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The Ordinary: Gateway to Spiritual Living

July 4, 2011

As we age we spend much more time looking back and remembering moments of our lives.  Recently as I was doing that, I was struck by how, for the most part, the most vivid and significant memories are of the most ordinary moments.  Recently while reading something, I was taken back to sitting on my Mother’s knee and memorizing with her help the Ten Commandments for Sunday school.  As I kept confusing the order of the ninth and tenth commandments, my Mother would continually remind me:  “First the wife, then the goods.”   Although my Grandmother died when I was six, I can still remember a constant brief dialogue between us that would give her great delight.  She would ask me: “Do you think I’m as fat as Kate Smith?”  I would then always respond, “Yes”, and she would unfailingly laugh with good humor and love.   Later in life, I remember running and playing in a light snowfall with a friend.  I remember sitting at the seashore in Marblehead with my Mother and looking out over the sun drenched ocean to the islands beyond.   And when I think of times of travel, I’m often amazed that the most memorable aspects of trips to distant places are the ordinary moments of walking in the evening on a beach or through a city or town, eating a pastry at a bakery in Paris, watching the families on a Sunday afternoon in a park in Rome, and seeing children walk to school hand-in-hand in Western Kenya.  Even when having traveled at significant distances from home, it is the ordinary experiences of everyday life that stand out.

     Each moment of a human life is a sacrament.  The most ordinary of human experiences and encounters are signs of the eternal significance of human life.  As the Stage Manager says in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.”  What it is that is eternal is “hidden”, like the treasure in the field, in the midst of the ordinary.  In Act Three of the play, after young Emily dies in childbirth, she asks to come back just for one day.  She is warned that it will be too painful, but she does it nonetheless.  It is the day of her 12th birthday, a very ordinary day, but one filled with moments that are, from Emily’s new perspective, too beautiful, too filled with pathos to bear – especially since those who are living them can’t see their beauty and pathos at all. 

     Harvard philosopher Sean Dorrance Kelly, author of All Things Shining, states that  “When people are at their best, their actions are drawn out by the demands of the situation around them.”  The believer is one who sees life at its core as “response-ability.”  Life (and its Divine Source) is calling us forth, calling us out to take our unique place in the world, to offer our unique contribution.  And how do we know what that is?  The world, our entire formation field, will draw it out of us, if we are attentive and willingly responsive.  Our communion with the Divine is, as embodied human persons, mediated by our connection to the life of the world.  Jesus gives his very body for that life:  “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  (John 6:51)  Our gateway to eternal life is in the finite, contingent world of the present ordinary experience.

     In Howard’s End, E. M. Forster’s narrator describes the hope of Margaret Schlegel as she ponders accepting a proposal of marriage from a wealthy widower, Henry Wilcox:

She might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. . . . It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

So often in life our prose and passion are disconnected.  The ordinary and our deep desires and aspirations seem contradictory and conflictual.  And so, we seem to live in fragments.  Our experience is that the demands of our ordinary days are disturbances and distractions from our hopes and aspirations.  Thus, we tend to disconnect, to move away from or against the intrusive and sometimes aversive summons of the ordinary.  In truth, the ordinary is not an obstacle but a gateway – but to experience it as such requires our moving more fully toward and into life, connecting more deeply with those ordinary aspects of our lives from which we have been disconnecting.

     In the Alternate Prayer for Trinity Sunday we pray:

God, we praise you: 

Father all-powerful,

Christ Lord and Savior,

Spirit of Love.

You reveal yourself in the depths of our being, 

drawing us to share in your life and your love.

One God, three Persons,

be near to the people formed in your image,

close to the world your love brings to life.

We ask you this, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

one God, true and living, forever and ever.

We pray for God to be near to us and close to the world.  But God is near for without God’s abiding creative activity we and the world would cease to be.  Thus, what we are really praying is for us to be close, because we are almost always at such a distance from ourselves and the world that we fail to know the Divine love that keeps all in Being, that is always creating.

     To connect, to be intimate with the ordinariness of life and the full field of our formation, is not easy.  In Middlemarch, George Eliot famously writes:

We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.  As it is, the quickest of us walk about well waddled with stupidity. (Bk II, Chapter XX)

     Eliot describes the “roar” of the Divine life which lies “on the other side” of all we take for granted.  This roar is more than we can bear, and thus, even the most awake and alive of us (“the quickest”) walk about in some level of “stupidity.”  So, we must practice presence to the ordinary.  Our fear of the roar, or knowledge that we can only bear so much reality, is the source of our disconnection and distance from life.  And our modes of distancing become habitual over the course of our lives.  At times we must withdraw from our ordinary circumstances that we might, for a short time, detach from those life-long habitual ways of being present, or better of not being present.  We must enter a place and space that can provide a certain security from those anxieties that arise from the many demands and responsibilities of our lives.   A time and space of added silence, solitude, and peace can allow us to be closer to the natural world and to the human world within and between us, without the typical demands of work and of our intrapersonal and interpersonal lives that lead us to distance, to dissociate from those aspects of reality that threaten to overwhelm us.

     It is in such privileged times and spaces of silence and solitude that we begin to learn the freedom to be different from the selves we must assume in order to get through our daily lives and to move towards new and fresh ways of being intimate with and responsive to the ordinary moments of our lives.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.