Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Ordinary

I love ordinary events. Today, just as I was leaving to walk to work we got a phone call from a neighbor who was looking for some muffin tins. Since I was leaving Kathy gave them to me to take to her. I walked down the street, tins in hand, and met our neighbor on the road in front of our house. I gave her the tins. We exchanged pleasantries about the weather, then went our own way.

This is a very ordinary event, one that doesn't make the news, doesn't shake the earth, doesn't sparkle (on the surface) with signs of the extraordinary, signs of excellence. Yet, even though we didn't say anything profound there was an unspoken exchange of warmth and friendship between us. She and her family have been very good to us since we moved into this neighborhood.

Such events really are extraordinary. Any time we perform the least act of friendship we are expressing our imago dei to the world even if the world does not recognize it because it is so ordinary. That is the genius of St. Francis, who wished to be little in the world, not a builder of great institutions. And St. Therese who was an ordinary, middle class French girl in a very ordinary Carmelite monastery. Yet, she was herself extraordinary and transformed the lives of millions simply by doing the little duties of life with love.

I have a tendancy to want to create great works--to be involved in vast, sweeping projects. What God is really calling me to is doing the little things of my little life well. Today's reading in morning prayer speaks to this quite directly.
"Heaven is my throneand the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the LORD. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word." (Is. 66:1-2 RSV)

This is all that God asks of us, not great projects.

My daughter and I were talking yesterday about the Second Vatican Council. Both of us are weary of hearing about it. I think this is because so much hope was pinned on the implementation, the building of a new edifice. Really, the central call of the Second Vatican Council to holiness means mostly for everyone to have a humble and contrite spirit and to tremble at God's Word. If we do that we are fulfilling the Council. All the implementation projects on which we pinned our hopes are dross if we do not have love, which is personal and modest, not an achievement that will always look extraordinary to the world. It has to do with doing our duty and how we treat those with whom we come into contact or have an established relationship.

There is a passage at the beginning of Introduction to the Devout Life that addresses this directly.
One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness; and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbour's blood, through slander and detraction. Another man reckons himself as devout because he repeats many prayers daily, although at the same time he does not refrain from all manner of angry, irritating, conceited or insulting speeches among his family and neighbours. This man freely opens his purse in almsgiving, but closes his heart to all gentle and forgiving feelings towards those who are opposed to him; while that one is ready enough to forgive his enemies, but will never pay his rightful debts save under pressure. Meanwhile all these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout.

The point is that charity and justice are true devotion. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving without fulfilling your just duty and being charitible to those with whom you daily interact is not true devotion at all. Doing great deeds of charity, creating wonderful art, transforming the economy or the political order without fulfilling your just duty and being charitible to those with whom you daily interact is not true devotion at all If you pin your hopes for happiness on the former, like George Baily, you will miss the joy that comes from the latter. So, building a great, visible edifice of devotion or accomplishment and devouring your neighbor is as good as nothing at all.

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