by Hal Miller
Because we lived in the country, my family did a lot of its shopping from catalogues. We had piles of them by the fireplace, and when the winter seemed to have grown too long already, we would lie on the floor and page through them. Some were large and some were small, but one sticks in my mind. It was for outdoor clothing and bore the slogan "escape from the ordinary."
I didn't like the clothes all that well, but I did like the slogan. The "ordinary" was one place I wanted out of as fast as I could go. And it even looks like that is how others feel as well. We all seem to dread the ordinary.
Our uneasiness with the ordinary shows itself in a variety of ways. Is there any city without a TGIF celebration on some radio show at 5 p.m. Friday? Why don't we thank God it's Monday? Is there a street without a car bearing the bumper-sticker "I'd rather be ____ing"? What's the problem with doing what you usually do rather than ____ing? Is there an adolescent anywhere who doesn't use the word "boring" as the ultimate curse on a teacher or a book?
We dislike the ordinary, the everyday, the routine. We thirst for the exciting, the different, the exhilarating. To put it briefly, we're transcendence junkies. We live in the hope of some kind of excitement fix to give us meaning and vitality in a world of gray walls and Musak. Our heroes are exciting people-athletes, actors, and adventurers-and we are so enthralled by an illusion that they have escaped the ordinary that we never notice Andy Warhol was right. They are only famous for fifteen minutes. Last summer's Olympic champions are now working for a living just like you and me.
Some people try to escape the ordinary directly, through drugs. Christians are, for the most part, not quite so straightforward. We try to escape the ordinary "spiritually." We look for conferences, seminars, and revivals for moments of spiritual "high" that will allow us to move past the familiar routines of work, family, and church. We are after an other-worldly experience that lasts long enough to get us through the intervening days or weeks until we can shoot up the next other-worldly experience.
It's not that other-worldly experiences are wrong. It's just that we think they are the only experiences that give meaning to life. And we got that idea not from Christian faith but from the atmosphere of our culture. Modern Western cultures put an almost absolute value on the unique, the individual, the special. We celebrate the things which make us different from others, and try to minimize the things which make us the same. Those of us with a lot of disposable income try to compile racks and racks of different experiences, and avoid repetition and pattern lest it become "boring."
In large part, this is a reaction, a reaction to the perceived monotony of our lives. We yearn for those special, transcendent experiences which will take us out of the tedium of sitting at a computer terminal, chasing children, washing dishes, and driving on crowded freeways. We are, culturally, goal or project oriented-we value accomplishment, the feeling of being able to sit back and look at something finished. And yet most of our lives are given to tasks which have no end. The house must be dusted only to be dusted again. The dishes must be washed so we can dirty them again. It's no wonder we are hungry for those exciting, transcendent moments.
It seems what we really want is to touch God. And we assume that touching God is exciting. But what if touching God is not always (or even usually) exciting? I wonder if Elijah was excited when he touched God in a gentle breeze rather than lightning, thunder, and tornado. I wonder if Paul was excited as he made tents in Ephesus. I wonder if Jesus was excited as he sat at dinner with people, trying to explain to them-again and again-that the kingdom of God belonged to the least not the greatest. Yet these are all times when people experienced God at work in their lives, when they indeed touched God because God was touching them.
MAYBE WE'RE APPROACHING this all wrong. Maybe, rather than assuming that touching God is exciting, we should entertain the possibility that it is often routine, as routine as getting up in the morning and going to sleep at night.
Our Christian confession sounds very much like that. We assert that we live our lives in the presence of God, that God came to be with us in the drearily ordinary form of a Jewish carpenter, that those who are blessed are the commonest of people-the poor, the lowly, and those who mourn. Christianity offers us a spirituality of everyday life. It would be worth our while to pursue what that might mean.
Consider what everyday life looks like. One way to do this is to make a list of the activities which compose life as you know it, and include the amount of time you spend at each activity. Then put the activities in order by amount of time. In my case, everyday life looks like this:
Your list will probably vary from this. In my case, the routine, everyday parts of life account for 22 hours of my average day. For almost everyone, they account for at least 20 hours. That leaves just four hours a day for everything else: chatting, bouncing crying babies, reading, television (though studies say that the average American watches for about seven hours), prayer, and works of service.
Now, think about what this means for our spiritual life. Most of the spiritualities we have received apply only to those four hours (or less) of each day of our lives not occupied by the everyday. Our Christian culture counsels us to devote time to prayer, Bible study, or ministry; we are told to attend (extra) meetings or do (additional) things. Somehow, all this is to be packed into the 17% of our lives not already given to the everyday. These methods of spirituality don't work that well when put to the test of work, marriage, kids, and mortgages. They do not deal with the fact that we spend most of our lives engaged in trivial, repetitive tasks of questionable "eternal" worth.
The reason is that these spiritualities are backwards. From a Christian point of view, spirituality should be at least as applicable to the twenty hours given to the everyday as to the four which are not. A spirituality of everyday life concerns itself with the 83% of our time, that vast bulk of our lives which is ordinary, monotonous, and routine.
SPIRITUALITIES OF EVERYDAY life have been around for centuries, but unfortunately, they were often composed in keys which do not appeal to moderns. For fifteen hundred years, some monks have followed the rule of St. Benedict, which required a life combining prayer and work-ora et labora. Both were modes of praising God, both were valuable. Other important traditions of Christian spirituality have worked toward finding the meaning of "praying without ceasing," a discipline that requires learning the integration of faith and everyday life.
Christianity, indeed, is nothing if not a spirituality of everyday life. The incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of the ordinary-God come to be with us not as a blinding light or burning bush but as a person you might walk by on the street and never notice.
If this is true, why is the spirituality of everyday life undiscovered by most of us? And why have we given ourselves to the quest for a dramatic, sensational spirituality? Some of the reasons are obvious. The everyday is, by definition, commonplace. There is little in it to get excited about. Indeed, for the most part it is invisible to us. We usually don't notice it unless it becomes a problem by being boring. Since we only see the everyday when it is a problem, we (naturally) do not look to meet God there.
Another reason we lack a spirituality of everyday life is that our tastes in stories run to the exciting and dramatic. We like hagiography, stories of the saints. And whether the saints are Christian (John Wimber, Johnny Cash) or secular (Lee Iacocca, Kirk Douglas), we like their stories because they are exciting. Subtly, we convince ourselves that sainthood is exhilarating, thrilling, inspiring...anything but everyday.
We also have a bent toward the quick and easy. We want rapid conversions, not slow, painstaking transformations. We want things different now. But there is nothing quick and easy about everyday life. It goes on and on, with little closure or completeness; everyday life is literally never done. And as a result, we look somewhere else, anywhere else, for a quick spiritual fix.
YET THE NEW TESTAMENT gives us a great wealth of resources for working out a spirituality of everyday life. Though it gives us a good share of pretty spectacular events-Annanias and Sapphira struck dead, Lazarus raised, Paul blinded and healed-its overall emphasis affirms God's work in the everyday. Jesus, God incarnate, usually went out of his way not to be "holy," not to transcend the patterns and routines of the everyday. He made himself a friend of everyday people, including prostitutes and "sinners," rather than of spiritual athletes. People called him a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:31-35) because he took such joy in the human routines of eating and drinking. And he took his message not to the high and the mighty but to the poor (which, in that society, meant the ordinary).
The earliest churches were made up almost entirely of ordinary people. There were no monks, few "full-time" Christian workers (Paul even seems to have taken pride in the fact he was usually self-supporting), and almost no one with the leisure to spend time hunting up spectacular spiritual experiences. People who thirsted for the spectacular usually ended up in the spiritually exciting "mystery cults" rather than the boring, mundane Christian churches. The mystery cults offered exotic and secretive rituals; the churches met in the most prosaic way possible, around a simple meal.
Paul's gospel emphasized that God's work was precisely with the ordinary. "Those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen," he says. God has focused on "those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything" (1Cor. 1:28). This is at the root of Paul's understanding of grace: God has deliberately chosen the ordinary over the special so that none can boast, so that we all must rest our salvation wholly in God's own hands (1Cor. 1:29-31).
Of course those earliest Christians, like us, had a hankering for the transcendent and the spectacular. The Corinthians, for instance, had their interest in the Technicolor gifts of the Spirit like speaking in tongues. Paul's strategy for dealing with them is instructive. He does not deny the importance of those spectacular gifts; instead, he places them side-by-side with the commonplace ones (1Cor. 12:7-11, 14:26). Sometimes, you even get the impression that the commonplace ones are more important (1Cor. 12:22, Rom. 12:3-8).
This is but one piece of Paul's whole approach to Christian spirituality. His famous "fruit of the Spirit," the harvest of a lifetime of living in God, are the virtues of the ordinary. Paul does not expect Christian living to bring forth excellence, courage, success, or virtuosity. Instead, the Spirit brings us "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). The spectacular never requires patience; only the routine and "boring" need this virtue. Faithfulness is out of place in transcendent experiences; only the everyday requires it. The same is true of all the others.
When I am in the middle of some mundane piece of everyday life and feel the yen for escaping the ordinary, I routinely take comfort from Jesus' parable of the wise servant. The one the master finds faithful and wise enough to give responsibility in his household is the one who gives his family their food at the proper time (Matt. 24:45). Thankless, routine, repetitive, ordinary tasks like serving a meal predictably are the ones where God finds us faithful or not. And when the master returns, the servant is blessed not because he has accomplished something special but because he is faithfully engaged in his routine (v. 46).
Faithfulness in the most ordinary tasks of life is the very thing Jesus required of his disciples. When he envisions the sheep and goats separated on judgment day, he does not think God's criteria for separating them have anything to do with the spiritually spectacular. Instead, everyday tasks-feeding someone who is hungry, visiting someone who is sick, being hospitable to a stranger-form the basis of judgment. Though the banality of this surprises both the sheep and the goats, it does not surprise Jesus. He knows full well that God's fundamental concern is with the ordinary, unimportant, and unspiritual tasks of everyday life.
PERHAPS ONE DAY we will be blessed by having a fully developed spirituality of everyday life. In the meantime, we need to apply ourselves to the mundane task of working one out. I would love to see a truly intelligent, sensitive spirituality of work, for example, or of conversation, or of meals. If we start to develop these, maybe one day we will be able to tackle the really difficult problems like commuting...or sleeping.