HABIT & RITUAL: Three Practical Steps Towards Holiness
“No other human factor is such an aid to success as our firm and steady resolve and a carefully worked-out regime....It is incontrovertible proof that regulation in life is the main factor in spiritual progress” ~ St. Joseph the Hesychast. “The more you understand the power of a habit, the more should you endeavor to be rid of a bad habit and change yourself over to a good one." ~ St. John Chrysostom 1. Three Steps to Holy Habits Alright, all spirituality boils down to habits…but where do we go from here? We often talk about “growing closer to God,” but when it comes down to it, we find ourselves stuck. Routine kicks in. Life takes over. Religiosity and ‘Churchiness’ is one thing. Becoming truly transformed, inside-out, is something else. That requires understanding how habits work and working with our habits. Whether we are struggling with prayer, fasting, going to confession, the constant lure of distractions or the unattractive, hidden addictions, a few practical rules about habits make all the difference. First, we need to understand the “Habit Loop”. Second, we need to learn how to “crave” holy decisions. Third, we have to cement new habits by having someone hold us accountable: through one’s confessor, parish community, and the lives of the saints. 2. The Habit Loop: Cue —> Routine —> Reward It all started with tooth brushing. In the early 1900s, Claude C. Hopkins’ brilliant advertising inspired one of the most wide-sweeping new habits in North America. Tooth hygiene was at a crisis. Sugary, processed foods had become the norm, and teeth were showing it. Yet, no amount of medical advice was fixing the problem. When Hopkins proposed marketing toothpaste, his advisors believed it would be financial suicide. Who would be interested? Fortunately, Hopkins knew human psychology. He created a Cue, Routine, and Reward. The advertisement ran: “Just run your tongue across your teeth. You’ll feel a film.” Another ad declared: “Beautiful, satin smooth teeth are often the secret of a pretty girl’s attractiveness.” Truth be told, tooth film is perfectly natural. No amount tooth brushing will prevent it. However, the minute someone saw an ad, he ran his tongue along his teeth and became conscious of the film. The film was the cue. The long-term reward: sex appeal. It did not stop there. Hopkins also added a short-term reward: a secret ingredient. They added an irritant to the tooth paste. Once you apply it, chemicals spark and you get that “cool, tingling sensation.” It was not enough to have clean teeth. People needed to “feel” clean. “Claude Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth. He was selling a sensation. Once people craved that cool tingling — once they equated it with cleanliness — brushing became a habit” (Dihigg 57). Hopkins created a Routine (a new habit) with a Cue (feel that nasty film on your teeth) and a Reward (long term: sex appeal; short-term: a satisfying tingling). This is how we need to go about our spiritual life. 3. The Habit Loop and Prayer Let’s look at prayer. Nothing in life matters so much. Every virtue, all healing, all growth, all meaning in life, stems from prayer. But how is it possible to get better at prayer? I know I am not unique in feeling overworked and exhausted. Life runs a hundred miles per hour. How can I get in the habit of praying more? With so many distractions, how can I even care? Besides, ceaseless prayer just does not come naturally. It has to be learned. That means we need to replace deeply ingrained habits throughout the day with new habits — not easy. For most of us, we simply get caught up in our routines, put it off for another day, and regress to our secular mundanity. In his book, Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom gives us a hint. He writes: “In the tense modern life which we live, the problem of managing time is an all important one. I am not going to try to convince you that you have plenty of time and can pray if you want to; I want to speak of managing time within the tensions, the rush of life.” One way to begin managing time for God is to have a structured prayer rule. In St. Joseph’s words, this should be a “carefully worked-out regime.” That means deliberately setting aside times through the day for prayer. When we do this, it becomes easier to remember God in the “in-between” hours. If you only pray when the “spirit leads,” you will quickly stop praying at all. If your structure your schedule around prayer, your heart will be more attuned to the Spirit’s leading. So how can we enforce that structure? For years, my family struggled to pray evening prayers together. To be honest, this is still a struggle, but we have gotten better. Understanding Duhigg’s principles of habit building has made a big difference. First, we had to stop justifying ourselves with all the silly excuses. “We are tired.” “The kids are restless.” “We pray more than X.” All this is, quite simply, hogwash. We do have time to pray. Indeed, that time spent in prayer is far more important than anything else we do as a family. We like to pretend that we are too busy to pray. If we are honest with ourselves…that is because we are idolaters…there is no excuse. Then we realized we needed a better routine, and habits to enforce that routine. So, we experimented. In the past, we tried to make prayer the last thing we did. However, at that point, we were simply zonked. Once the shoes come off, the window for prayer is gone. For weeks, we tried tallying our prayer time on charts. We marked it up on chalk boards. Finally, we found something that worked. We made dinner time our established “cue” for prayer. I re-arranged my parish events and work schedule so that we could sit down for dinner at 6:30pm. Prayers begin immediately after dinner. Dishes can wait (they are not as important!). We have to rush to the icon corner before any of those “responsible” temptations creep up. Then we had to establish rewards. The kids like to blow out the candles after prayer, so, that is the reward of being quiet. You make noise…no candle… (as trivial as this seems, it worked, they would weep when they lost the privilege). Moreover, the Church Fathers knew what they were doing by establishing all these traditions. Candles, smoke, icons…these make prayer fun. They give us a tangible reward. They smell good. They are relaxing. They are beautiful. The physical part of prayer makes it much more exciting. Finally, we end prayers with something fun — story time. For us grown-ups, we can anticipate kicking our feet up and relaxing (finally!). This is just an example of being deliberate about prayer. It is a work in progress and we have a long way to go, BUT, all of us can start by being deliberate with our schedules. How do we need to improve spirituality? What little cues and rewards can we establish. The fundamental ingredient to all of this: it has to be enjoyable. 4. A Craving Sensation “Anyone can use this basic formula to create habits of her or his own. Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel” (Duhig 58). One word says it all: crave. In order to reinforce a new habit, you have to train yourself to crave the reward. Once the habit loop is repeated enough, a cue immediately triggers a craving in the brain for the reward. An alcoholic can take one look at a drink, and his brain will immediately urge for the reward. An addict to cigarettes can get a whiff of cigarette smoke and immediate crave the instant gratification of smoking. If you want a good habit, you have to find ways to crave it.
We have to learn to “crave” holy habits. Any time religion becomes “mere obligation” we have killed it. It becomes the letter of the law, not the spirit. Prayer, fasting, tithing, etc., are absolutely obligations for every Christian. Yet, we are not doing ourselves a service by dreading them. We have to make them fun. We should find ways to desire the holy acts, here and now. Maybe we should reward ourselves with a milkshake after praying? Is this “unspiritual”? Why do you think we end forty days of fasting (Lent) with forty days of feasting (Pascha)? It is not unholy to crave for meat and wine at the end of Lent. On the contrary, we are “obligated” to feast through Paschal-tide. We should associate the pleasure of eating steak with the joy of the Resurrection. If we are not doing our “obligations” with joy, then something is wrong in our heart. Sounds like it is time for confession…
The solution: search out ways to “crave” holiness, and never be satisfied. Commenting on Song of Songs chapter 2, St. Gregory explains: “The whole content of the cup poured into her mouth no longer seems able to quench her thirst. She asks to be taken to the cellar itself and apply her mouth to the rim of the vats themselves that are overflowing with intoxicating wine.” St. Gregory compares a saint’s love for God with an alcoholic’s passion for alcohol. We need to start craving. “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement” (St. Augustine of Hippo). 5. Enforcing Habit with Group Accountability There is one last ingredient: group accountability. The golden rule to habit change, Duhigg explains, is belief. How do you enforce belief? It takes group accountability. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group…The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people” (Duhig 92-93). Habit replacement works well with people all the time, that is, for some time. So often, we create new habits and then they fall to the wayside. Why is this? A group of researchers at an Alcohol Research Group asked this same question. People in AA learned new habits and managed to keep those habits until stressful events came along. At that point, they fell back to their old routines of drinking. What saves them in the end: accountability. Being with a group of co-strugglers makes all the difference. I was struggling with my morning prayer rule. That unfriendly “To-Do-List” flooded my head every morning, and the prayer life started falling apart. When I discussed this with my confessor, he gave me invaluable advice: Do it with a team. Since the dawn of Christianity, Christians have formed small groups who committed to praying together daily. For centuries, people arranged their schedules to the church bells and the feast days of the Church. While few of us have the luxury of hearing “calls to prayer” from the center of the town, we can all create little groups that hold us accountable.
This is why it is so critical for us Christians to be part of a local Christian parish. As the Scriptures write: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). When we fall away from the Church community, we fall away from God. They go hand-in-hand. Perhaps most importantly, we need a spiritual father. Confession is one of the most distinctive parts of the Orthodox Christian life. I experienced this first-hand while living a traditional community in Northern Greece. It was not uncommon for Christians to confess on a monthly or weekly basis, not just their sinful actions, but their thoughts and struggles. Boys asked for a blessing from the abbot before asking girls on dates. All major decisions were made in this confessional relationship — always working together as family in Christ. You cannot build good habits on your own — not the kind that lasts, and saves. Bolster your habit by being accountable to your local church community and your father confessor. It’s a sacrament. It works. Finally, we need the saints. The Book of Hebrews reminds us that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We need to pray to the saints, read about the saints, and emulate the saints because they bring the theory down into practice. They remind us that all this “talk” about holiness and spirituality is actually possible. I suspect, one of our greatest challenges as Orthodox Christians in America is that we are not surrounded by monastics and shrines. When I lived in Greece, I found myself in a world where it is impossible to forget that God is in His saints. It is very possible here at home. The saints witness to us that we are not called to be nice, ordinary Christians. We are called to be transformed. 6. A Life in Christ These are merely thoughts about the path towards holiness. I find myself often convicted by the words of philosopher Arthur Boers: “I keep running into people who sense something awry with life. Yet we rush on, as if sleepwalkers on automatic pilot, not knowing the right questions” (xxiv). This describes my spiritual life all too well, and the trap that I long to break out from. What was it that made ordinary men and women into saints? They were made of the same stuff as you and me. They must have been sleepwalkers at some point, and they woke up. They could only have started with the little, daily habits, and that is where we too must start. If nothing else, in this pursuit, we can pray and hope that God sees our efforts and carries us to the finish line.