There’s no place like home when you’ve been in hospital. So after having knee replacement surgery I longed to be home, back to a familiar setting, my own bed, and the routines and tasks that make up the ordinary of my life.
Once I did return home however, I had to face the fact that what I assumed was the ‘ordinary’ of my life had changed. While my new knee and I became took time to become acquainted I was faced with days and weeks being dependent on others for lots of basic tasks. Never had the freedom and ability to get into the car and do the supermarket shopping or even to wipe down the kitchen benches, seem so attractive as when I couldn’t do it!
I don’t know what my days look like from the outside but living inside them can often feel very flat and uneventful. It’s when this ordinariness stops, that in some perverse way I begin to miss it.
Thomas Merton, the American Trappist, is a pin-up of mine. (Another is Abraham, a dreamer if ever I saw one, but that’s beside the point.) In his writings Thomas says over and over again that our real self, the self that God knows, is to be found in the context of our everyday realities.
Back when I first started reading about Thomas Merton I decided that his day-to-day realities were a piece of cake, living as he did in a religious community without the pressures of life as I knew them. Not for him the struggle to pay the mortgage, fractious adolescents or a husband on the golf course when there were lawns to be mowed and guttering to be cleared.
Then I got to be older and a bit more self-aware. That daily monastic timetable that left one free to read, pray and reflect was coupled with a diet that rarely varied, year after year. There was nothing glamorous about it. In fact the whole life-style could become – tiresome? Just like mine.
Why it is that some of us have so much trouble believing that the little details of our life are beneath God’s interest. Are we actually saying such ordinariness doesn’t interest us very much?
We long for God but fail to recognise God’s presence in the tedium of deciding what to cook for dinner or cleaning the bathroom. We mistakenly believe that if God and I really had something going on we would be out doing important Church work, being a missionary, preaching sermons!
This came home strongly to me some years ago when I spent four weeks in East Timor in a mountain town called Bacau. I thought that I was going to Bacau to help, but they needed carpenters and engineers, bricklayers and electricians, not an English teacher.
The people were poor, employment just about non-existent and the electricity supply spasmodic. Many of the houses had been demolished by the Indonesian militia and remained roofless, windowless shells.
At the convent where I stayed there was one tap for the community of Timorese Sisters and their 100 borders, because even though it was the wet season, the country was experiencing a drought. The only thing I could do was to live in solidarity with them. I bucketed water for my shower, ate rice with some green vegetable that I never did identify, helped the secondary school boarders with their English homework, did a bit of sewing. While that small town in East Timor shared with me the ordinariness of their days I fretted about such ordinariness, wanting to DO something.
Thomas Merton struggled with his desire to break out, go somewhere different, do something else. But day by day, year after year, in the day to day tedium, wrapped up in the walls of Gethsemani Abbey, God and Thomas Merton gradually closed in on one another.
Paula D’Arcy, a US writer and retreat leader, says “God comes to you disguised as your life.” Such a simple, obvious and profound statement. It reminds me of that verse in the Gospels when Jesus says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”. There he stands, waiting for us to open up and let him in, into the commonplace, the mess, and the uneventfuls that make up the ordinary of our days.