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The Blessing Of Routine

Jake Meador, who is an Evangelical, writes that sometimes he wishes he was a Catholic [1]. He acknowledges that he can’t be either Catholic or Orthodox because he doesn’t agree with either of the ancient Christian churches on theology. But there are times when he envies what those churches offer their believers. Excerpt:

What I find so attractive, therefore, about Catholicism is the fact that many–though certainly not all–of the practices within the church are grounded in something beyond fad and the opinion of a single pastor or leader. Put another way, I think a huge part of me would actually like it if my pastor said, “For the next 40 days, you’re fasting.” I wouldn’t like it if he was just making a power-play, trying to bind my conscience and create a new means through which to shame me. But if he could say, “You are fasting for the next 40 days because it is a practice that Christians have done in different ways for centuries and it has proven a helpful tool for spiritual formation,” then I would love to be told to do something like that. And that seems a much easier thing for a Catholic or Orthodox believer to say than a Protestant.

I say all that because this is why I really like and appreciate Lent. If someone just tells me, “You need to die with Christ,” I’ll look at them and say, “OK. It’s in the Bible, so you’re right. But I don’t know how to do that.” But with Lent, I have something of an answer–Lent teaches Christians how to die. And so for me, I find myself at one of my jobs going through my feed reader wanting to post things here and I can’t do it because of the “fast” I’m taking during Lent. Something that seems very natural and instinctive and that allows me to kinda prop myself up as a blogger–that’s out for this season. Instead, I have to make myself read the story simply because it interests me. That other potential motive for reading–seeing the story as a means for exalting myself–is out of bounds for this season.

It’s a trivial thing, to be sure. There will be far harder lessons God must teach me on my way to dying to myself so that I can be resurrected with Christ. But it’s a little lesson that I’m able to recognize and talk about in concrete language. And for that I’m grateful.

UPDATE: I asked one Catholic convert from evangelicalism about her experience moving to Catholicism and specifically if a more systematized approach to spiritual formation was helpful to her. Her response [2]: “Short answer: yes, Catholicism offered great solace to me because I was very weary from trying to free-form it all the time. As a weary mother, the written prayers provided a beautiful way for me to speak with God without having to come up with everything myself–I was never very good at spontaneous prayer. Catholicism provided a tangible framework and within that framework there is FRESHNESS and NEWNESS b/c it’s a matter of love making each day new. For me, Catholicism is a very easy yoke to bear b/c I find great graces poured out on me. Thank you for the question!”

Interestingly enough, I had exactly this thought earlier this evening, at our Orthodox vespers service. In the past two days, I’ve felt unusually week and sleepy, in a way that I haven’t done since I recovered last October from mononucleosis. The Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mono, never leaves your body, so it’s possible to relapse. At vespers tonight, I was feeling so worn out that I couldn’t even stand during the prayers, and when I sat down and tried to pray, I couldn’t form clear thoughts. But I didn’t have to. When I disengaged my mind, the psalms and the formal prayers the choir sung articulated my thoughts for me. And when I felt the need to retreat into my own silent prayer, I had my prayer rope, and simply prayed, the Jesus Prayer [3]: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” As I did this, I brought to mind people I love and am concerned for, and placed them, mentally, within the prayer for mercy — a prayer that likely emerged from the practices of the Desert Fathers of the fifth century.

It is such a blessing to be able to do this. To just let go, and trust that the prayers worked out by Christians in community ages and ages ago will carry you through. That you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. I do pray “free-form,” but there are times when I can’t find the words, or can’t discipline my thoughts. What a gift to realize that I don’t have to be original. There really is freedom in that. At least I have found it there. This is also true of the liturgy. To be free from the burden of spontaneity and originality.

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39 Comments To "The Blessing Of Routine"

#1 Comment By Edward Hamilton On February 23, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

For a portion of last semester, I somehow convinced my wife to attend a group exercise class with me at the rec center. We actually rotated through a few things, including aerobic dance, water aerobics, and aerobic weight lifting, settling on the last option.

It’s not my style of exercise. I don’t like to do anything with music blaring at me, and even if I did want music blaring at me, I’d select a very different kind of music. The exercises weren’t directed toward the kind of training (high-intensity cardio) that interests me. I felt out of place surrounded by mostly younger women — as well as a few older grandmother types with surprising tenacity. The weights were tiny enough that any of my colleagues who saw me using them through the windows would have laughed at me, yet just heavy enough to make the hour drag by slowly.

But we kept it up for about three months, once a week, diligently. It was nothing like what would have been right for me, but it was a lowest common denominator experience that managed to be not completely wrong. And I think that was true for everyone present. It was a barely acceptable compromise, but it was acceptable. And it put all of us into the same room, doing the same thing, for weeks on end — instead of quitting.

How long do I usually last when I try to invent my own exercise routine? Not three months, unless I have an extended period off from work to devote myself to it. And nothing I’d ever develop for myself would be able to include my wife (or any of the other ladies in my group class) for even a week.

That’s the peculiar argument that Catholicism makes toward me. Every time I look at it, I think “Hah, terrible music, I’ll keep my own hymnal, thank you.” Or I think, “Fasting since Vatican 2, what’s even left? ‘Giving up something’ during Lent, and a few Fridays?” Or I think “Geez, why would I want to worship surrounded by a bunch of low-commitment nominal Catholics who don’t even agree with what their church teaches?” Those are all the same argument I’d make against the exercise class, in spiritual form.

But every time I try to devise my own fasting regimen that’s more vigorous than the Catholic one, it falls apart due to inattentiveness (in fact, just yesterday!) The hymns I like? They’re being replaced at 9 out of 10 evangelical churches by stuff that’s no better than the Catholic music, and little to no vetting for theology. And as much as I roll my eyes over cafeteria Catholics, and feel smug over the superior level of esprit de corps in the evangelical world, I have to admit that there’s something winsome about the way that certain hyper-liberal Catholic dissenters (cf Andrew Sullivan) still feel some kind of unshakable gravity back toward a Church from which they can never quite escape.

Catholicism, at least in the US, is a lowest-common-denominator faith community, just like a group exercise class. The things it demands of its parishioners are usually nothing like the things I think a proper church in the apostolic model ought to demand, theologically speaking. But there’s a certain doggedness and inertia to Catholicism that evangelicalism just can’t match. It sweeps up people from all walks of life, inducts them into a few basic practices that create pattern and routine, and gets them to invest in that routine in a way that doesn’t necessitate constant active decisions involving re-commitment.

Once you board the train, it’s easier to stay on than it is to get off. When you drive along a highway full of exits, it’s easy to scoff at the inflexibility of trains…. until your highways gets routed into a metropolis and hits rush hour traffic. Christendom is hitting the sociological and political equivalent rush hour traffic, due to an array of unprecedented cultural shifts. Inertia is the bluntest and most inelegant of tools to deploy against roadblocks, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. The wails you hear from certain ideological quarters about how difficult it is to “reform” Catholicism are an eloquent testament to that.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 23, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

There are many Protestant pastors who announce “We are all going to fast for the next 40 days.” It is kind of free form, but it never grabbed me, because unless an entire community is doing it together, it doesn’t really work. When you start exempting all those who have health conditions, or strenuous jobs, when you look at the kind of work schedules most of us have… Lent was designed for agricultural communities that were in a relatively lax season, and the market communities that served those agricultural communities, and for warrior castes who generally took winter off unless the blood was REALLY up.

But I think most of us fall into some sort of pattern, certain music, certain patterns of prayer, certain favorite Bible passages, even if it begins free form.

I’ve been to RC services occasionally, generally with an elderly Hispanic friend who needed a ride. They are inspiring, and the rituals are easy to work into, whatever I think of the canon law and the doctrine and the dogma.

#3 Comment By JasonG On February 23, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

Well for starters, if you need Protestant prayer helps and devotions, here is this great little volume of Puritan Prayers: [4]

As a Reformed Protestant, I would not give up the great doctrine of Assurance, what one of the Pope Clements called the great Protestant heresy, for all the Lents.

Then there is this, re: protestants and Lent: [5]

#4 Comment By James C. On February 23, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

I totally agree. One of my favorite things is to go to the local Trappist abbey and chant Vespers or Compline with them. Meditating and chanting the psalms on a routine, day after day, have a way of quieting the soul so that you can hear God speaking to you. What’s more, these practices never fail to develop and strengthen both my verbal and nonverbal lines of communication with God. Liturgical prayer helps me to pray better in my own words, or with no words at all. For me, it’s foundational for my spiritual life.

There’s no either/or here, but rather both/and.

#5 Comment By surly On February 23, 2013 @ 11:25 pm

I grew up RC, and only recently joined the Episcopal church, so maybe my experience in the Episcopal church is an outlier, but they are more observant of the old liturgical year than the RC parish I came from. Our parish observes all kinds of traditional feasts that the Catholics have eliminated for whatever reason.

Lent is a huge deal with us, as is Holy Week and the Resurrection. It is the foundation of Christianity. Our priest makes sure that Pascha is a way bigger deal than Christmas.

#6 Comment By MWorrell On February 24, 2013 @ 12:06 am

Re: If someone just tells me, “You need to die with Christ,” I’ll look at them and say, “OK. It’s in the Bible, so you’re right. But I don’t know how to do that.”

What?! Am I to believe this person just naturally obeys God, to the death? Do what God commands as opposed to what you desire to do, just like Christ did. That’s how. Lent is a bit of a light exercise by comparison, I would think.

#7 Comment By amk On February 24, 2013 @ 12:06 am

Going to Mass is one thing but prayer outside of Mass is another, and it is a struggle. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a whole section devoted to prayer – you first have to recognize that prayer is a spiritual battle. First, you must fight the evil one who loves it when you don’t pray and then fight your own distractions and the well, the unnaturalness, it sometimes feels to pray.

Rod, you have mentioned saying “The Jesus Prayer” at certain times, not only when you are distracted at Mass, but when you are walking around Paris, and I think at the Philadelphia arboretum (when your sister was first diagnosed with cancer) and how it helped you.

I find the same thing with the Rosary. My paternal grandmother (R.I.P.) said the rosary her entire life. Once when I went to visit her (she lived in a small farming town about an hour outside of Houston), she mentioned getting up at 5:30 am. I was in college and couldn’t conceive of getting up so early so I asked her why. She looked at me like I was nuts and said a group of parishioners met at the Catholic Church(she could walk there) and said the rosary before 6:30am Mass. There was no discussion about it; it was pure habit.

Another question I have for you Rod is that every Roman Catholic Funeral I’ve been to(and I’ve been to many) the person has been buried with their rosary. My aunt (R.I.P) was buried in January and she was buried with a rosary that matched her outfit (this is the South, you know). I’m not sure the origin of this practice, but plan to look it up. In the ROCOR Church, are members buried with the Jesus Chain?

I seriously ask these questions b/c I am curious. I’m not looking to convert, and I know you aren’t either:-)…

Also, there are several apps on iTunes you can download that you can say the Rosary along with if you don’t have it committed to memory. I’m really not sure how this post got turned into a plug for saying the rosary so I’ll stop now…

[Note from Rod: The Rosary is wonderful, AMK, and I used to say it all the time when I was a Catholic. I say it sometimes even today, as an Orthodox. Never having been to an Orthodox funeral, I don’t know if Orthodox Christians are by custom buried with their prayer ropes (in Russian, “chotki,” and in Greek, “komboschini”), but I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be. — RD]

#8 Comment By Laughing Boy On February 24, 2013 @ 1:36 am

A friend and I recently affiliated with the Episcopal Church (TEC), largely along the reasons stated above.

As a former RC, my friend enjoyed the prevalence of tradition of worship and seasonal ritual, like Lent, our local parish provides.

As person of strongly Protestant background and instinct, in contrast, I nvertheless came to appreciate that such set and time-honored traditions actually gave me an opportunity to expand and further personalize my own spirituality. I had recourse to “Catholic” practices like Christian Meditation and even Rosary devotion that typically Protestant denominations usually foreclose. I didn’t have to stay “over-committed” to my theological presuppostions…but could explore, and perhaps be changed, without necessary denominational “disruption”.

In TEC, Lent is openly proclaimed — but without any feeling of compulsion; it is just that if you are not participating, you are missing out in the general spirit of things.

As a Protestant of definite inclination, the invitation to commune with other Believers is more compelling than ecclesial diktat or the “sudden” enthusiasm of a pastor. And the fact that such a tradition exists from antiquity offers a chance to commune not just with the fellow living Believers, but those “passed on” — and with unknown and unknowable future ones, enacting this observance under the same aegis (if you will). A small taste, or anticipation, of Eternity…

So, for me, in TEC setting, there is no essential conflict between spontaneous “individualism” and ritualistic observances, as a strong Protestant.

#9 Comment By k On February 24, 2013 @ 3:44 am

Many people find that routine and structure suffocating or faith-destroying, which is why these other sects came into being in the first place. The fact is that many people are not content in the tradition into which they were born, or find this discontent or difficulty at some point in adult life, and we can definitely be thankful to live in places and time that we have freedom to explore and choose other options that work best for us.

At one point I was so tortured in confusion and difficulty within Christianity that I was considering Islam. The 5 daily prayers at that point seemed like they would be no burden but an actual rest and relief from drifting homelessness among the thousand different Christianities that people have made.

#10 Comment By Niall On February 24, 2013 @ 4:32 am

I’m a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism and one of the things I love about liturgical worship is that it’s liberating just in the way that Rod describes. When I visit my parents, and attend their Evangelical church, I find it very hard to relax and focus because you never know what’s going to happen next or whether you might be asked to do something or say something. If I’m feeling low or confused or doubtful, there’s nothing there to stiffen the sinews. The shallow and upbeat worship seems to have very little to help me, except to give me a temporary emotional boost (which is not the same as spiritual nourishment).

Extemporary prayer often seems to me to lapse into sentimentalism or politics, or become a vehicle for the personal preoccupations of the person praying (I have been guilty of this myself when praying them). The prayers of the church just *are*, regardless of what I think of them. They confront me with hard truths and uncomfortable wisdom.

In ancient liturgies, the words become old friends, cherished memories, knowledgeable guides through the labyrinth of darkened intellect and weak faith. They wear little grooves in your soul and come unbidden to mind at exactly the right time. Liturgy is profoundly human as it consecrates routine and the natural rhythms of life. You develop and cultivate humility through the repetition of humble words and gestures.

#11 Comment By Michael Reilly On February 24, 2013 @ 4:37 am

Not to be all Emergent about it, but why not pick and choose among the many, many Christian practices that history offers us and apply the ones that are meaningful for you? In other words, if you want to try fasting, fast. If you want to say the rosary, say the rosary. If you want to go the the blessing of the fleet, or take your dog to a church on the feast of St. Francis, or sit in Eucharistic adoration…just do it. You don’t have to buy into the whole theological package to find meaning and connection in ancient practices. Think of it as a sort of free-form Christianity.

I’ve visited many churches where I live: Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregational, Baptist, Unitarian. I like them all. I find much to think about in each tradition. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

#12 Comment By Sam M On February 24, 2013 @ 6:56 am

It’s was obviously not religious in nature, but the idea of routine was central to the entire Urban Hermit experience. Choice is good. Choice is wonderful. But at some stage, it’s useful to make a broader, strategic decision that self-limits. I guess the question is whether that’s possible: Does feeling free to make the strategic decision, rather than having it dictated, make it impossible to abdicate choice? At the very least, I think it makes it more difficult.

#13 Comment By IsaacH On February 24, 2013 @ 7:09 am

My wife and I are both practicing Latter-day Saints, and we have been having this exact discussion over the past few weeks. Since I began reading your blog, Rod, I’ve come to realize how powerful ritual can be, and to wish that we had more of it in our own church.

The main reason I’ve desired it, though, is a little different from what you posted here. I actually dislike the institutionalized spirituality that too much ritual can bring — the feeling that you doesn’t need to worry too much about offering yourself to God, because the ritual will do it for you. (I realize that’s an oversimplification, but it’s often the impression I get from many Catholic friends I have.) I enjoy, in my religion, the call to each individual to make time for spiritual things in one’s home each day, the reading of the scriptures, the saying of prayers (both individually and as a family). In way, lacking ritual forces me to really ask myself: “Am I becoming like Christ? Am I sufficiently humble? Am I following the teachings of my Savior, day to day?” I worry that with too much ritual, those questions begin to fade and are placed with questions like, “Am I going to church each week? Have I done my spiritual ritual for the day / week?” I think those are the reasons the LDS church lacks much of the ritual found in orthodox churches (well, that and the fact that the church’s founders came from a protestant Christian tradition).

That being said, the thing I’ve come to realize we’re missing — that you seem to have in your beautiful little Orthodox community — is a sense of community participating in spirituality together. In the LDS faith, spirituality is a very individualized thing, at least at the family level. We teach the importance of truly living a Christlike life, and keeping the influence of Christ in our homes. And we do gather for church each Sunday, partake of communion (we call it “the sacrament”), have Sunday school, etc. But we don’t have a series of spiritual festivals and feasts that we can do together, as a congregation doing our best to follow Christ.

I hear about your congregation coming together for Lent, or for any of the other liturgies, and I wish my church had something like that. Something where we could all come together, not just for our regular services, but for another spiritual reason we do on an annual basis, and partake in congregational spirituality. It would bind us together more, I think, to take more of these spiritual journeys together.

Ritual is a beautiful power, especially its effect on a group of people, and its ability to bind that group of people together. My family has a series of religious Christmas traditions (i.e., rituals) that bind us together. And while I love my church, I feel we (and many Protestant churches as well) would have stronger congregations, knit together more strongly in the unity of Christ, if we had an annual calendar of rituals we could participate in together.

#14 Comment By PDGM On February 24, 2013 @ 8:23 am

There might even be deeper theological reasons behind feeling this pull toward communal belief, worship, and discipline. As Thomas Hopko (an Orthodox theologian) once said in the journal Parabola, IIRC, “the individual is an invention of a European university” (that’s a paraphrase, not a word-for-word, BTW).

In other words, even naturally we exist embedded in community; and theologically, we are saved as members of the body of Christ, which is the church and not as “this specific individual” who’s worked out an individual arrangement with God.

This adds necessary perspective to the Protestant claims and worries about salvation, which in my experience are highly individualized and hence (I would argue; perhaps Hopko would too) idiosyncratic with respect to the fulness of Christian belief.

FWIW, this same overemphasis upon individual salvation seems prevalent in conservative Catholicism of the post-Tridentine sort, at least in my limited experience.

So maybe, just maybe, those lukewarm pew-warmers are onto some profound truth, which in part compensates for their lack of zeal!

#15 Comment By Douglas C. On February 24, 2013 @ 8:32 am

The most powerful and beautiful aspect of observing the cycle of the liturgical year with its feasts and fasts is that when doing so, one participates in a greater reality. One comes alongside all those who have kept the same cycle throughout the centuries, and touches the commemorated events themselves.

I was just editing an article by the Canadian Orthodox priest Fr. John Hainsworth about Holy Week that emphasizes the way in which liturgical ritual takes us outside of our normal conception of time, in to contact with a timeless reality. It’s a long piece, but a fruitful read. After describing the Pascha experience at a Russian prison camp in the 20s, he writes:

“They were not celebrating an historical event, they were participating in a current reality. What is more, Christ had risen in and through these prisoners. Broken and starving as they were, they were filled with a joy that completely transcended their earthly condition, a joy that surely would seem irrational, even insane, to the unbeliever. Somehow, this Pascha in Solovki reached through time and place and locked arms with every Pascha before and after. These prisoners joined the whole Church at the tomb on the dawn of that first day.

“While the circumstances of this Pascha were extraordinary, this Paschal experience itself is not. This is indeed the way Orthodox Christians around the world experience Holy Week and Pascha. We know that the events described in the Bible that form the foundation of our faith all happened many centuries ago. Still, everything is sung and spoken as ‘today’: “Today, Judas betrays the Master,” “Today, He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross,” “Today is the resurrection.” The churches every Pascha resound with “Christ is risen,” not “Christ was risen.” Indeed, the hymnography of the Church is relentlessly in the present tense. Anyone taking the Church at its own word must conclude that we actually think these events are happening to us, as if we are part of the story which is only now unfolding.”

[6]

#16 Comment By Douglas C. On February 24, 2013 @ 8:43 am

OK, can’t resist a second quote from the Hainsworth essay:

“No one can really understand what happens in Holy Week or in any Orthodox liturgy without some grasp of a very important Greek word: anamnesis. The only English equivalent for this word is “remembrance.” This is unfortunate, because “remembrance” has almost none of the meaning in English that it has in ancient Greek. Most people understand the word in its narrowest sense, the present recollection of a past event. The way the word is used in the Bible encompasses much more than the mere mental activity of remembering. … Rather, remembrance prescribed in Scripture can best be understood as the present participation in an event which arcs outside the category of time. …

“The function of Holy Week and Pascha in the life of the Orthodox Church is to help us remember what God has done through His Christ, and in doing so to make that God present to us. More accurately, we become present to Him, since He is always saving us on the Cross, He is always raised from the dead, He is always being God to us.”

#17 Comment By sketchesbyboze On February 24, 2013 @ 8:51 am

“yes, Catholicism offered great solace to me because I was very weary from trying to free-form it all the time. As a weary mother, the written prayers provided a beautiful way for me to speak with God without having to come up with everything myself–I was never very good at spontaneous prayer.”

Exactly! This is one of the major reasons why I became Catholic.

#18 Comment By David J. White On February 24, 2013 @ 9:45 am

Not to be all Emergent about it, but why not pick and choose among the many, many Christian practices that history offers us and apply the ones that are meaningful for you? In other words, if you want to try fasting, fast. If you want to say the rosary, say the rosary. If you want to go the the blessing of the fleet, or take your dog to a church on the feast of St. Francis, or sit in Eucharistic adoration…just do it. You don’t have to buy into the whole theological package to find meaning and connection in ancient practices. Think of it as a sort of free-form Christianity.

Michael, I think you’re missing Rod’s point (and Edward Hamilton’s, above) that the effectiveness of these practices comes to a great extent from the fact that everyone in the parish/community/Church is doing them together. Sure, you can try praying the Rosary every day on your own, and see how long you can keep it up before distractions, exhaustion, tedium, etc. derail you. Or, like amk’s grandmother, you can join a group that prays the Rosary at the same time every day.

When I was growing up, we always prayed the Rosary as a family in May (the month of Mary) and October (the month of the Holy Rosary). I would never have done that on my own (and haven’t since). I miss that, and should look for a way to recreate it.

To use a non-religious example, this is why students often get more studying done when they form regular study groups rather than trying to study on their own all the time. The group takes on a dynamic of its own, doing something with others gives a sense of solidarity, and, at a minimum, doing something in the presence of other people keeps you honest.

#19 Comment By contrarian On February 24, 2013 @ 9:52 am

Edward Hamilton,
I really like your comments here, and I agree entirely. Even the minimal disciplinary and liturgical requirements of VII worship and practice (and soaked as they are in idiotic music), at least they offer real and clear rules and real and clear prayers (and as bad as the former translations of the prayers were, at least they didn’t start with ‘Lord, we just wanna…’).

Self-imposed discipline is difficult to maintain, as are self-styled prayers. My own free-form prayers are silly and trite (when I try to do such a thing…which is rarely). I just can’t do it.

Generally speaking, I just don’t have the piety gene. If I was anything other than Catholic, I’d have long abandoned any church attendance or practice, for the same reason that my treadmill sits in the basement collecting dust. I think that Christianity is true, and I also think that being in good shape is important and exercise is crucial. But without discipline coming from somewhere other than me, well…

I sometimes wonder if this is a man thing. I sometimes wish I could go to Marine boot camp, just so I could get my ass kicked for a few weeks. If I am forced to be disciplined because of a clear structure, I rock it out, on all fronts.
Anything self-directed…well, not so much.
My wife doesn’t seem to have this problem as much as I do.

I think, though, that this is one of the reasons I so lament the changes of VII. Yes, there is still discipline. But not much.

#20 Comment By surly On February 24, 2013 @ 10:17 am

Reading all of the comments that were posted since last night, I suddenly thought of my grandmother. She had been educated by nuns, and her faith informed almost everything she did. I wasn’t aware of it as a kid, except as a feeling that I had at my grandparents’ house. It felt like a refuge. Routine things there had a beauty that I didn’t see at my home or at friend’s houses.

It was ritual, and that sense that even the most humble tasks were acts of worship. Daily life had a rhythm, as did the week, as did the year. Sunday had its own ritual. In those days you had to fast from the night before, so we got up, got dressed up and went to mass. When we got home, my grandmother always fixed a big breakfast, and there was always something delicious. Sunday break-fast was elevated. We ate in the dining room, she served the food on nice china, and she had always gone to extra trouble with the food—there was usually some kind of pastry, and some delicious fruit like berries or melons.

#21 Comment By ginger On February 24, 2013 @ 11:44 am

This is precisely why, even back in my much more “traditional” days, I could never get bent out of shape by the presence of all those “pew-sitters” in Church—you know, the so-called CINOs whose presence tends to offend the true believers.

I feel that I am giving a great gift to my children simply by going to mass each week—it is a ritual that connects us to our ancestors (most of them likely uneducated, ignorant pew-sitters themselves, going to church more out of habit, social expectation, and superstition than anything else). The kids might not like it now (sometimes I’m not crazy about it, either, to be completely honest–hearing our priest drone on about how persecuted we Catholics are nowadays makes me want to gag, and the political overtones are a real turn-off), and they might even drift away from it as adults, but they will always be able to walk into a Catholic Church, at any point in their lives, and experience familiarity. You just never know when you might need that kind of life-line. Some of their unchurched teen friends have actually asked to come to church with us on and off; I have to think it’s partly because on some level, they long for a kind of religious tradition themselves–even if they don’t happen to believe parts of what the church teaches.

In an age when many other traditions have fallen by the wayside, I feel the Catholic Church continues to offer even the busiest and most overwhelmed families a chance to pass on ancient traditions to their children.

#22 Comment By JonF On February 24, 2013 @ 11:58 am

Re: I actually dislike the institutionalized spirituality that too much ritual can bring — the feeling that you doesn’t need to worry too much about offering yourself to God, because the ritual will do it for you.

There are people like that in any kind of church: you don’t need to internalize and personalize God because Preacher Jim, or Fr Thomas, or Rabbi Baruch, is doing it for you. Ritual is not alone in allowing that sort of thing. There are always people who go to church and pay only superficial heed to it. They are there to see and be seen, show off new clothes, gossip with their friends during coffee hour, and feel good about themselves for being a churchgoer the rest of the week.

#23 Comment By Ann On February 24, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

I never understand that criticism from Protestants, especially evangelicals, that Catholics are just making stuff up. We’re the opposite of making stuff up, we pore over this stuff for centuries first. But they’ll listen to some freelance Bible interpreter down the street!

#24 Comment By Ann On February 24, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

I just wanted to qualify my previous comment…I didn’t mean to sound dismissive of other Christian groups. I was really thinking of an acquaintance who is always giving me criticism about this and that about Catholicism, yet she hangs on the every last word of her nondenominational pastor at her mega-church.

#25 Comment By elrond On February 24, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

I haven’t had time to read the comments, so this may have been said already. But there are Evangelical churches that do practice Lent and other traditions, and who recommend the Book of Common Prayer, etc. I belong to a Vineyard congregation that does this. We are observing Lent right now as a church, but we avoid doing it legalistically (i.e. making people who choose not to do this feel like they are condemned). It’s considered a healthy spiritual exercise.

#26 Comment By RB On February 24, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

I’m LDS too, and also feel a holy envy for the cycles of fasting and feasting, and for the prayers. I love what N. T. Wright said about how Easter is our high holy day and we should make it the greatest celebration of the year–and Lent is perfect for whetting the appetite for that great feast. I have been pondering on that the last couple of years and it’s deepened my understanding of fasting.

I’m a tired mom too, and just barely squeaked by through my last spiritual dry spell with the aid of some beautiful Catholic prayers. At my best, I could devise all sorts of very holy and strenuous personal observances–honest and focused fasting, deep scripture study, frequent acts of service.

But I am not at my best. At least, hardly ever. I need a church that’s a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

Ritual is a wonderful staff to lean on while limping through life, even if from time to time people use it as a stick to be others with. Hypocrisy and unkindness will always find a stick, as JonF said.

#27 Comment By Johan On February 24, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

The post, and some comments, reminds me that traditional prayer forms can be so much better and uplifting than spontaneous versions. Speaking of that: does anyone in the room know the origin of the unfortunate evangelical church prayer style (i.e. my own circles) that goes something like “Father we just wanna thank you Father, and Father we just pray today that our prayers, Father, will just be heard and, Father, if it be your will Father, that you just answer our prayers…” As a diversion I sometimes count the number of instances of “Father” (or “God”) and “just”. These words, and obviously the divine name, have their place, but where did the habit come from of packing as many of them as possible into one prayer? I’ll bet the Catholic and Anglican prayer forms don’t do this.

#28 Comment By AnotherBeliever On February 24, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

It is a blessing to have the routine of ritual and a Church calendar year. I was raised Catholic, and still consider that to be a major impact on my worldview and sensibilities. However, I came to understand the Protestant arguments against certain Roman Catholic doctrines, and found that I could not stand up and be confirmed in them when the time came around. So I went Evangelical for a number of years. Then came Iraq. It so happened that the nearest Protestant service on my camp was led by an Episcopalian priest, and he basically offered an Episcopalian service. I found it very familiar and to be a great spiritual comfort when circumstances were not always conducive to the usual emotions of an Evangelical service (Exhibit A, incoming ground-shaking mortar rounds during said service.)

My second tour in Iraq was a nearly fatal spiritual blow, to the point where I’m still dealing with it three years on. I’ve not gone to church regularly lately, but I went to an Episcopalian one this morning. Lent and the renewal of Easter calls us wanderers back home. Not only that, but it is also a season more in tune with spiritual darkness than any other in Christianity. We have a great store of wisdom to be found in darkness, from the Psalms we inherited from Judaism to St John of the Cross. But to put it mildly, it’s not ascendant in our culture. But Lent is a time when even us mandatory-sunny Americans have permission step off the merry-go-round for a while, to reflect and to let ourselves be stripped of everything but Christ’s death and the hope we have in his triumph over death for all time. In that regard, the liturgical calendar may be as effective a call as any Evangelical altar call, and a deeper one, to those who have ears to hear it. Grant us those ears.

#29 Comment By RB On February 24, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

One of the best ideas I’ve gotten about reading the bible I got from Joe Carter over at First Things.

The method is simple:

Pick a book in the Bible.
Read.
Repeat 19 times.

The first and second read I read the text with dutiful care, as I was taught. The next few laps had my mind getting jerky and irritable–“we’ve done this already!”– and lapsing into distraction–is my bread done rising? is it too early for chocolate?

But after awhile my inner toddlerdom gave up and took a nap and I was able to just be present in the text. Meditating on the words without having to be all slow and self-concious about it, where I get so impressed with myself for meditating that I forget what I’m meditating about.

It was like lectio divina via repeated headdesking. It was terrific.

I love that about repetition and ritual–it not only forgives me for being human, but anticipates my humanness in all its distractability. And I am usually a fairly lazy soul who hates being told what to do, so this freedom from myself that ritual brings is many orders of awesome.

#30 Comment By AnotherBeliever On February 24, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

K, I hear you about Islam. That faith has many great strengths. There are plenty of factions within Islam, and one quite serious schism, but for all that it still seems much more unitary. In addition, not only do they have what you might call a liturgical year, they still have an intact liturgical day, with regular hours of prayer we have not seen outside of monasteries in many centuries. And the Call to Prayer can really be quite spiritually haunting, once your ears have adjusted to the non-Western musical scale. From close contact with it, the faith’s attraction is no mystery to me.

And to the detractors and admirers and adherants alike of all the Abrahamic faiths, I recommend The Parable of the Rings from Nathan the Wise. It can be found for free here [7]

The portion in question starts:

“In days of yore, there dwelt in east a man
Who from a valued hand received a ring
Of endless worth: the stone of it an opal,
That shot an ever-changing tint: moreover,
It had the hidden virtue him to render
Of God and man beloved, who in this view,
And this persuasion, wore it. ..”

I first read and saw the play during my year in Vienna, where it was put on in response to the attacks of 9/11. The parable in the play made a great impression on me, I heartily recommend you all read it. And try to live out the judge’s advice concerning the One True Faith.

#31 Comment By Justin R. On February 24, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

Not to be all Emergent about it, but why not pick and choose among the many, many Christian practices that history offers us and apply the ones that are meaningful for you? In other words, if you want to try fasting, fast. If you want to say the rosary, say the rosary. If you want to go the the blessing of the fleet, or take your dog to a church on the feast of St. Francis, or sit in Eucharistic adoration…just do it. You don’t have to buy into the whole theological package to find meaning and connection in ancient practices. Think of it as a sort of free-form Christianity.

Above, David suggested that the practices themselves are difficult to maintain and less meaningful if we do them by ourselves. I think that this is true.

Michael’s proposal is an attractive to many of us, but I think that is because it is a symptom of our consumerist approach to the Christian life. As customers shopping in the vast warehouse of a 2,000-year old tradition, we pick the practices that we believe will be most meaningful for us. If we don’t find them meaningful within a suitably short timeframe, then we dispose of them and choose other ones.

This approach is attractive because it appeals to our consumer-culture desire to shape our faith to our wills.

We construe the elements of liturgy and tradition as if they are goods out there for us. I am at the center of the universe of my Christian life, and various practices are on the shelf for my acquisition. This view reinforces an egocentric attitude that places me at the center of everything. When a tradition is unable to offer something that I want, well, the customer is always right. I should shop somewhere else.

The scandal of Christianity in a consumer culture is that the Church does not give us what we want. It does not seek to fulfill us, at least, in any way that we imagine. Far from satisfying our wants, the Church challenges our wants themselves, ultimately to form and direct those desires and wants otherwise. The Catholic Church’s question is not “Can I help you find what you are looking for?” Rather, through its own order of liturgy, scripture, and disciplines, it asks “Why are you looking for that?”

The Church’s liturgy works to form us, not in accordance with our own egocentric desires, but against our egocentricism. We read difficult scriptures on appointed days, and Lent is 40 days long even though I would prefer it to be much shorter. Our formation takes a painfully long time, and the prescribed traditions sometimes demands much of us while showing little obvious return. Christ, through the Church, asks us to submit our wills to him. This is why we cannot just pick and choose whatever we bits of traditions we believe will be most fulfilling. We will, in all likelihood, pick the traditions that we want the most and need the least. The Church, in its wisdom, knows better than to indulge us in our desires to control our own destinies.

#32 Comment By Tom On February 24, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

I was an altar boy in my grade-school days, and I learned that you were best off either paying as little attention to Mass as possible, or very close attention. Even in spite of myself, I found myself fascinated and intrigued by the words and gestures of the Mass.

Serving at the 6:30 a.m. weekday Mass wasn’t my idea of a fun time when I was 12, but it was a great education for me. Daily Mass is most assuredly *not* a show, and participating frequently puts you in touch with the pulse of the faith.

Ritual can be comforting, but it is the fact that the Catholic faith is *true* that gives the Mass and all the other practices of the faith its value, and what makes it resonate with the faithful.

Re: funeral rites and traditions. A friend of mine had a 20-year-old son who died suddenly and tragically. Another friend of mine went to the son’s funeral, an Eastern rite liturgy. The night before the funeral, the young man’s family read all the Psalms over his body. My visiting friend said: I want someone to pray all the Psalms over me when I die.

#33 Comment By JonF On February 24, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

Re: The scandal of Christianity in a consumer culture is that the Church does not give us what we want.

Well, I get some of what I want from the Church– first and foremost the Eucharist (about which it certainly cannot be said that I don’t need it!). Sure, I don’t get *everything* I want (I would like better sermons) but really, I think your diagnosis is too pessimistic.

#34 Comment By surly On February 24, 2013 @ 9:33 pm

Hey Johan: you mean like this? [8]

#35 Comment By Heatherer On February 25, 2013 @ 7:34 am

Yes! Yes! Yes! This is exactly how I came away from my recent conclusion of Fredrica Mathewes-Green’s book, “Facing East.” Her focus on the book is one the orthopraxy of the Orthodox and the picture she painted was beautiful and attractive. I kept thinking that if we did not already have a church home, I would be reconsidering. But as I thought over the orthodoxy of the Orthodox, I realized that it is not something I can join in fully as there are certain points of theology held dear that I just cannot assent too. While we are not one as Christ prayed, it does seem to me that evangelical orthopraxy might “grow-up” in the coming decades as the ancient prayers, saints, and disciplines are put into practice even in churches that have not historically recognized them.

#36 Comment By Lord Karth On February 25, 2013 @ 8:52 am

Ginger writes: “I feel that I am giving a great gift to my children simply by going to mass each week—it is a ritual that connects us to our ancestors (most of them likely uneducated, ignorant pew-sitters themselves, going to church more out of habit, social expectation, and superstition than anything else). The kids might not like it now (sometimes I’m not crazy about it, either, to be completely honest–hearing our priest drone on about how persecuted we Catholics are nowadays makes me want to gag, and the political overtones are a real turn-off), and they might even drift away from it as adults, but they will always be able to walk into a Catholic Church, at any point in their lives, and experience familiarity. You just never know when you might need that kind of life-line.”

Ginger gets it. Spot on.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#37 Comment By Steph On February 25, 2013 @ 11:31 am

Not to be all Emergent about it, but why not pick and choose among the many, many Christian practices that history offers us and apply the ones that are meaningful for you? In other words, if you want to try fasting, fast. If you want to say the rosary, say the rosary. If you want to go the the blessing of the fleet, or take your dog to a church on the feast of St. Francis, or sit in Eucharistic adoration…just do it. You don’t have to buy into the whole theological package to find meaning and connection in ancient practices. Think of it as a sort of free-form Christianity.

One reason (in addition to those stated above) is that the benefits of the practice are often not immediately apparent and the practice may reveal itself as beneficial in some way other than how it initially feels, over time. Thus, structure that makes certain demands has a benefit. I’d say this is analogous to the idea that one must go to Mass on Sunday, even if one feels just as close to God walking in the field during the same period or that one should pray at certain key times of the day, even if it sometimes feels routine.

But I do agree with you that it’s also important to take advantage of the many Christian practices available to us and see what works for us. But the corollary is that one should commit to something for a time and see how it works. Practices take commitment. There’s nothing inconsistent with the more structured approach and the more free-form/varied approach.

I was reminded while reading the initial post and the comments that surveys of people who stay Catholic and who leave Catholicism apparently reveal that both groups give the litury as their number one reasons why (and from the comments I think the structure aspect is a big part of both). I think the Catholic Church often does a poor job, educationally, in getting people beyond the form and the structure to the underlying meaning, but I also do think there’s some differences in our underlying approach to religion (even if I do personally think there’s no reason why both wouldn’t be met within Catholicism).

#38 Comment By Charles On February 25, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

Catholics don’t have a corner on the rote, written prayers front… Jesus gave us a specific prayer that hits every note that a good prayer should, and many Protestant churches use it every week in worship. Or if you want some variety, there’s a whole book of the Bible that you can use for this purpose – the Psalms. Or you can use other (albeit not divinely inspired) collections of prayers, such as The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers. There’s nothing un-Protestant about praying prepared, written prayers. Indeed, the practice can force us to be more deliberate about what and how we pray.

And if it’s less about prayer than about connection to the historical church, then there are plenty of Protestant denominations that hit that note also. Some follow historic confessions of faith. Many recite historical creeds. Many participate in the sacrament of communion/eucharist/Lord’s supper weekly.

#39 Comment By JonF On February 26, 2013 @ 5:04 am

Heatherer,

If you are ever in the Baltimore area you should visit Holy Cross (Fr Green’s church). The services are very beautifully done indeed. Though a little intimidating: I’ve gone down there once in a while for vespers and I always feel, even after 17 years of Orthodoxy, as if I am not quite doing it right.