My family and I have been busy lately. (I suppose that is true for many if not most families, and now that I think about it, the word “lately” in the last sentence should be changed to “perennially.”) We moved to a new place in early September. A week later I turned in my dissertation. After that we spent most days working on our new home – washing and repairing walls, scraping off old paint, putting on new paint, weeding, weeding and more weeding in the garden. This period of work was capped off by my oral defense of the thesis at the end of the month. Of course, we were taking care of a toddler at the same time, a task all parents agree can be draining. At night I found myself beat and occasionally wondered about the ultimate significance of days of such mundane labor. (Honestly, I had the same thought about my dissertation sometimes as well…)
I am currently reading the Lord of the Rings series again (trust me, this does connect to the previous train of thought). In the midst of the everyday-ness of my life I am reading a story that is about that small percentage of life that is not “everyday”: adventure, life-changing experiences, great deeds, crisis, resolution, fame, and fortune. If you think about it, most stories we tell ourselves, through books, movies, TV shows, etc., are about these big moments in life. Some stories are more explicit about this than others, but a plot needs a climax. (Even the post-modern stories like Waiting for Godot have a sort of existential high-point.) Looking at life, though, I think that most days could be classified as “mundane” or, to use a word that captures the sheer quantity of these days, “everyday.” I have relatively few crisis moments, adventures or fame (and even less fortune).
The combination of my daily grind with the stories of adventure that I’m reading got me thinking about the lack of everyday-ness in the narratives of Scripture too. There’s no story about Jesus coming home after a long day of work in Sepphoris. He throws his tools on the table and collapses into a chair with a cup of water. He makes small-talk with his parents. Then he eats some dinner. Then he goes to bed. That’s it. Or, where’s the story in Acts that covers Paul’s actual journeys? You know, the part where he and Timothy are trudging along some muddy road in Greece in the winter and talking about the latest trends in leather-tanning to pass the time? Now that’s mundane.
But those stories aren’t there.
We want great things, exciting moments and adventure, but the majority of the time we get “everyday.” Interestingly, the Church calendar has another term for such days, Ordinary Time (which, incidentally, is also the name of a great band). On this calendar there’s Advent and Christmas and then there’s Ordinary Time. There’s Lent and Easter and then more Ordinary Time. Feasts are followed by regular life. About 2/3 of the year is classified as “Ordinary.” (The term itself comes from the same root as the word “ordinal” and means “numbered” or “counted time” translating the Latin phrase tempus per annum, time through the year.) What is so great about this yearly rhythm is that it gives place to the everyday. It is a year-long story of redemption that includes such great events as the birth of Jesus the universal Savior at Christmas, his dramatic death and even more dramatic resurrection and ascension, among others. But most of the year is still ordinary. And that’s okay.
Our stories of popular media, while great for entertainment (and I’ll be honest, I’ve read LOTR about a dozen times), often leave us feeling like our lives lack pizzaz, and they can rob us of “everyday” contentment. On the other hand, the ancient rhythm of the Church affirms the common experience of the mundane. It does not pretend that life is always fun or full of adventure, nor does it say that it should be. No. Most of our time is ordinary, and we need not kill ourselves to make it something else… because the feasts are coming at their appointed times.
Ben, thanks for a beautiful and insightful reflection. I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion that the church calendar offers a unique way of ordering our lives according to a, well, created pace. There is a certain luminous to the ordinary that the biographical voluntarism you outline can obscure. I’m thankful to you for drawing our attention back to the true meaning of ordinary time – as a reminder that we are to count our days, not so as to emphasise the need for constant activity and progress, but rather to order them carefully in a way that recognises the rhythms of contingent, created creatures. Perhaps this is something like what the Psalmist had in mind when he wrote, “So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psa. 90:12).
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