Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Encountering the Holy In the Humdrum

Do we gaze into the screen of our technology more than we do our spouse's face? Or our children's? Or our friend's? 

So often when I'm out, I cannot help but see so many people with their attention given solely to their smart phones (either on social media, playing Pokemon Go, texting). And if it isn't bad enough already with our smart phones, tablets, laptops, and computers, scientists are creating virtual reality. While I'm not going to write about all of the potential dangers of that (we already have people who starve themselves to death because they cannot stop to eat and leave the world of the video games they play), I cannot help but see the problems that lurk in such technology. It also makes me concerned about how they will no longer be able to see actual reality.

The more and more we become disconnected from others, from community, and from our environment, the more we become disconnected from the sacred. 

How many people easily become bored with the ordinary, with the daily mundane that surrounds them and do not realize the holy in all of them?  

In the liturgical year of the Church, many celebrate what is known as "Ordinary Time." This is the period that begins on Epiphany Day and ends on the day before Ash Wednesday. In Latin it's known as Tempus Per Annum (Time throughout the year). I love the idea of celebrating "Ordinary Time" though. Of paying attention to the daily, routine stuff that fills our lives. How many of us find God in the folding of clean sheets? Or in the small shafts of sunlight that comes through the leaves of trees? Or the taste of an orange whose juice gets on your fingers? Of hearing your children laughing together in another room?  Or that first cup of coffee in the morning?

One of the books I have returned to again and again throughout the years is The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. In it, he notes how to develop the awareness of God in the quotidian activities of our day (cleaning, fixing a meal, making a bed). All are to be done as a form of prayer. I'll admit, I am not always so great at that, especially in the chores I dislike the most (cleaning the bathrooms). Yet I have noticed, that when I am present, really paying attention to washing a cup under the cold water of the sink, and I am aware and I am listening to the sounds of that activity, I find myself not hurrying to go on to the next task. Instead, it takes on meaning and, in its simple way, a form of worship. What if we viewed our daily errands or duties not as a burden but as a holy vocation? As a way of ushering God into our ordinary lives? A way of seeing these small routines as touched by grace?

Brother Lawrence writes, "There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than the continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it." And how did he do this? By working in the kitchen of a priory in Paris. By repairing the sandals of the other brothers in that community. Neither sounds like a very spiritual activity but one that would grow tiresome day after day after day after day. I mean, the idea of repairing dirty, smelly sandals of others has no appeal to me at all. Yet Brother Lawrence found in that act a way of growing closer to God. As he said, "We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed." Do I approach my job or the housework or raising children in this light?

Another writer whose works I deeply cherish because they so deeply nourish me and have taught me to slow down, be present and take notice is that of Kathleen Norris. She wrote, "The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry."

Do I view doing the laundry (I don't mind the washing or even the folding, but the putting away . . .) as a way of looking thoughtfully at what I am doing in the same manner I would a prayer or meditating or studying scripture? Prayer in the perfunctory. Daily rituals and routines as offerings before God.  Teresa of Avila said that, "Love turns work into rest" (I haven't achieved that state of mind or soul yet, to be honest).

To do this is to realize that the commonplace is a gift. As I was washing my coffee cup, I held the moment inside me and happened to notice an orange and black insect on the windowsill. I watched as it moved slowly along the wood and its antenna twitched with life. Then I opened the window and let it fly away.

After the insect was gone and I closed the window, I thought about my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, and how much of her poetry dealt with the mundane but in a way that made us see the ordinary as extraordinary. How much of her poetry would we have lost if she had modern technology when she lived? Most would see her world as so small, but she mined such depth from it because she was so present, so alive to it, so aware of something like a bee or a spider. As she so aptly wrote, "I dwell in possibility." She did. She was alive and aware of all the possibility that the moment held, that there was. "Forever is composed of nows." she wrote and every time I read that small statement, I become aware of just how complex and thrilling and mystifying it really is.  Saint Emily, as she is to me, makes me want to be open and aware and available to my surroundings, to what is before me at that moment in time, to find joy in the simplicity of an action like chopping a pepper or dusting our furniture (taking a moment every now and again to reflect on the memory of that object: where I purchased it, who I was with, what was going on in my life at that time. Perhaps if I have no real connection to that object then I should get rid of it). "Find ecstasy in life," Dickinson wrote, "the mere sense of living is joy enough." 

"Her Garden" by Catrin Welz-Stein

I love that line, "The mere sense of living is joy enough." How exuberant such a line is, especially if it is lived out. To not need constant entertaining but to find joy simply in the living. In watching birds in the yard as I'm washing a pan. Walking outside and hearing the birdsong or the music of the cicadas. To find peace exactly where I am, doing what I'm doing in that moment. To be content. As Teresa of Avila said, "Thank God for the things I do not own." I am slowly coming in to the realization of that line, as I am attempting to simplify my own life (and I've started with getting rid of books. Yes, I can hear the gasps now of those reading this). 

This requires the doctrine of discipline. Of literally practicing being aware of God's presence (as He is always there while I am not always so). It means that I have to turn off the background noise, whether that be the radio or television as I do my menial tasks around the house and to not view them as menial but meaningful. When I am folding my kids' clothes to be not only thinking about them but praying for them. To find the theology in everyday life. It means being awake and not just doing things rotely. We should not find the beauty in such actions only when our bodies no longer allow us to perform them as we used to (something we learn as we grow older and find it easier to pull muscles or to feel the aches and pains of doing simple tasks). 

It means being aware of my breathing: inhaling and exhaling. What a gift! And to think it was breathed into us by the very lungs of God.  As the book of Job says, "The Spirit of God hath made, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life." I love how in Hebrew the word rauch means wind, breath, mind and spirit. "The rauch of God is in my nostrils" (Job 27:3).  Rauch Elohim (the Spirit of God). Yet how we take that simple action that gives us life for granted. Do we use our breathing as prayer? Breathing in and out the name Yahweh. Breath as a form of communion.

Or the beating of our hearts. 60 to 100 beats per minute. Do we allow the external rhythms of our actions to move to our internal rhythms?  Or to appreciate the ability to see light coming in the kitchen window? Or to hear the sound of the birds in the shrubbery? Or to feel the coolness of the water on our hands? Or to appreciate all of the different types and colors of flowers? Or to focus on just one? To really see that one flower as if one is appreciating a painting by Van Gogh. 

Be intentional. As children we sang, "This is the day that the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad in it," but as adults, do we? Do we rejoice in the day? In the dull and mundane? In the routine and the rote?  Replace complaints with communion. Pray. Worship. Be silent. Be present.

How much of this will be lost the more and more people focus so much on their technological gadgets? 

While I'm not saying we should get rid of all of our technology, I am asking that we turn them off and interact with the person who is at the table with us sharing a meal. I asking that we not turn every moment into an Instagram photo or a Facebook post. Enjoy the meal without comment. Enjoy a concert and hear the music and see the performance in place of looking at it through the small screen of a smart phone as you record it to post it on social media. See the poetry in your daily life. Truly see the glass of water and the way the sunlight plays on both.  Or taste the sweetness of wine on your tongue. Savor a meal instead of hurriedly devouring it to get on with life when that is life. So much of Jesus' ministry was simply sharing a meal with someone. Ask your child a question and just listen. And, as you listen, watch their expressions and the life in their eyes and gestures and mannerisms. See yourself and your spouse and your parents in them. Capture that moment in your heart and not you phone.

The poet Mary Oliver wisely wrote her "Instructions for Living" as:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

So now I am going to end this blog and practice the life I wish to live and I pray that you will join me in doing likewise.

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