“It’s all about the ritual,” my oldest daughter, Sarah, said about stopping at the same place for coffee on her way to work each day. Both of my daughters, Anna, in Oregon, and Sarah, in Indianapolis, enjoy a camaraderie and familiarity with the baristas who take their orders. The ritual of getting coffee carves structure, order, meaning, and connection to begin their work day.
Rituals, a practice each day, or at a particular time, or with certain people, or at a favorite place, can be a source of comfort or stability in an unpredictable world.
Rituals can help as we navigate through a rough patch in life. It is helpful to have rituals already in place before tough times, grounding us and offering a familiar pattern to hold onto in a time of change.
Recently, I asked several friends to describe rituals meaningful to them.
Laney considered, “What makes a ritual? Is a ritual a habit or a routine?” While sorting out the difference, she commented about her method of getting herself ready to go, “Sock, shoe, sock, shoe. Every day first thing in the morning from home. Three days out of seven from the pool. What is so interesting about this is that I only recently learned for most people it’s sock, sock, shoe, shoe! But this is not a ritual. There is no deliberate meaning in this. It’s a habit!” She concluded that a ritual involves sincerity, deep emotion, meaning, thought, and often a connection to God.
Many others follow my daughters’ example of getting coffee to start the day, while also connecting with God. Fran said, “I drink my morning coffee while I spend time in devotion and with my prayer list.”
Charity also combined drinking coffee with morning prayer. And she has a daily ritual of reading devotions to her mother who lives in an assisted living facility. She ends the day with compline, a series of prayers and readings for nighttime.
Nan described the meaning of her morning tea. “I drink tea daily. I am always seated and doing something pleasurable, such as visiting with Abba (her term of endearment for God) during prayer time or having a chat with a dear friend. Tea brings me joy, calm, comfort, and warm memories of having tea with my dad as a little girl. Ask my husband and he would say that for me, tea is a code word for chocolate! They go so well together!”
I found my morning ritual of prayer and readings sustaining during the past year of lockdown and isolation. I was grounding myself in God each day, even though I was experiencing many abrupt endings and changes. I was grateful to have my decades-long practice in place as an anchor during the challenging year.
Lynne commented, “After breakfast, I always have a long stretch. I stretch my arms up to God and thank him for the new day.”
Laney added, “Prayers at the end of the day bring memories of the past along with gratitude. Thanks given to God for the day at bedtime. Acknowledging the abundance, the blessings as someone who grew up with outdoor plumbing! Understanding nothing material ‘belongs’ to us. Gratitude for life itself and health. Yes, there is meaning in this. There is ritual.”
Adding meaning to things we do everyday can transform these tasks to rituals. My friend, and writing coach, Darcy Wiley, described her care of an amaryllis plant in her kitchen. “I’ve been watching over this amaryllis since it was a bulb barely peeking up from the soil. My supervisor gave it to me and the only instructions on the enclosed card were to keep the soil moist. That’s in my skill set. Every day or two as I baptized the dirt with a trickle of water, I spoke a prayer for a friend in need. It has been a centering practice, helping me be mindful of the people I care about while basking in the truth that God is mindful of all of us. Every day for six weeks, as I put water into the soil of the flower pot, this specimen was on its way to flowering with lush red blooms. What was hidden in the bulb, stems, and buds was going to be revealed in a matter of time under the right conditions, a partnership of God’s creative design and my participation in the simple practice of watering.”
Several other friends’ routines involved connecting with family. Annette shared, “During our morning drive to school, we read scripture and pray for our day. When the weather is good, our family ends the day with a campfire, and we just hang out together.”
Leslie added, “Early morning coffee with my husband is a time to talk about the day and the previous day. It’s our way of getting centered as a couple and as parents.”
“My Thursday night date night with my husband helps us focus on our relationship and has helped us get through difficult times. This time has made us stronger although we have missed these moments during the pandemic,” mentioned Julie.
I, too, have developed rituals for staying connected with my family. When my daughters moved out west in 2008, I wanted to find a simple way to stay in touch. Every morning, I began sending each daughter a short text, “Good morning, love. Thinking of you,” along with a couple of heart emojis. Hearing from them a few hours later because of the change in time zones, gave me assurance they were ok and ready to begin a new day. When I went to bed, I would send another text, “Good night, love. Hope your day went well,” along with more emojis. Again, with the time difference, their “Good night, love” response greeted me each morning. I have continued to send “Good morning” and “Good night, love” texts through all these years. It’s a way to bookend our days in loving thought.
“One more to consider,” Laney added, “because it’s always done with sincerity and often deep emotion: writing to those I learn are injured, ill, or struggling in some other way. Notes on pretty cards selected with care for the recipient I consider ritual because I put so much into thinking them through before I write and in choosing a card that fits. Yep, for me this too is ritual.”
Even reading the weekly paper can become a meaningful ritual. I look forward each Sunday to receiving the New York Times newspaper, which takes me all week to read. When I was ten and eleven, I saved for months to purchase the New York Times. I recall stopping after church at a general store in a small town near Pittsburgh with two quarters in my pocket. I dreamed of being a reporter for the Times when I grew up, able to contribute to someone else’s reading pleasure. Now, each week when I go through the many sections reading about current events and other topics, I think back to when I was young, smelling the newsprint, carrying the heavy newspaper to the car, and holding it on my lap for the drive home. I know I’ll always need to have a physical copy of the newspaper since I dislike reading on a screen. On Sunday night, I start with my favorite sections, Sunday Styles, the Business section, and then Opinion and Review, flipping the pages and savoring the words and content. Then, I go back each day of the week and pick up sections I haven’t read, or re-read articles I read earlier in the week about interesting and varied topics. I finish with Metropolitan Diary, another favorite, stretching out my anticipation as I wait to immerse myself in the vignettes printed there.
Finally, Ann Kroeker, my first writing coach, offered these thoughts about the difficulty of setting rituals and how rituals can change over time:
“Routines and rituals are wonderful for our creative efforts and our spiritual life, but I’ve also seen how disappointed writers can be when they can’t follow through with the ritual or routine - they feel they can’t write a single word if they are not in their special place. And that’s limiting and a danger of depending too heavily on the ritual.
I recently traveled in an RV to South Carolina to visit my mom. If I had known how much of my life would be lived on-the-go, I would have developed more mobile and flexible rituals, because it’s hard to develop and maintain consistent rituals that are built around a room, furniture, or special space.
Even if I did manage to stay put in my home, though, rituals keep changing as we ourselves evolve and grow. This seems tied to one’s season in life: after a significant life shift, a ritual may no longer be needed. For example, if when my kids were young I launched a personal ritual of reading, writing or praying during their nap time, that faded when the children no longer nap and certainly when they are grown adults living on their own!
In brief, I think it’s smart to make rituals that serve you and your creative pursuits, but consider designing rituals that are easy to pack up and move with you through life. And hold some rituals loosely, knowing life is unpredictable. Don’t worry too much. If you outgrow a ritual, it’s kind of fun to invent a new one!”
Whether it be daily coffee, prayer, stretching, gratitude, watering plants, texting, campfires, writing letters, or reading the newspaper, rituals are simple but meaningful activities that make our day more pleasurable and purposeful. I hope the examples here will inspire you with new ideas to start rituals of your own. One simple way to begin is to make a list of everyday activities, and consider how those actions and interactions can be formed into meaningful rituals. Rituals help us feel a sense of power and intention in our daily life .