I have never been good at keeping a routine.
I stay up too late, sneaking every scrap of sleep I can in the morning. I start and stop, flutter and falter more than I’d like. I can change plans at a moment’s notice with relatively little disruption, which is helpful when working in a deadline-driven environment, but I am also not driven to achieve an existence of overall steadiness or stability.
This is one of the reasons I try to embrace Lent. These six weeks call out for structure — for a rhythm of prayer, for deliberate pacing, for consideration about what we consume and when. Lent helps me pull the lens back from the breakneck pace of a busy, full life and refocus on the Lord and what I am doing to draw closer to him (or what gets in the way).
I was thinking about routine as I was flipping through the beautiful new pages of my husband’s most recent book — his long-awaited biography of Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, the late archbishop of Chicago, that he poured so much time, thought and prayer into, and which was released in paperback earlier this month.
In the book, Michael recounts how a friend had asked Cardinal George how he remained so connected to Christ and the church despite all the challenges that he had faced. “George thought for a while and then answered that it was simply ‘habit’ — a practice of living the Faith, day in and day out,” Michael wrote.
Religion, Cardinal George said once, “is not so much a matter of choice as it is a matter of habit.”
“When people build their lives, they make choices at times, but much of it is simply habitual,” Cardinal George said at another time. “If you have good habits, you’ll be saved from your own individual, evil inclinations at times. If you don’t have those good habits, [if] each time [you are] faced with good and evil, you have to make a choice, too often you won’t choose what is truly good. People live their lives, they live their faith, they go to Mass regularly, they do their best to build up their family and contribute to society. Catholicism is a way of life, a way of thinking, and a way of loving that incarnates a vision uneasy with itself if it is not finally, truly global.”
He wanted to “remind people that there are customs that identify a Catholic way of life” and how, “if we’ve lost them, the church becomes a debating society instead of a church.” How familiar does that sound in our social media-fueled era?
Cardinal George was so passionate about this topic that he wanted to write on it to develop it more fully, but his illness prevented him from doing so. What a loss for the church. But these few nuggets Michael highlights in “Glorifying Christ” are well worth reflecting upon. What are our habits, good and bad, and how do we allow them to define us? Around what structure do we build our days? How do we develop our routines and our habitual practices to help ensure we make the right choice when we are inevitably presented with a fork in the road?
The answer can be found, as Cardinal George points out, within the church. He argued that in Catholicism, we find the key to a way of life that nurtures vocations and develops disciples.
As he told the U.S. bishops in 2003: “There is a way of life that is bound up with being a disciple of Christ in his church, a common way of life not constructed by individual choice. It has a common calendar. It has penitential practices. It has common prayer. It has common devotion. It has a common vocabulary. It is a way of life which tells me every moment of my life that the church can make demands upon me and must make demands because she is the Body of Jesus Christ, to whom all authority has been given in heaven and on earth.”
What a gift we have in the church — a built-in way to structure our days and to develop habits that, centered around prayer and the sacraments, can help even those of us who, when it comes to building lives of routine, still have a long way to go.