I’ve been thinking about habit. Habitual. Habitat. Inhabit. All related words, reflecting something worn as in clothes, or something worn as in behavior, sometimes repeatedly (habitual), or something we live inside of as in houses, or the action of living inside something, as inhabiting a house (or behavior). We wear it; we live in it, it protects us (from what?); in some intangible way it becomes part of us.
We put something on when we develop a habit, or depend upon a habit, or are dependent upon a habit. Habits can be good or bad or neutral. They can be welcomed and worked on, or bravely thrown away.
“It’s a bad habit.”
“I want to make it a habit.”
We carve our behavior patterns with habits. We choreograph a dance in which we know the steps by heart. Habits are the rituals of our lives.
I read recently that habits allow us to use our brains for more important things. If each day we had to figure out how to brush our teeth, or shower, or start the car, we would have no energy for those events we cannot predict – the slick freeway after the rain, the weaving driver, the challenges of work, parenting, marriage, the unknowns that enter our vision throughout the day that barrage our brains, forcing new, sometimes swift, decisions and maneuvers.
So we create regular patterns for the routine events to free our attentions for the unexpected and the challenging. We clothe ourselves with ways of behaving.
Manners are social habits, in which we construct agreed-upon ways of interaction. We acknowledge one another’s presence with a nod, a greeting, a handshake, a hug. We express desire with please or gratitude with thanks. We bracket our social intercourse with words and phrases that allow us to explore or to not explore friendship and possible intimacy, from meals to meetings to games to discussions to any gathering of human beings from two to two thousand.
But what of interior habits? Habits that form our lives, how we see, how we choose our paths?
In Lent I examine my habits. I take on a discipline, a rule. To take on a discipline is to become a disciple, one who learns the ways of another, one who wears the habits of another.
I look at my habits of prayer. I add prayers to my library of memory to be recalled at will, and it is in Lent I connsider what I have on my shelves and what needs to be dusted off and examined again, what new prayers I should add. I revisit Psalm 139:
O Lord, thou has searched me out, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and my up-rising; thou understandeth my thoughts long before. Thou art about my path, and about my bed; and are acquainted with all my ways. For lo, there is not a word in my tongue, but thou, O Lord, knowest it altogether…
I set aside a few more minutes in the morning and the evening to read the lessons appointed for the day in the Daily Offices, lessons read throughout the world, so that I am praying with the universal Church in real time. In those daily prayers I examine my heart and confess my sins. I petition for others, for myself. I offer praise. I give thanks for the blessings of the day and the night, for breath, for life. I follow a discipline of prayer, learning the habits of God.
I abstain from certain foods or fast during certain times so that I may discipline, or teach, my body that it is subject to my soul, so that I might learn, as our preacher said today, what my body can and cannot do. I experience my body’s limitations when hunger hits, but I also find that I am stronger than I thought I was. I learn how difficult it is to resist temptation, but I learn also that I can resist, I can control my impulses. I fail, but I cantry again. I stumble, but I can rise. Abstinence – and fasting – helps my mind control my body, encourages “mind over matter.” I discover those borders of the country of my desire and will, and as I stretch my soul to control my body, new habits are born, and I am stronger than before. I also learn to ask for help from God.
Christ said that only prayer and fasting can send certain demons out of a man. Whether those demons be real devils or the demons of destructive habits, Lent is a time of scattering them, of driving them out and far away.
So we houseclean during lent, sweeping our souls clean and making room for the good, for God. We fill our-selves with good habits and open the windows of our new clean interiors so that we can see clearly. Raymond Raynes said that often our widows are dirty from the slow accumulation of dust and dirt. We cannot see through them; they block out the light. We didn’t notice this slow build up, the smudges and splatters and layers of lifelong habits. We got used to the dark, to the dim rooms of our souls. We were in the habit of living in the shadows.
In my Lenten discipline, I clean my windows so that I can see the light and allow the light to illumine my life. I work on my habits, to add good ones and give up bad ones, to learn control of self, so that I can inhabit a new home, with bright sunlit rooms, donning behaviors that will smooth my way, light my path through my own span of time on this earth.