way”. And many people don’t believe in the power of prayer and therefore don’t see any reason to pray. And since I fit the bill for all of those categories of ‘many people’, I listened up. What is the point of prayer, if you don’t believe that there is actually some greater being out there listening and granting your wishes? The minister’s perspective was that prayer is not intended to be a tit-for-tat. It is not an ask-and-you-shall-receive. Rather, her belief is that prayer is a habitual pause in your day to reflect on what is important to you spiritually and emotionally. To consider what you are grateful for and what you hope for and what you mourn. To contemplate the greater world beyond your own immediacies. To reflect upon all that is beyond our control or understanding. Her point was not that any one prayer session will bring any specific benefit, but that the ongoing ritual of regular prayer is an exercise in building habits of reflection, calm, love and compassion.
What is the point of this post? I’m not sure I have a point, other than to give some brief consideration as to how life is a collection of our habits. Some we wear intentionally, some by default or through inertia, some come easy and some don’t. It is worth taking the time, every once in a while, to consider whether our actual habits reflect the lives we want to lead.
Notes: For those interested, you can watch the actual sermon (see Sept. 13, 2015, “A Preaching on Prayer”, Rev. Walke). As a side note, this sermon was delivered by a liberal minister in a highly progressive Congregational church in the middle of Oklahoma. Yes, progressive values and progressive people can be found in churches, in flyover country, in red states and even in the Bible Belt!