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Habits of the Heart, Part 2

Why Routine Spiritual Practices are Still a Good Idea, Part 2

I knew, by simple intuition, that it was the voice of God I was hearing. He—who had named light and sky, sun and moon, male and female, the very same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—called my name one hot July day as I stood overlooking a lake in northern Ohio.


I was 16—and planning for my prodigal return much later when I would be ripe for domestic life and repentance. And although I'd grown up in a pew and, as a little girl, wondered when my dangling legs would stretch long enough to touch the floor, as a teenager I decided I was growing out of sermons and hymns as if they were crinkled, crayoned Sunday school papers.

What for most people requires the better part of a decade (or at the very least, a four-year university experience), I had managed to accomplish in two short years, between the ages of 14 and 16. At 16, I was not old enough to buy cigarettes, but apparently, I could have regrets free of charge.

Thanks to grace, I attended summer camp with my church youth group and came back to God earlier than projected—at 16 (not 30), on that day God met me on the shores of an Ohio lake. But being warned by camp counselors of the rates of teenage summer camp flash-in-the-pan faith, I took up their challenge of forming two regular spiritual practices for the next six months: I would read my Bible every day for ten minutes and pray for five. (Yes, they quantified communion.) After that time, we all hoped the daily disciplines would have become habit and I'd be on my way to a lifetime of allegiance to Christ.

Perhaps those commitments sound legalistic—I'm sure I kept them for years in that spirit. Perhaps daily disciplines seem to reduce the desire for God into a dry, perfunctory routine. At times, these habits, I admit, have had all the explosive fireworks of a child practicing his math facts.

And although these criticisms may be valid, they do not invalidate the beautiful and nearly invisible process of transformation that was inaugurated in my life when someone commended to me the value of spiritual habits and I took them seriously.

I regret that habit is a kind of cultural dirty word. Our preference for authenticity drives a deep cynicism into practices that seem to be more rote than real. Habit conjures the sense that something is bereft of feeling. But this skepticism misses the very point of spiritual habits: when we practice something regularly, it becomes to us second nature. Habits have the uncanny ability to form the unreflective, subconscious parts of our behavior. Borrowing again from James K. A. Smith's ideas in Desiring the Kingdom, habits are the "hinge that turns our heart."

June17, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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