Learning to Live Liturgically, Day by Day

"To live liturgically," says Dr. Chene Heady, author of Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life, "is to be aware of the divine meaning and significance of every moment."

Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life (Ignatius Press, 2016), a new book by Dr. Chene Heady, chronicles one man’s attempt to rearrange and reorient his life with the Church’s liturgical calendar as a guide. It recounts how Dr. Heady, a convert to the Catholic Church and a professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, endeavored to orient his life on things divine and eternal. 

Rather than letting time pass by—that is, rather than allowing the secular calendar dictate every moment—Dr. Heady let his life be guided and organized by the Church’s traditional timescape. Every day for an entire year, he meditated on the daily lectionary readings, the liturgical feast or season, and reflected on how this was affecting his life, insights, relationships, and perspective.

Dr. Heady recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about his new book.

CWR: In the book’s Introduction, you recount the story of how you came to conform your life to the liturgical calendar for a year. Can you briefly recount what led to that decision?

Chene Heady: I was the parent of an (at the time) one-year-old child, working sixty hours a week, and commuting an hour each way to and from work.  I felt harried, frantic, and exhausted.  Our faith should provide the center for our lives, but, functionally speaking, mine did not.  The real center of my life was the Microsoft Office Calendar, which arranged my life into merely a ceaseless series of work-related tasks; family, faith, and a desperate desire to get a full night’s sleep were relegated (not necessarily in that order) to the periphery of my existence.  

I decided to spend a year conforming my life to the liturgical calendar because (as I will discuss below) I thought that it might provide the sense of meaning, purpose, and direction that I knew I was missing.

CWR: How did you come to turn that experience into a book?

Heady: I wrote rumination each day of the liturgical year as a personal spiritual exercise, immediately intended for no audience beyond myself.  But as at the end of the liturgical year I looked back upon my experiences, I realized that my situation at the beginning of the year could have been basically anybody’s.  Millions upon millions of married Americans are in two-job families, and find themselves overextended and sleepless, anxious and unsure about how to parent, whether they could handle another child, and (more broadly) about where and how to live.  

I also realized that if the challenges I faced were to a certain extent universal, then the solution I had found was entirely universal. The liturgical year is (as I remark in the book), “our universal story,” the means by which literally billions of Catholics structure their lives around the story of Christ and the pageant of salvation history. 

CWR: You make an interesting (and eminently relatable) observation early in the book: “But the liturgical calendar has this great disadvantage over the Outlook Calendar: it can’t shout at me.” What exactly is the advantage in a calendar that shouts at you? How is it beneficial to be aware of the liturgical calendar?

Heady: Oddly, and perhaps unfortunately, in the twenty-first century, we have become more Pavlovian than ever before.  Pavlov’s dog salivated whenever a bell rang, because it was conditioned to do so.  Do you know anyone who hears the smart phone ding for a text message or a Facebook notification and simply ignores the summons without even flinching?  Can anyone hear the computerized bell and fail to interrupt a conversation or least a train of thought in response?  The Outlook Calendar similarly dings at me every time a meeting or task is fifteen minutes from deadline, and keeps on dinging until I “dismiss” the notification.  We are conditioned to respond to these stimuli, and we are shaped by their summons.  So what matters to us, what forms our identity?  Work tasks, social media gossip, text chatter.  We are (correspondingly) discontinuous, utterly immanent creatures.

The liturgical calendar, by contrast, weaves life into a grand pattern, relating each of our temporal days to the eternal story of Christ and God work’s renewing the world.  If I allow the liturgical calendar to shape my life, then I am reconnected to the transcendent, to the larger patterns of divine significance and meaning; I hear rhythms to which I was previously deaf.  This process can begin with as simple a task as subscribing to receive the daily lectionary readings via e-mail from the United States Council of Catholic Bishops.  That way, at least one “ding” you hear over the course of the day will direct your thoughts towards the transcendent.  

CWR: As everyone knows, a lot can happen in a year. Having this project always in front of you, was it ever especially difficult to keep yourself oriented to the liturgical calendar, and keep up with the project, when life’s challenges came up?

Heady: Sometimes it was difficult to keep up, and (of course) the liturgical calendar was especially valuable at the moments when I had the most difficulty paying attention to it.  

I know that many of your readers are incredibly busy themselves, and I would like to emphasize that refocusing your life around the liturgical year requires a consistent intention, but not necessarily an enormous time commitment.  The typical overextended person can do it.  You could reflect on the readings from the lectionary and think about the feast for the day (if there is one) in as little as ten minutes in the morning.  But if those scripture readings and that saint then become the lens through which you consciously see the whole day, your guide to sifting through your daily decisions and facing your daily struggles, you will find yourself living a different life.  As I relate in the book, the lectionary readings often gave meaning to a day that would have seemed otherwise frustrating and impossible, or made me see the bigger picture when I was caught up in the moment and devoid of perspective.  These moments happened especially on days when I hardly had time to look at the lectionary readings in the first place.

CWR: As the year went on, did you find it any easier to be aware of liturgical time? Did you ever find yourself particularly grateful to be liturgically oriented?

Heady: As I will discuss below, I found it easier to be aware of liturgical time as the year went on.  I was grateful to be liturgically oriented especially as the year ended, as I could begin to see the fruits of what I had done and the ways in which I had changed as a person.  Real change is incremental, and I would warn anyone attempting to begin to live liturgically not to expect immediate and miraculous results.  Each moment that the liturgy causes you to have a different perspective or to make a different decision your life is being reshaped, but it can take many moments and small decisions to form a noticeable change or discernible trajectory. When the Feast of Christ the King, at the very end of the liturgical year, found us actually focused on the Kingdom of God—making decisions that could not be explained in the terms of the secular kingdoms of finances, career, and personal comfort—I was grateful for the schooling the liturgical year had given me.   

CWR: Did you discover feast days, saints, or rhythms of life that you weren’t aware of before? Were there any feasts or liturgical seasons that you found you really connected with?

Heady: It may be surprising, but I found a particular joy in and appreciation for Ordinary Time.  I think all Catholics appreciate the major feasts relating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and many reverence particular feasts for especially beloved saints.  But it’s easy to feel like Ordinary Time is empty time: less sacred, less divine, and perhaps even boring.

But, in my efforts to take the lectionary readings as a guide to life, I found Ordinary Time to be a graced season, full of wisdom uniquely its own.  The Ordinary Time lectionary readings are packed with insights from sources like Job, Ecclesiastes, and St. Paul. Here we encounter a faith that can account for even the darkest and most tragic side of life (Job) and that isn’t afraid to face those moments when life seems meaningless and futile (Ecclesiastes).  Life can sometimes seem like a long journey—St. Paul even compares it a marathon—and the Ordinary Time readings are full of sage advice along the way.

CWR: You say in the book that you were looking for “meaning, pattern, and purpose” in your life. Why did you look for this in the liturgical calendar? What did you expect to find?

Heady: I looked for meaning, pattern, and purpose in the liturgical calendar because I suspected that my failure to perceive these traits in my life was connected to the mode in which I experienced time.  I know that sounds abstract, but it really isn’t.  

In the liturgical calendar, the Church structures all time around salvation history.  Every day contains its divine lesson (via the lectionary) and many days contain their commemorative feast (in the life of Christ and the stories of the saints).  To live liturgically is to be aware of the divine meaning and significance of every moment.  If, by contrast, we plan our lives around the Microsoft Office calendar and the TV Guide, we will find that we become determinedly finite creatures whose main realities are simply work and leisure.  

The day on which I am writing may serve as a convenient example: If, for me, today is the Feast of St. Luke, then I will spend the day with this companion of St. Paul and biographer of Jesus in my thoughts and prayers.  The refrain of today’s Responsorial Psalm proclaims: “Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your Kingdom.”  The liturgy asks me to study the life of St. Luke as a concrete image of the Kingdom of God; it also asks me to reflect on how I can, by imitating Luke’s example, render my own life a reflection of that kingdom. As over the course of my day I face professional challenges, I will be wondering how Luke the Physician would have dealt with them, a question which will give meaning even to my difficulties, and which will point me in the direction of their divine solution.  

If, on the other hand, I am living in purely secular time, well, it’s Tuesday. Just Tuesday.  One more day until it’s Wednesday, and I’m over the hump of the work week, and three more days until the weekend.  The contrast is pretty clear.

CWR: Did you find what you expected?

Heady: I did find what I expected, though I did discover that I had to develop as a person in order to find it.  As I have discussed above, the liturgy is divinely meaningful, but it is not magical in its effects.  It is a discipline, a way of experiencing life and ordering time.  I had to develop the discipline of centering my life around the liturgy to enter into the meaning that it had to offer.

CWR: Many people find it difficult to “make time” for prayer, whether it’s nightly prayer before bed, or reading the daily Mass readings, or what have you. Over the course of the year, did you find this was any less of a struggle? In other words, did the conscious and persistent effort eventually make it easier?

Heady: In brief, yes.  So much of our lives are a matter of habit.  I know many people who complain that they have no time—and then I’ll discover that they watch ten hours of prime-time television each week.  They aren’t lying when they say they “have no time.”  They have made watching their favorite shows such an automatic part of their week that failing to watch them doesn’t seem like a thinkable option; that time, for them, simply does not exist.

Spiritual disciplines of all sorts are particularly important because we are by nature such creatures of habit.  If our trivial actions or ungodly actions are habitual and all our holy actions require a conscious and direct decision, then the trivial and ungodly will win every time.  By this point, thinking of my life in liturgical terms has become an automatic process that I do not have to choose consciously when I wake up in the morning—and I’m grateful for that.

CWR: Throughout the book, you reference several “firsts” in your daughter’s life that you all experienced during the year — first trip to the zoo, first 4th of July, and so forth. Did this year of her firsts inform how the liturgical calendar affected your life?

Heady: My year was certainly shaped by my position as a new parent.  Everything had an aspect of wonder, as I witnessed my daughter discovering the world around her and developing the basic abilities and habits of a functioning human being.  Everything also had an aspect of terror, as every moment made me more acutely aware that as a parent I had no idea what I was doing.  This uniquely parental mix of wonder, terror, and utter confusion may have made me unusually receptive to the guidance and wisdom that the liturgical calendar had to offer.

About Paul Senz 27 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.