Habits and Disciplines
It is striking how easily habits are formed, both good and bad ones alike. As Kate Douglas Wiggin wrote in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, “The soul grows into lovely habits as easily as into ugly ones.” They seem sometimes to develop of their own accord, without our immediately recognizing them. Then a day comes along on which we take notice, when we realize, perhaps to our surprise, that this is the way I do this or say that: this is how well or how poorly I am eating, how much or how little I exercise, how I respond to a particular type of situation or person, or the way I do or don’t pray. And we may wonder, “When did this start?” or “How did that happen?”
When we talk about our habits, we sometimes refer to “falling” into them, the way one might fall into step or fall into bad company. “When I got too busy, I fell into the habit of…” or “after such-and-such happened, I fell into the habit of…” Some good habits are the result of hard work over time. In your prayer, you may have made a habit every morning of asking for God’s help, or every evening giving thanks. But many of the habits that form our day-to-day routines sneak up on us. As inadvertent as they may be, they nonetheless provide a lens through which we see the world. They can inform how we encounter others and experience life itself, and sometimes it can be no small challenge to change them. In the words of the 18th Century writer Samuel Johnson, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
Distinguishing between habits and disciplines is a helpful practice for me. Many habits are simply the product of convenience, ways of doing and being into which we just grow without much, if any, forethought. Disciplines, on the other hand, carry with them an element of intention or purpose. They often require thoughtful or strategic planning. They not only result in an amendment of life (we hope), they may require one in the first place – an altered schedule, a new practice, a changed approach – practices not always easy and that take some getting used to.
This is certainly so with spiritual disciplines, wellness disciplines, and those disciplines that inform and strengthen our relationships to God and one another. They require attention, practice, and humility. They involve both a letting go and a taking hold. And they often benefit from companionship, from the mutual support and encouragement of another. As Christians, it is our disciplines that make us disciples: our disciplines of devotion, compassion, selflessness, gratitude, and love.
In this bicentennial year of our common life as the Diocese of Ohio, many of us are undertaking “200s” – new or renewed practices that prepare us for the next century of ministry that God is imagining for us as the body of Christ. As I read and hear about the 200s that congregations and individuals are committing to, I am coming to see them as calisthenics for faithful living, disciplines that strengthen us spiritually and make us more fit for the vocation to be Christian. Whether they involve prayer or giving, outreach or invitation, advocacy or pastoral companionship, they often appear to replace unrecognized habitual behaviors with novel and adventurous actions. How inspiring!
At the Winter Convocation, I explained that, following the practice of Bishop Burroughs who fifty years ago planted daffodils all around Cedar Hills, I will plant $200 worth of perennials at Bellwether Farm this year. With each bulb I plant, I will say a prayer given me by someone in our diocese. To that end, I invite you to email me a prayer request to firstname.lastname@example.org (one per person, please, so as to include as many people in this as possible). Your prayer can be a petition, a thanksgiving, or an intercession for a person, a situation, or any concern or delight you may have. For each I will say the prayer and bury it in the ground on a slip of paper with the bulb. Yours will be a gift to my prayer practice and tie our prayer lives together. As well, it will interrupt the habit of hurrying through my intercessory prayer, and replace it with a discipline of patience and thoughtfulness that my piety could well use.
As we move together through the season of Lent, I encourage you to consider taking on a bicentennial practice that replaces a habit with a discipline. What 200 might inspire, initiate, or deepen your disciplines, and your congregation’s, in ways that exchange old habits with new and more intentional ways of fulfilling our baptismal covenant? And what might you take on that invites others to deepen their disciplines with you, as companions on the way?