My father died when he was twenty-three and I was three. I inherited only one small thing from him for my small self. It was a palm-size prayer book that had one of those old-time prayer card poems in it, edged in black. I memorized it almost as soon as I could read. It said, "I have only just a minute / only sixty seconds in it / forced upon me / can't refuse it / didn't seek it / didn't choose it / but I will suffer if I lose it..." As the years went by, the doggerel slipped from memory, the philosophy lost its allure. Then, I got older and discovered some things.
Time is the ground, the centerpiece, the glue and the glory of life. But it is not simple. The liturgical tradition has long divided time in two. There were, we learned as young novices, two kinds of days in life and two periods of the year. The days were either feast days or ferial days. The year was divided into "ordinary" time and ...well, "extra-ordinary" time, I guess. This second segment of the year, come to think about it, I never heard anyone name at all. It was a number of times: Advent, Lent, the Christmas, Easter and Pentecost seasons.
That kind of information may be boring stuff but it's important stuff, too. Ordinary time, you see, was the longest period of all. It was the time when life went its long, dull way, predictable to the ultimate. Monday, the novices did the laundry; Tuesday, we did chapel, altar breads, and house-cleaning; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday we did it all again. More of the same. Same old, same old. Week after week, month after month, year after year.
Every once in a while, of course, life was punctuated by a feast day with its special meals and polyphonic liturgies but, in the end, the normal, the daily predominated. As it does for all of us yet. The commute, the paperwork, the housework, the school run, eat up day after day with mind-numbing regularity. And yet, it is in "ordinary" time that the really important things happen: our children grow up, our marriages and relationships grow older, our sense of life changes, our vision expands, our soul ripens.
No doubt about it, the prayer card was right: To lose the glory of ordinary time is to suffer the loss of the greater part of life.
It's only what we learn while we're doing what seems to be basically routine that really counts: how to endure, how to produce, how to make life rich at its most mundane moments. "There are more truths in twenty-four hours," Raoul Vaneigem wrote, "than in all the philosophies."
The nice thing about repetition is that it gives us an opportunity to take a second look at everything around us before we miss what it is meant to teach us.
To be considered "ordinary" has become an insult of sorts. But it is only the ordinary that has the ring of hard-won truth to it. Anything else is scam and whipped cream.
"Everything passes, everything perishes, everything palls," the French say. There is nothing, in other words, in which the pulse of the ordinary does not beat. Hoping to live life on the edge all the time is not just adolescent, it is futile.
The desert monastics wove baskets every day of their lives to earn alms for the poor-and, when the baskets went unsold, unbraided them and began again. The purpose was to occupy the body and free the mind. Mindless work is not a burden when the mind is full and the heart like a laser beam finds its way to God.
We want life to be exciting, when as a matter of fact, life is only life. We want the spiritual to be mystical rather than real.
Annie Dillard wrote, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." The tragedy is that we ignore so much of it in the interest of getting to the real stuff. Never confuse the ordinary with the simple, the static, or the boring. Living an ordinary life well can be a very complicated thing to do. It takes great talent to make a great life out of a routine one.
"A cow must graze where it is tied," the Africans say. The little circumstances in which we find ourselves are the food of the soul. When I solve hunger problems in my hometown, I am healing a starving globe.
Repetition is of the essence of monasticism. We repeat our daily schedule. In the first place, it frees the mind for greater thoughts. In the second place, it sensitizes the soul to the sacred poetry of the present moment. When the day is really routine we get to think awhile about what we're doing and why we're doing it and how we're doing it. It is the well from which we draw our reasons to go on.
The routine parts of life, the dull parts of the day are the gifts of space. Then, while the world goes on around us, the thoughts of God take hold within us.
If I cook dinner, that's ordinary. If I put a flower on the table when I serve it, that's divine.
The function of routine is to give us time to recoup our energies for the next unpredictable challenge. Enjoy every minute of normal time you have. Store it in your heart as energy and endurance. You will someday need the peace and calm and certainty you have garnered there.