ordinary

screen-shot-2013-11-12-at-2-58-55-pmI read Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal a few years ago. Reading the original entries, in her neat handwriting, with imperfect spelling, drew me to her in a way her fiction never did. The darkness in the stories she wrote and the grim picture of human beings and the world we inhabit haunts me; it doesn’t make me want to re-read, or to read more. My tastes, sorry as I sometimes am to admit it, run more to the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot. Anthony Trollope, even. But Flannery O’Connor’s journal was something entirely different. It in, she recorded her struggles as an aspiring writer and a faithful Catholic woman.

The entry that struck me most deeply recorded her frustration with the feeling of mediocrity. She thought she was mediocre! As difficult as I find her prose, I would never, ever call it that. She possessed a gift for fiction and for expressing that darkness about which I am so squeamish–so that however fearful I was about what was about to happen in her stories, I couldn’t just stop reading. But she worried about being mediocre in the midst of her struggles in writing and in life.

So it is, I think. I know I haven’t her gift for fiction, or her dedication. My energy is spent in so many different small channels that there is nothing that remains of it, no landmark to show where I have passed. I feel utterly mediocre, completely ordinary, no different from anyone else. The older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that the world for all time has been full mostly of ordinary folk. That’s how children are born and raised; that’s how crops are grown and harvested; that’s how the things that need doing day after day after day get done.

If anyone knows how to keep chasing dreams and still make sure that there are school clothes ready for the week, the homework gets done, and the children get to school on time (or thereabouts), I would love to hear how that goes. Because the ordinary ordinary seems like the place where dreams just die and hopes have to be transformed or they kill you. When all the energy is expended in the dawn-to-dusk routine, there’s not much left for chasing dreams by moonlight. The ghosts of hope linger, haunting me after bedtime. Sometimes the extraordinary interrupts, and shows something beyond endless to-do lists and dirty laundry. images-1

Mostly, though, it’s ordinary through and through. Someone please tell me there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Partly cloudy

It often happens at bedtime: so tired, and yet awake. I think, I ought to do something if I am awake. There’s always so much to do. What’s wrong with me? I wonder.

Probably nothing. Nothing, that is, but the ordinary out-of-stepness that is the state of human life lived in too-close cooperation with the fallenness of the world. There is another world, but it is the same as this one, indeed, as has been said by more than one poet and quoted by Rowan Williams. And being between worlds sometimes seems like the state I’m in: finding the ‘other’ in the world doesn’t come easily, when it comes at all.

And who knows how the voice of the Other World will break through? Maybe through something I read, a chance comment somewhere (on social media, even!), in the quiet, or on a walk…I can’t predict. Some days it is as though someone added Felix Felicis to my coffee. The worlds seem to come together. Coming and going, the ordinary things, all seem to lead to a great openness and peace. Other days, not so much.

Like clouds block the sun, sometimes the light that illumines my soul dims. Who knows what ‘clouds’ might float along, stopping the brightness of the sun’s rays? And who knows how long the shadows will cover me? Not I. My only gift, the only thing I have learned to do in this partly cloudy existence is to enjoy the warm sun, to be grateful for the beauty of the clouds, and to find comfort in the sound of heavy rain.

 

 

Monday of the third week of Lent

“My father,” [Naaman’s servants] said, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”  So Naaman went down, and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of the man of God. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him “Father, give me a word.” The old man said to him “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
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It is the ordinary stuff of life that most escapes our sense of God’s presence: if it is an ordinary thing, God must not really be involved in it. The miraculous is extraordinary, we think. Miracles, like that which Naaman desired, look spectacular. The miracle he got, however, was no less miraculous for being ordinary.

Unfortunately, progress in Christian faith seems to require, as Naaman’s servants and the desert fathers and mothers knew, a steady diet of very ordinary disciplines. Ascetic superheroes get short schrift in the Sayings; Elisha sent Naaman to wash in the Jordan, and Abba Moses sent the brother to go and sit in his cell. Nothing fancy. 

Once upon a time, I used to try do do heroic things during Lent. Then I had children. Now I find that the most basic observance of Lent, according to what the Church teaches, can be a struggle. Is this it? I wonder. Is this really all I can do? And is that enough? 

We don’t get to choose how we suffer for the sake of the gospel. We don’t get to choose which things will form us in obedience and humility. If we did, well, it wouldn’t be obedience, would it? So I drag myself through this Lent, hoping I can make a good confession between now and Holy Week, at least. Somewhere in the dragging, the apparently meaningless and pointless suffering of a very low mood, God is at work. All is now chaos and darkness, and the swirling, struggling feeling inside must be the Spirit, stirring up the water, making ready in some mysterious way for that great command: fiat lux!

And there will be light. There will be light. Not because of anything I do or do not do, but because the One who commands all our obedience is faithful and strong and true: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. 

In the meantime, I think I’ll look again at the inside of my cell, and see what it has to teach me.