A Defense Against the Default
How spiritual reading can begin the day in the right direction
It’s cliche, these days, for self-help writers to offer a morning routine—some ambitious way to get up, take an ice bath, do a hundred pushups, write 500 words and win the day. I’m not a self-help writer, and I certainly don’t think a day can be won, but there is some kernel of truth in paying attention to a good beginning.
The reality is that we have to begin somehow, and the default is often designed to capture us in a flow that it is hard to get out of. If we can take just a couple of intentional steps, then we will enter into our day with our souls still intact and the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts.
The default beginning of my day goes like this: I wake naturally, just as the sun is rising, but before anyone else in my house. Coffee is the first order of business, and since the first cup is just for me, I usually start with a pour over. Small kitchen gadgets are one of my vices, so I have an electric kettle that heats the water to just the right temperature for the best coffee flavor profile. It takes time, this exactitude, and so after filling the kettle and pushing start, I have to wait.
It is at this point that the danger begins. After a night of being disconnected, I am tempted to pick up my phone. What messages arrived? What new podcast episodes dropped in the night? What Substack essays are ready to be read? Of course, when it comes to my phone, I’m pretty minimalist. Though I do have a smart phone, I do not have email on it. I don’t have news on it. I keep my use of apps to a very small collection of practical things that fill no more than the home screen. So after exhausting the small number of distractions my phone holds, the water is still boiling. I’m tempted at this point to walk across the room and grab the family laptop, open it up, and take a look at the newspapers—local, national, international. Did anything important happen in the 10 or so hours I was away?
These are the temptations. And when I give into them, I find myself in a flurry of news, of messages, and before I realize what is happening I’ve already lost my peace before I even start to pour boiling water over the waiting coffee grinds.
The thing is, that for several years now, most mornings this is not what happens. After I get the water boiling, I don’t go for the phone or the laptop, but instead I reach for my coffee book, conveniently ready just next to the electric kettle. It is my defense against the default.
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The coffee book can vary, but for me, more often than not it has been Thomas a’Kempis’s classic, The Imitation of Christ. Speaking across the five centuries that separate us, there is power in this book. Others through the ages have agreed, making it among the best selling books in history.
Written for his fellow monks, The Imitation of Christ is arranged into short chapters--straightforward but often profound. I can read one or two of the chapters while I make my coffee, and by the end, my day is set toward a different path with my heart preserved in peace.
Your coffee book need not be The Imitation of Christ and there are certainly parts of the book that are burdened by an other worldly theology with which I disagree. But part of what I like about it is that a’ Kempis, though he never had to struggle with a phone or laptop and all the dark portals they open onto, understood the old human tendencies that make those new technologies so problematic for the life of the soul. He was a deep observer of human life and what tends to get in the way of our moving more fully into the joys of following Christ.
Take for instance his reflection on “Guarding Against Unnecessary Speech”:
“The discussion of worldly affairs, even though engaged in with good intentions, is nevertheless a hindrance for we quickly become tainted and charmed by trivia. I have often wished that I had remained silent and had not been in the company of men. Why are we so fond of speaking and conversing with one another, though we rarely return to our silence without some injury to our consciences?..It is often vain and to no purpose, for the consolation gained by talking greatly diminishes the internal consolation granted us by God. Therefore, we must watch and pray lest we spend our time in fruitless idleness.”
For me, this sounds like sage advice for the Social Media age, even though it was written when the printing press was just being invented in Europe. To read it, helps me remember the essential—that the purpose of life isn’t entertainment, the chatter of news, or even happiness, but instead living into the fullness that comes from following Jesus.
Other coffee books have included New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, William Martin’s The Art of Pastoring, and Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene to name a few. What is important is that the chapters be short and the book more easily accessible than my phone.
I can’t promise this morning routine will change your life or lead you into peace for the whole of your day, but I do think it can help improve your chances. At the very least it can break the spell of distraction for a little while. So, give it a try, see what works for you. After you’ve attempted it a week of so, I’d love to hear how it went.