If you’ve been following my writings for a short while now you will undoubtedly have heard me use either this phrase or ones just like it: Always, we begin again. We like to pretend (or, often, genuinely believe) that life is just one long ever-increasing upward curve of brand new first-time experiences all the way to death; which is literally the only true ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experiences.
The phrase itself is not original to me, but is in fact a paraphrase from the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict was an Italian monk born in the late 5th century. During his life he developed a monastic community that sought to order its day around prayer and service – at the heart of which was a structure to pray through the Psalms and it is on the subject of prayerfully considering and reading the Psalms that Benedict declared that ‘always, we must begin again.’
Like many of us, and like those early Benedictine monks, I too have found great value in ordering my days; whether my work schedule, or my days off. But there is no time that I have found more value in bringing structure to more than the morning, and in particular the first few hours of my day. This isn’t something that is inflexible; no durable structure is completely inflexible (it would be incredibly brittle if this were the case), but instead is something that takes on a life of its own; what I’d like to do today is take you through some of what makes up my morning routine and why it is important to me.
Mid-week I rise at around 5:50am, get dressed (vaguely speaking… I mean, come on! It is before 6am) as quietly as I can so as not to disturb Elaina too much, and head down stairs. I usually make myself a cup of black coffee (though not every morning) and fill a tall glass of water. For the first half hour or so I tend to just drink the water; it has the added benefit of beginning to flush out my digestive system before putting anything else into it.
I then spend 5-10 minutes meditating – for those of you who are Christians, and are now worried about my faith there is no need (but thank you for your concern!). Meditation is a biblical principle; the key difference, according to Richard Foster, between Eastern Meditation and Christian Meditation is that Eastern is designed primarily to empty your thoughts and to clear your mind; while there is an overlap in this emptying process in Christian meditation the primary focus is to then fill your mind with scripture, gratitude at the things the Lord has done, or simply to practice filling your headspace with Christ. The emptying process of meditation leads naturally into a space for prayer and reflection upon scripture.
For the past year I have been following through a shorthand version of Common Prayer; the daily, weekly, and yearly book of worship from the Anglican tradition. Though myself am part of a tradition found at the more pentecostal/evangelical spectrum (for better or worse), I have developed a great appreciation of the structure that some of the more ‘formal’ (don’t read ‘boring’ here) patterns of prayer far older than my own traditions. What I like about the shorthand edition is that it provides only a lose structure that simply guides my prayers. These set or written prayers are usually seasonally themed (they guide you through the Christian year, from Advent through to the season of All Saints over the autumn period), and are dovetailed with Psalms and small portions of scripture that link thematically and change from day to day – but stay the same seasonally week to week. I find these prayers, more than almost anything else, guide my reflections and thoughts throughout the year; they are a way of grounding me in the celebration of the seasons of God, rather than simply being guided by the weeks and months of the year.
From there I spend some time in scripture. To mark the beginning of this section I pray the words of Psalm 119:17-18; ‘Be good to your servant that I may live and obey your word. Open my eyes, that I might see wonderful truths in your law.’ At present I am working through a Bible in a Year program; there’s nothing magic about these at all, and after I have completed it I will probably change it for something else. Nor am I particularly stressing about completing it in a year; it’s more a way for me to ensure (at this time) that my reading of scripture is consistent, both in terms of daily practice, but also to ensure that I don’t miss anything! After this I usually spend a few minutes in silence thinking about what I’ve just read, perhaps writing or jotting thoughts down about anything that has particularly struck me in my reading of scripture.
After this I usually pick up a bracelet that Elaina bought me for an anniversary a few years ago; I don’t own many sentimental things, but this bracelet means a great deal to me. It has 13 beads on it and one small pendant on the middle bead. It’s not a set of ‘prayer beads’ in any formal sense of the word, simply some beads I use to help guide me. I begin at one end and pray through some scriptures and some of my faiths oldest prayers; the creed from the early centuries of the Church, and the Shema, a Jewish prayer far older than my Christian tradition though I finish it they way Jesus did in the Gospels, ‘and love your neighbour as yourself’. Both of these remind me of the nature of God and the character of his Church, before praying through John 15:13, Philippians 2:5-8; Galatians 2:20; and 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. All of these focus on the type of Love I believe we are called to as Christians and the recital of these verses helps (I hope) to ground my practices throughout the day; nothing magic, just reminding myself.
After this I pray the Prayer of St. Francis – while he probably didn’t actually write it; It is a stunning prayer that again helps to remind me of my own conduct, helping me to be more conscious and aware throughout my day. I end by praying for Elaina, my family, and my church, before turning my attention to any other matters that might be on my mind, and close with the Lords Prayer.
All of this, if i’m conscious of my own workings takes about an hour. I usually then take a cup of tea up to Elaina and just chat for a bit; not for long because I know she has her own morning routines that she’ll likely be in the middle of. I then return downstairs to begin thinking about the day ahead, loosely allocating time, reminding myself of the things that matter most to me and making sure I’m giving them my attention throughout the day. For this I use something called the ‘Greatness Journal’ (something Elaina and I both bought at Christmas last year). Again, there’s nothing magic about it, I just find that it helps me be intentional with my day. It begins each quarter year, week, and day with a few short questions to help focus your thoughts and orientate your life and time around what matters to you, it then ends each day with a few questions to help guide your reflection and self-awareness.
These things, for me, stay the same most days; though at times I’ll only use my beads and read from scripture if i’m out of routine. While not as ideal, I’m a big believer in consistency over intensity and the 15-20 minutes of prayer and reading I do is better than the 60-90 minutes I don’t do for whatever reason.
All this helps to set my day up, they are also some things that matter a great deal to me and so have the tendency to launch me into the rest of my day with a sense of ease and accomplishment before I’ve done anything else. It means that before I’ve done anything, I have a greater, more grounded, sense of who I am and why I am here, what matters to me and what I want to give myself to. A great morning routine, a sense of that always beginning again, has really helped me over the past year or so, but increasingly in recent weeks. Why not take some time today to think about what matters most to you, and how you can better structure your morning to orientate yourself around these things. You don’t have to get it right every day, because ‘Always, we begin again.’