Everyday Mysteries: A Religious Life in the Real World
Writers and religious people take a bum rap as being ?other-worldly,? not grounded in the real world. But I have long considered that a convenient little fib. Ever since I encountered John Keats’s great poem ?Ode on a Grecian Urn? in a high school English class, I have been tempted to believe that he had it all figured out when he concluded, ?Beauty is truth, truth beauty,?that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.? Other than that, coming to know truth seems to me to be a matter, not of claiming special access to great and glorious mysteries, but of getting down to earth and following the daily disciplines that life requires of us’even getting along with these strange and difficult other people God has given me to live among and work with. If I am to take the biblical commandment seriously, this means not simply treating them with tolerance and forbearance but respecting and even loving them as I do myself! That is a hard realism indeed.
There are also the daily chores that seem to have so little to do with beauty and holiness but are the marks of a well-grounded self-respect. And in that sense they do keep us in touch with a larger reality. It’s odd, but true: being willing to take a shower, shampoo our hair and make our bed can be a sign of mental health. We realize the truth of this when people stop doing these things or refuse to do them: it is often a sign that they are in deep despair or even entering a psychotic state. Taken to its logical extreme, a refusal of the everyday can be suicidal. In her terrifying autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath has her protagonist, Esther, explain why she has not washed her hair for three weeks: ?The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly. . . . It seemed so silly to wash one day when I would have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything at once and for all and be through with it.? Here, as clear as the tolling of a bell, is a call to suicide: to have it over once and for all and be through with it.
Isn’t it awful to think that these unglorious, seemingly unholy, everyday tasks’tasks like dusting and cleaning’are a key to our staying sane, to our being willing to stay in that daily struggle called life? It is certainly humbling’especially because our culture so effectively promotes an ideal of the accomplished, professional person who has risen above all this and can leave domestic chores to unskilled labor. But it’s very revealing that as we Americans have generally become more affluent’more able to hire help with our daily, repetitive tasks, such as cooking and cleaning’our consumption of antidepressants and sleeping pills has risen dramatically. It humbles me to realize that I need to floss my teeth every day, but doing so will not only help me keep my teeth, it will also keep me on track. It humbles me to realize that, if I practice prayer in the morning, I will be more likely to remember that God is love and more conscious during the day’on the bus, at work, at the grocery store’of the truth that life itself is a gift emanating that great, endlessly creative and inexhaustible love. All too many days, however, I forget about that and go about my tasks as if I were the sun around which the world is spinning. But even as I know that is not true, it is hard not to slip into that self-centered reverie.
What is true? What is holy? And how can we tell, now that so much spirituality is for sale in America? There are now expensive resorts specializing in things like sweat lodge experiences and meditation’recommended not only for families but also for expensive corporate retreats. So what is true? What is holy? What is true is that each moment of our life is a gift of unfathomable beauty. And the truth is we do not want to know it. To see the brilliance of the grace that surrounds and sustains us is too much for us to bear, and if we were constantly overwhelmed by a sense of wonder and gratitude, we would never get anything done. It is easier, and far more efficient, for us to go about our daily tasks as if we were the sun around which the world is spinning, giving our attention not to divine mysteries but to whatever comes along: deadlines, accumulating e-mail, the spot on a new suit, the annoyances of rush-hour traffic. And all of it is oddly comforting. We complain about the stress, but deep down; our anxiety is a form of vanity, reassuring us that if we are busy, we are important. And that makes us essential, more than mortal. We’re too busy to go to the bathroom, let alone find time to die.
Yet dying is what we are doing, from the moment we take our first breath. Scientists and physicians would agree with German theologian Karl Rahner that ?we live a dying life.? But even as living consumes our energies, we forget about our dying. We learn to navigate by focusing not on the big picture but on our immediate surroundings, losing sight of the glorious web of circumstance and connection that has brought this planet, and our life on it, into being. It often takes a crisis to give us perspective. A man sipping a drink in a restaurant coughs, stops breathing and turns blue. Everything changes in that moment. Family, friends, strangers’it does not matter’drop what they are doing. One phones 911, others place him on his side until he begins to breathe again. When he opens his eyes and responds to a question, they cheer. It is as if time had been suspended, waiting for this moment. Once the EMTs arrive, the rescuers drift back to business lunches or their offices. Having stared hard into what is true’that life is both precious and precarious, a tenuous matter of heartbeat and breath’one will order a stiff drink, one will phone her husband to tell him she loves him, another will sit at his desk, staring at the photographs of his children until tears well up and he turns back to the blinking cursor on the computer screen.
As we go about our business, we are like the farmer in the gospel parable who dreams of building new granaries to house a plentiful harvest, until God rudely interrupts his reverie: ?You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you? (Luke 12:20). On this night, most of us will not die, or be confronted with a crisis, but our life may be required of us in other ways. A small child will demand our full attention. The valid needs of a spouse, parent or friend will loom larger than our plans for the evening, and we may feel resentful, uneasy or merely fatigued. It may seem that we are being asked to draw from a well that has run dry. But something vitally important is being called for: our presence’completely without charge’a presence that cannot be bought or sold, a presence that includes our listening and caring. Life, after all, is a fleeting thing, and the present moment a treasure beyond price.
The great marketing arm that penetrates every aspect of American life has other treasures in mind’stuff we can buy, stuff that gives us status’which persuade us to walk down the street not as ourselves but as Calvin, Tommy, or DKNY. If our culture seems bent on convincing us that our plans are all that matters, and that our life’the good life’need never end, then religious perspective can act as a counterpunch. Take, for example, the wisdom of St. Benedict’s admonition, in his Rule for monks, to ?keep death daily before your eyes.? If my eyes are tuned only to television commercials, that seems simply morbid. But I might also find in it my true north, a pole which places both death and life in proper perspective. As the murdered Lester Burnham puts it at the end of the film American Beauty: ?I guess I could be [upset] about what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world . . . it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about. . . . But don’t worry, you will someday.?
I watched that film with a Benedictine monk, a hospital chaplain who is often engaged with people at the end of life. Some are overcome with fear, others with a sense of awe at all the good things they have been given. As the credits rolled, he sighed and said, ?At least that man died in a state of grace.? Karl Rahner once gave a homily in his rural parish for the Feast of All Souls, commenting that, while the dead speak to us through silence, ?their words of love do not reach our ears because they have blended into one with the joyous word of God’s boundless love. . . . The dead are silent because they live,? Rahner concluded, ?just as our noisy chatter is supposed to make us forget we are dying.?
The job of the poet is like that of the theologian. As Gregory of Nyssa reminds us, anyone who prays truly is a theologian. That fourth-century perspective jolts us out of the easy relegating of theology to the professionals. It is our job, too. And theology persists, as does poetry, because it gives voice to that great silence that Rahner speaks of, and turns us toward important matters that we are in danger of forgetting. Poetry finds words to express what we feel to be true but cannot explain. Once, while delivering a meal to an elderly woman during a cruel winter, I was startled by the presence of beauty in a place where I did not expect it. Summoning the ghost of John Keats, I wrote a poem entitled ?Nutrition’:
We deliver hot meals
In a fierce winter. I knock,
and shake my boots,
on ancient linoleum
on a wounded
Have lost their bloom;
wrinkled, they droop
on their stems,
as if weighted
Their beauty. Yes.
Like the widow’s icy walk,
her gnarled fingers
on the lap robe
in the musty living room,
the Bible open
to Isaiah 35:
and the desert shall rejoice,
and blossom . . .
her wrinkly smile
as I knock
and enter. Beauty, yes. All of it.
The job of the poet or the one who prays is to remain open to the surprises that God gives us. One of my favorite contemporary poems, a work of biblical interpretation, occurs in a series by Kate Daniels based on the creation story in Genesis. In the series, each time a new family is made, a new world is made. This particular poem, ?Funk,? deals with creation’s aftermath, the third day, when God created the earth, including the ?swampy muck? of a baby’s dirty diaper. How this poem came to be is a true mystery, because the poet is a mother of three, a wife and also a professor of literature. In a prose piece she talks about the burgeoning poem she was forced to set aside after a busy day of teaching and then returning home to her children and husband who,
like me . . . are tired, overstimulated. The events of the day are clamoring inside them. The good events want to be shouted out. The bad seethe inside . . . or are precipitously acted out in ferocious sibling wars or creative acts of paternal defiance. We have all come home to each other to be healed and hailed, to be soothed if a victim, chastised if a perpetrator, and morally realigned. But we are so tired, and we lash out in irritation, frustration, anger.
Amid the chaos in her kitchen’children doing homework or littering the floor with paper scraps from an art project, the dog overturning the garbage pail’she takes a stand: ?Try as I may’and I do’I have a hard time browning the ground turkey I’m planning to mix with canned spaghetti sauce for the glory of God. I try to find the poetry that exists, even here. . . . I know that God is here, but in the chaos and the noise, I can’t seem to find him.?
Remember, this is a woman who can find God while changing a diaper. But in the kitchen, here and now, she feels bereft of any consolation. Nevertheless, she has faith, and hope, that there is something better for her and her family than the ordinary pains and frustrations of this typical, frustrating, chaotic evening. Drudgery is not meaningless; it may be the very place where God can find us, and we will finally be ready to listen.
I am for less of what we call in America ?spirituality? and for more ?theology? of this sort. I named my little book The Quotidian Mysteries just because I like the sound of the Latin word ?quotidian? (daily). I had read most of the other books in the series’all by women, mostly biblical scholars and theologians’and not one of them had mentioned laundry. Hence my subtitle, Laundry, Liturgy, and ?Women’s Work.? I felt vindicated when a woman, a young mother, came to a workshop I was teaching simply because the word ?laundry? was in the advertisement she had seen. It is the job of creative thinkers in whatever field to stay as humble as the mathematician Bernhard Riemann when he stated that he did not invent the differential equations named after him but found them in the world, where God had hidden them. I regard metaphors in the same light and rejoice when I am given a glimpse of something more’more true, more beautiful’than I had imagined.
I close with a poem that began as a side glance, noticing a bee as it approached a hollyhock flower.
Body and Blood
I am worn, spent,
torn with sorrows?
still, I walk
in the blue light of dawn
and the sky upholds me?
a crescent of moon,
a wing of cloud,
deep crimson, ascends
in the east, tinting even the western sky.
Stupid with worry,
worries’and they are legion?
I stop to admire the weedy hollyhocks
by a neighbor’s backyard fence.
I hear the bumblebee
before I spot him
entering a blossom,
his body quivering
like an infant’s mouth at the breast,
drinking the milk of the world. 
. Kathleen Norris, Journey: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001).
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Everyday Mysteries: A Religious Life in the Real World
MQR 82 (January 2008)