Winter is a time when I seem to crave routine. As the days grow shorter and the cold weather drives me indoors, I can find myself struggling against a pervading winter sluggishness.
On the bleaker days, a well-worn habit can be a Godsend. A packed lunch prepared the night before, a brisk walk through the gardens on my way to work, a few minutes doing a Wordle on my homeward commute to help me unwind—these small routines seem to smooth the way, punctuating my days and giving them momentum.
If you google the words ‘winter routine’, you’ll find no end of advice on how to structure your winter mornings to improve your heath, wellbeing and career trajectory. Finding an extra five minutes to go over my ‘task list’, a leading CEO tells me, will improve my motivation and productivity; sipping hot water with lemon juice will improve my skin; keeping a daily mindfulness journal will improve my mental health; and exposing myself regularly to winter sunlight will boost my mood and help me sleep better.
There’s practical wisdom in much of this advice: the benefits of establishing good habits around sleep, exercise, eating and recreation are well known and are especially important in winter, when it’s easy to get run down.
What strikes me, though, about many of the routines spruiked online and on social media is that even the ones that suggest incorporating prayer (‘if you’re religious’) seem to be relentlessly inward-focused. They are routines performed by oneself for oneself, holding out the promise of a life that often seems to be just beyond our grasp, a life of glowing skin, boundless energy, confidence, control and—most of all—self-fulfilment.
As one ‘wellness’ blogger puts it, a morning routine is ‘meant to empower you to take charge of your life—to run the show.’ I can barely muster the energy to run the breakfast dishes under the tap in the morning, let alone ‘run the show’. Frankly, the whole idea sounds exhausting.
This week, we celebrate the feast day of St Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–543), founder of Western monasticism and a man who knew a thing or two about forming good habits.
Benedict sought to live a humble life, free from distractions, so that he could focus his attention not on himself but on God. Drawing on Scripture and his broad but mixed experience in early monastic communities, he wrote The Rule of St Benedict, a relatively short document that was hugely influential and that remains relevant 15 centuries on, not only in monastic congregations around the world but also for many lay people seeking to bring their working lives and the life of faith into greater harmony.
Abbot Paul Gunter leads the Benedictine congregation at Douai Abbey at Upper Wolverhampton, in the United Kingdom, and recently visited Melbourne to speak at the Archdiocese’s annual Clergy Conference. He explains that Benedict’s Rule ‘was written to encourage the common life, a life of prayer, a life of work, a life of service.’ Much of it is concerned with the practical details of living in community, providing detailed instructions, schedules and principles. Essentially, he says, it is ‘a very good commentary on human nature and on the difficulties we all share as human beings, and on how we can grow in charity, how we can grow in virtue, and how we can help others do the same by our mutual care of one another.’
Benedict appreciated the practical and spiritual value of routines, recognising that they can free up time and attention for the things that really matter. And for Benedict, what mattered most was prayer.
In The Rule, work and prayer are almost inseparable, so that in the Benedictine tradition, the daily cycle of liturgical prayer—known as the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office—not only punctuates the working day; it is work. In fact, it’s the most important work of all: the Opus Dei or ‘work of God’.
What characterises monastic life, according to Abbot Paul, is the gathering of monks or nuns ‘to sing the Offices at least five times a day, sanctifying the day by the gathering together and the singing of the psalms. And after that, of course, there is the Mass, the Conventual Mass, the Mass that all the monks attend together and at which we receive the Eucharist as a community.’
The importance of the relationship between the Divine Office and its culmination in the Eucharist cannot be overstated, according to Abbot Paul:
The Divine Office complements the celebration of the Mass in the same way that the Liturgy of the Eucharist is complemented by the Liturgy of the Word. So, effectively, you’re not looking at an optional extra but an intrinsic part of the life of the Church, which is why the Divine Office is called ‘the Prayer of the Church’.
In winter, as the weather closes in, our mood can dip and we can sometimes feel more isolated from the world and from our neighbours. At these times, Abbot Paul says, we can draw comfort from the knowledge that around the world, monks and nuns are, ‘even in the dark … sanctifying the day’ by praying the psalms on our behalf—a practice that looks generously outward, not myopically inward.
Abbot Paul points out that the first word in Benedict’s Rule is Obsculta. ‘Now, if you ask anyone, they’ll tell you that means “listen”, but actually the prefix, I think, is more interesting than the verb: ob-sculta, ob– ... It’s pointing to the fact that you listen out, that you’re listening outward from your heart. So you’re looking to a level of attentiveness ... so that we can enter into service of the true King, Christ the Lord.’
In Benedictine spirituality, rules and routines—including the routines of prayer—are not ends in themselves, nor are they seen as a means of self-fulfilment. Rather, they guide us out of ourselves and into the presence and service of God. In this way, being in God’s presence itself becomes habitual, a natural way of being.
In the same way that the liturgical seasons and Lectionary take us on a journey through God’s story, providing a rhythm and focus for our lives, the Daily Office uses the psalms—in all their rich variety—to guide the community through the day, bringing their attention to the different moods and themes of each ‘hour’.
The psalms that are prayed today as part of the Daily Office were prayed by Jesus and Mary. They connect us with the people of God across time and space. ‘There’s something for everyone,’ Abbot Paul says.‘There’s a psalm for every mood.’
In Benedict’s Rule, though, even activities that might seem to ‘interrupt’ the cycle of liturgical prayer—times of work, study, rest and service—are a continuation of the life of prayer, opportunities to submit one’s whole life to the will of God. Far from being irrelevant or a distraction, work takes on a special dignity when it is directed in this way to the glory of God.
It’s one of the reasons The Rule remains relevant for those of us who might struggle with the tension between fulfilling our obligations in the world, including our work obligations, and responding to God with the whole of our lives. Making time each day to pray even just one of the ‘hours’ will certainly enrich our relationship with God, and various apps and breviaries can assist us in this. But for those of us who struggle to carve out the time, or to do so consistently, an attentiveness to God’s presence can nevertheless frame our day, turning all our tasks into a form of prayer.
As Chris Sullivan, a spiritual director, writes,
Instead of wondering how to squeeze prayer into the busy schedule of our work days, we can adopt a new vision in which all that we do is the work of prayer. We consecrate to God the whole cycle of the day, from rising and drinking our morning coffee to carpools and meetings and classes and household responsibilities until we crawl into bed for sleep.
Surrendered to God in this way, our daily routines—not just in winter, but all year round—become a way to glorify God, a way for Jesus Christ to graciously take charge of our lives and ‘run the show’.