The Boring Practices
There are rituals, especially initiation rituals, that one undergoes only once, where the transformative power works partly by overstimulating the psyche and by heating the emotions to a new fever. But the rituals that are meant to sustain our daily lives do not work that way. In fact, they work the opposite way. They are not meant to be an experience of high energy and creativity, but are meant precisely to be predictable, repetitive, simple, straightforward, and brief … The rituals that sustain our daily lives do not work through novelty or by seeking to raise our psychic temperature. What they try to effect is not novelty, but rhythm; not the current, but the timeless; and not the emotional, but the archetypal.
-Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, p.236
I played competitive baseball from age eight to twenty-two. This period took me from little league all the way up through four years of NCAA college baseball. The experience of being part of many different teams meant that I received a lot of coaching. I was formed as a player by these coaches, and I became a better, more complete player through their guidance in practices. Following my college career I also coached jr. high baseball for a local school district for a number of years. This too, was a learning experience. Coaching is part of a formation process: we receive instruction and learn a way of doing something by doing it over and over and over again.
Coaches are also known for giving passionate, high energy speeches, in order to inspire their teams to perform. They stir the players’ emotions in order to produce better play from the team. And sometimes this works-for a short time. But what makes a team successful, what sustains growth as a player and as a team, is the faithful, ritual practice of the basic elements of the game. Sometimes we call these the “fundamentals” of the game (as Skip from Bull Durham said, “This is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball”, without “lollygagging” of course).
As a player I was formed most effectively, not by the impassioned speeches of the coach (they got us “fired up” for sure…for about an inning) but rather by the hundred ground balls I fielded every day. Or by long-tossing (throwing to build arm strength) and soft-tossing (hitting into a screen) each day. One particularly boring practice that a junior high coach made us do (and that I later taught my players to do) was to field soft ground balls without our gloves on. This practice taught us to focus on the small things that we often overlooked, like watching the ball all the way into our hands and coming up ready to throw properly. Following this practice, a round of infield/outfield practice often was much less mistake prone. Simple, boring rituals like this one helped sustain me as a player, when I was out in the field and had to make a play on a sharply hit ball. The routine of practicing the boring stuff created muscle memory and an ability to react almost instantly to what I experienced in the field, providing an advantage in the game.
As with sports, in the spiritual life we also need to focus on the boring practices and not just look for the high energy pep talk all the time. In the above quote, Ronald Rolheiser invites us to examine our misgivings (or even misunderstandings) about rituals. Ritual is often dismissed as boring, dead, unemotional, and therefore practically worthless. Give me more high energy/fun/exciting/entertaining stuff so I can get an emotional high! But that may be all it is-a high or an emotional experience, and likely one that will not last. So that’s where the “boring” practices come in. Meditating on a small piece of scripture for weeks at a time. Using a prayer book for morning/midday/evening prayer. Creating space for twenty minutes of silence/solitude during the day. These practices may not seem especially exciting. But these kind of rituals help sustain us in this every day life with God and with others, helping to form in us a rhythm through which we might notice, encounter, or experience God’s presence more naturally.
I am thankful for my baseball coaches, as they formed me both as a player and a leader. But I am also grateful for the other “coaches” who continue to form me spiritually: family members, pastors, seminary instructors, colleagues, and writers like Rolheiser and many others. It took a while, but I am appreciating the importance of the boring practices. This kind of coaching sustains me in the daily walk with Jesus, and at times is a true source of growth and grace.