Sundays were full of ritual in our house. We went to church every week to sing in the choir, to serve at the altar, to teach or learn in Sunday School, and to meet up with familiar folk. There were the formal rituals of the liturgy and the informal rituals of getting everyone up and dressed and in the car. After church, we had rituals of brunching on bagels and sleeping in front of the Bears’ game. These habits gave our Sundays a certain shape and form that became very comfortable to me. I didn’t think very hard about them after a while. They seemed fairly easy and routine, a balance of early busy-ness and later laziness. We’d dress up and then let down. It was what we did, week after week. Gradually, this practice began to unravel as the kids grew up, moved out, and developed their own habits. When they came back into my home, this routine was questioned. Do I have to get up and dress up and go to church? I’m used to sleeping in on Sundays now. Why do you do this routine anyway? Is it obligation? Okay, you committed to being in the choir. You’re obligated, I’m not. Do you think I’m obligated to you because you’re my mother? It became obvious that it was time to think critically about our family habits and evaluate them. I admit that I was not above manipulation. I liked to have my kids with me in church. I liked to hear them sing. I liked being seen by others as a mother with devoted children. I wanted to have time together as a family because I worried about how ‘dysfunctional’ we were becoming. I thought I could get what I wanted by imposing ‘rules’, but when my authority over them came into question, I resorted to bribing them with food…or guilt. “It’s a family thing! Don’t you want to go to brunch at Egg Harbor with us?” Occasionally, I would even be satisfied if they skipped church and met up with us at a restaurant afterwards.
After Jim died and I began dating Steve, I invited him to come to church with me. He observed the whole morning routine respectfully and rather silently. I finally asked for his feedback. His first comment was that I had become a totally different person than the one he knew. I had adopted a persona that he didn’t recognize. I had put on my social ‘face’ and performed my part in the choir, but he saw nothing of the spirituality we talked about while hiking in the prairie. He asked me whether I thought my church habits contributed to my spiritual growth, and I couldn’t answer right away. He also asked me why I neglected to inquire about his bagel preferences when I picked up brunch afterwards. That was embarrassing! I was in my familiar bubble and not even thinking about my guest. “We always do it this way, and you can just follow along,” is something I am very used to accepting and enforcing. Steve doesn’t like to be treated that way, though. He values participating as an equal in what is happening. His theological questions came next. If you’ve never been to an Episcopal mass before, you would probably be bursting with questions about the symbolism alone by the end of the service. Steve was wondering if there would be an occasion that he could stand up and ask about what was going on. Can you imagine? “Uh, excuse me? Hi. I’m Steve and this is my first time here. Can you tell my why you’re doing that with that cup (or candle or incense diffuser or garment or….) and what that means?” I had to admit that the whole social construct was not designed to be very inclusive or open. It was another case of “we always do it this way, and you can just follow along”. I began to wonder how much of my long-standing religious faith was about simply following along.
Here, I am living without religious habit or routine for the first time in my life. I have decided that I don’t want to live without practice, though, because practice leads to mindfulness. I am working out how and what to practice. Back in May, I began to write my own Daily Offices, reminders for certain times of the day. Here’s what I put together:
I. Matins – Make Love Every Morning
I become aware of a new day, of the sun rising in the east once more. I feel the security of its constant faithfulness and a deep gratitude and contentment washes over me. I appreciate the sun. I hear birdsong or a cat mew, and I become aware that other creatures greet the new day with me, each one appreciating this regular phenomenon in her own way. I feel the lightness of the sky reflected in the lightness of my body. Food digested, shadow of darkness lifted, I feel buoyant and relaxed and open. The energy of a new day and new opportunities fills me with each breath. I notice the particulars of this morning, the weather, my body, my surroundings, where I am, who is with me. I am grateful for these particulars as they are. I am aware that each of my loved ones greets the morning in some way, and I think of them with appreciation for the connection we have on this planet. I am aware of myself. I am appreciative of my body, of my inner being, and I hold myself in a place of unconditional love. I belong on the earth today. I have an important part to play here along with everything else. I want to be aware of that all day long. I become aware of any anger or fear that might arise in me as I spend time with myself. I notice any of these “stuck spots” with compassion. I review my 3 options: run away, change my circumstances, change myself.
II. None – The Ninth Hour – After School Snack
I pause after a few hours’ work to refresh myself. I am grateful for the food I eat and for the earth that nourishes me. I appreciate the way my body repairs itself while resting. I note the work that I have done so far today, the satisfaction of taking responsibility for my life. I become aware of any places I may have become “stuck” today. I re-direct my energy so that flow resumes. I notice changes in the sun’s light, in the weather, in the activity and mood of the afternoon. I feel grateful for these particulars as they are. I spend time with myself and nurture my inner child coming back home.
III. Compline – Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
As I slow down at the end of the day, I pay attention to any anxieties that have gathered around me during the day. As darkness falls, I let go of these anxieties, breathing out slowly and gratefully. I look deeply within for the security and safety I seek, remembering that the world proceeds according to natural laws, life and death have their place, my days will be as they will be, and fear need not preoccupy my thoughts. I ask for peace, for every living thing to be free from suffering.
I was having panic attacks back in Spring because of the enormous transitions I was going through, and wanted to practice being mindful that the world is a continuously unfolding and wonderful place, not a dangerous place of uncertainty and chaos. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about tending the gardens we grow in our lives by nurturing seeds that we want to see in full bloom. I want peace to bloom in my garden. I want love to bloom without manipulation. I want a mindful connection to the Divine to bloom. I want responsibility and intentional participation to bloom. I want to develop practices that will encourage these to grow.