Ritual Heartsby The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on August 5, 2021
I have never been very good at staying in touch with friends and family back in Alabama. So maybe three years ago, I decided that I’d use my commute from Buda back to Austin to call folks back home. Usually, it was either my dad or a friend. (And more regularly, one of their voicemail boxes!) It wasn’t every day, and it wasn’t the same person, but it was definitely a step in a good direction. It’s hard to go anywhere but up from zero, after all.
When the pandemic hit, that changed, and I stopped calling folks back home for a few months. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to call or anything like that. It was just because the usual rhythm of my commute to and from the office had been disrupted. It had stopped, in fact. The first couple months of pandemic life I worked almost entirely from home.
Things changed again when we started livestreaming from the church on Sundays in July of 2020. Until that point, we’d been recording things ahead of time, editing them together, and then setting things to go up online at the appropriate time on Sunday. But when we started livestreaming, I was physically back at the church on Sunday mornings again.
I got a little piece of my commute back, and pretty soon I started calling folks again. For whatever reason, it quickly turned into calling Granny Mary every Sunday after church. It’s great. She keeps me in the loop with what’s going on back home; I tell her what’s new at St. Liz; she teases Granddad Don about something—all our favorite schticks.
When I called her this past Sunday, she teased me as soon as she picked up: “I guess you’re back at church now,” she said with a laugh. I’d been away from St. Liz for several weeks, and not once during that time did I think to call Granny Mary on a Sunday. It wasn’t a conscious decision not to; I just never thought about it at all. The habit had been disrupted. I call when I get to the car in St. Liz’s parking lot. No drive home, no phone call.
We are creatures of habit, and habits involve concrete places and times. Rhythms of expectation and effort, rest and receiving. When we do something in the same way in the same place and at the same time for a while, we learn to anticipate it. We condition ourselves to do this or that whenever we’re there, then. It can become so easy that we don’t even have to choose consciously to do it.
A lot of times, when kids come to the altar rail, they say “Thank you” when I give them a wafer. Why? Because that’s just what you do when somebody gives you something. They’re probably not even deciding to say thank you; they’re just responding out of the muscle memory good manners have given them. So I just say back, “You’re welcome.” It’s what you’re supposed to do when someone says thank you.
My hope is that one day I’ll have that kind of muscle memory for staying in touch with folks back home. I made some progress last year with my Sunday chats with Granny Mary. Making that call is just what I do when I start the car to drive home.
But if I never get to the car after church, I’m probably not going to call. Being in a concrete place at a concrete time is part of the habit itself.
I don’t know anyone who has all the same habits now as they did two years ago. (How could we?) But the fact that we are habitual creatures hasn’t changed. As we get ready for a new school year and a new program year at St. Liz, keep that in mind as you structure your days and weeks. What new habits do you want to cultivate? What habits are sustaining you right now? What habits have you settled for, not because you’ve chosen them, but simply because they’ve become habits? What former habits do you miss, and which ones can you return to? Who will share in them with you?
There’s a scene in a children’s book I really like, one I’ve probably referenced somewhere before. The book is called The Little Prince. In the story the prince meets a fox, and the two want to become friends. But the fox needs to be tamed first. He tells the Little Prince that he must come visit at the same time every day. The fox says,
"If you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three. The closer it gets to four, the happier I’ll feel. By four I’ll be all excited and worried; I’ll discover what it costs to be happy! But if you come at any old time, I’ll never know when I should prepare my heart…. There must be rites."
One could say that a rite is a kind of habit that people share. It’s how we prepare our hearts to meet each other. For a liturgical church like ours, the rite of Holy Eucharist in the same place, at the same time each week is the principal way in which our community of faith prepares our hearts to meet God and to meet each other. Like the fox awaiting the Little Prince, a ritual heart is one that depends on the faithfulness of another. A ritual heart is one prepared to meet its beloved.
We are creatures of habit, and together as people of faith, we are creatures of rites. When I look forward into the new program year at St. Liz, what I most hope for is getting reacquainted with the ritual heart of our congregation. Weekly rhythms, volunteer teams, dipping my finger into the font to cross myself—all the little specifics of our concrete place and time for worship. There must be rites, and I look forward to sharing them. I hope you will, too, to the extent you’re able.