Quotidian Miracles

Since this was the last week of classes for the semester, my Friday seems a bit lighter. I still have a bit of grading to finish but it isn’t weighty or laden with expectation.

I’m contemplating actually cleaning my whole house, not just quickly cleaning one bathroom sink for the week. At the same time, I just happen to be reading The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris. I came upon this quote:

I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self…. If they are wise, they treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.

I am reminded of Brother Lawrence seeking God’s presence in doing his best to honor the work before him in that presence—literally while scrubbing pots and pans– his daily monastic responsibility. However, I take this notion, as Norris does, a couple of steps further.

Last week, I also made a cake that required slicing 5 apples, greasing and flouring pans, and layering in addition to the usual egg cracking and thorough mixing. The occasion wasn’t a party but a death; when food means more, not as sustenance, but as prayerful support to the bereaved.

In this case, a ninety something woman I love has now outlived the final of her three children. I baked as much for me as for her; she has plenty in the material world. A phone call or card wouldn’t do the same as I sliced, broke open, and mixed the ingredients with thoughts of collective care for her; from her friends, other church people, and my understanding of a Presence that is with us all.

I’m not very good at inviting people for dinner or hosting even a small gathering. This week as I clean out the car that smells like a wet dog, scrub the 50’s something tub that really doesn’t ever look clean, wipe up muddy footprints and refresh restful beds; I want to listen for signs of another Presence. And in doing so, for even just my family, that mindless work becomes welcoming.

As Kathleen Norris says, the paradox is that these essential tasks retain possibilities for religious meaning.

Ironically, it seems that it is by the means of seemingly perfunctory daily rituals and routines that we enhance the personal relationships that nourish and sustain us…. it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation. Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but….What we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless—the endless repetition of a litany or the motions of vacuuming a floor.

Of course I can’t find it now, but someplace, Barbara Brown Taylor has written about cooking as prayerful hospitality when we do it in that spirit. Maybe she didn’t, but I know this is true.

In Altar in the World, she does say,

My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the scared, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is not a way to God apart from real life in the real world.

The real lesson here for me is that now that classes are over for the semester, I face everyday tasks more intentionally. December is full of days that require choosing how to be in the real world of parties and presents and dinners and deserts that come with real people attached.

Instead of meeting the days with dread, I could choose to be attentive to signs of God’s presence in my everyday tasks and to live the truth that faith is not an intellectual pursuit, but requires (inter)action with real people. The point here is that Jesus taught the practice of encounter amidst everyday living, even I guess, in December. 

Unlike me, Jesus did not have a home to welcome people to or a place to cook anyone a meal, or offer a bed for the night but as Barbara Brown Taylor points out that may be what gave him such an hospitable heart. The issues of this season are not about rituals or even expectations but about encounter. Barbara continues more simply eloquent than I am able.

The point [of encounter] is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.

That kind of encounter happens most often when you are doing things like making cakes and washing dishes. You dry; I like to wash and sink my hands deep in the hot soapy water that cleans the dirt out from under my fingernails.

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