“The disaster had fallen out of sight, like the train itself, and if the calm that followed it was not greater than the calm that came before it, it had seemed so. And the dear ordinary had healed as seamlessly as an image on water. One day my grandmother must have carried out a basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight, wearing her widow’s black, performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith. ” – Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Folding the undershirts, washing the breakfast dishes, cutting the clementine into bite-size pieces for the toddler in her high chair. Logging onto email, answering the clients’ questions, completing other essential tasks from the ever-growing to-do list. Getting dressed right away, flossing in front of the bathroom mirror, journaling while drinking the morning’s first cup of tea. Walking the dog, checking in on the elderly neighbor, making phone calls to loved ones far and near.
These things that we do everyday give shape to our lives. Maybe we enjoy doing them — we slowly savor the piping hot earl grey with a splash of cold half-and-half — or maybe we do them out of necessity; the toddler isn’t going to feed herself, after all, and if jobs are to be kept, the inbox must be addressed. But whatever our attitude towards the small actions that form the matrix of our lives, it isn’t likely that a whole lot of thought is put into our daily routines. We just do them.
But then, in out-of-the-ordinary times, particularly in times of crisis — a bad diagnosis, a natural disaster, a pandemic — our routines have a way of taking on extra meaning. Perhaps when we face the threat of losing components of our everyday, we more acutely appreciate the joy that our habits bring us. We see that walking the dog isn’t just walking the dog; it’s noticing the sprouting crocuses and feeling the gentle bath of sunlight. We see that the usual chores of work and home are opportunities for light and life; we feel gratitude for the laugher shared in a weekly phone call with our supervisor and the satisfaction of sliding into crisp, clean sheets on laundry day.
Or perhaps, when everything is upside down and life seems utterly different one week than it was the week before, we crave the order and structure of the everyday life rhythms. Those things that we do everyday — the dish washing and the email responding and the flossing — are the things we can count on. They comfort us as they prod us along through the new and unknown realties of a changed life.
On the other hand, it may be tempting to abandon the usual routines during these disorienting times; if we’re working from home, or not working at all, we don’t need to get dressed, after all.
While there’s nothing wrong with a day spent in pajamas, too many days in pajamas can run our already depleted energy stores into the ground. That’s why it’s at precisely these unusual times that we may most benefit from seeing our daily habits not as simply necessary routines, but as rituals — which are really just routines with an added dose of intentionality — and gain from them a sense of much needed structure, security and purpose.
Rituals — our everyday practices, seen as holy and valuable — help us to keep putting one foot in front of the other and to keep hope alive. They help us to continue to show love, care, and a compassion in moments when we might otherwise be tempted to look inward and self-protect. And they help us to see that, despite cancelled plans and frustrating uncertainties, the little moments in the everyday matter.
In other words, even if necessity doesn’t require the usual routines, our souls might benefit from, in Marilynne Robinson’s words, “performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith.”
Reflect: What are your “rituals of the ordinary?” Which of your daily routines have been most impacted by recent current events? Are there ways that you can reclaim or revise them to suit your current personal, family and communal needs?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.