‘Well its back to porridge tomorrow!’ It’s a great phrase, one which I associate with my Dad, though I think it might be one he got from his father. It usually signified the end of a holiday and pointed to the fact that the freedom and fun was over, at least for a while, and we were back to school in the coming days. Porridge of course was not to be taken literally and simply meant routine. There was more than a hint that the routine was mundane. In these last days of August and early days of September I have been thinking again about that back to school feeling. I suppose it’s true that few students are jumping for joy at the idea of a new school term. Even for those fortunate enough to enjoy school, the structure of the day and the demands of class work, never mind homework, can lead to a real feeling of foreboding. For parents it can be a mixed blessing, a quieter house, at least for a few hours, though of course it can be an expensive time. It looks like shoes, shirts and especially trousers have all shrunk in a few weeks. There is no doubt whether for parent or student, not forgetting the teacher, there is usually a mad scramble to get ready. For most people routine is part of life. Many of us experience more than our fair share of what we call ‘ordinary days’, however it might be useful to have a closer look at routine, or what we term, ‘ordinary’.
Whilst it is true, routine is often associated with boredom, disinterest and a lack of excitement or challenge in our lives, though this is not always the case. In fact for some routine is a safe haven. Some people argue that it is in fact routine that keeps them going. Predictability is often the anchor in the constant change of our lives. I smile as I remember arriving home to Belfast when my mother had grown older and I, more out of habit than anything, would enquire of her as I came in, ‘well, anything strange?’, and she would quickly retort, ‘ No thank God, nothing strange, and I don’t want anything strange!’ Of course it is natural for all of us to look forward to the big day, the occasion, the party, but the reality is for a lot of the time there is a sameness about our days. This is an appropriate point at which to introduce a word that is growing in unpopularity, and that is the word duty. Perhaps some will remember a time when to do ones duty was heroic and certainly was evident of considerable virtue, but perhaps the concept of duty has fallen into disrepute. People still do their duty, but it often comes with a lethargic dragging of the heels, ‘well I know it’s my duty, and I’ll do it because it’s expected of me.’
The question that arises for me is this, has our faith anything to say about routine or the more mundane aspects of our lives? How do we as people of faith deal with the ordinariness of life? Where is duty in the life of the Christian? I think many will be surprised that the Christian life is actually rooted in the ordinary. Let’s put it another way: if we wait until the ‘big day’, to commune with the Lord, then we shall indeed wait, and so will the Lord! In fact if we miss the divine in the daily we in turn miss a huge aspect of the wonder of God present amongst us. John McGahern, the wonderful Leitrim writer, a few months before he died was asked what was his favourite day; was it winning a prestigious literary award, or a gala event for writers? With characteristic understatement he said that his favourite day was the day when nothing appeared to happen. The day when he could amble up the back field and hear the variety of birdsong and the water lapping at the stones. What McGahern was hinting at is the sacredness of the ordinary. I think this is something akin to what Therese of Lisieux was saying in response to the question, how do we become holy? The reply of the saintly Carmelite, we refer to affectionately as the Little Flower was, ‘to become holy is simply to do ordinary things extraordinarily well’. This can be a real challenge but if we miss God in the Ordinary we are in fact in danger of missing one of the central aspects of the Incarnation.
The truth of the matter is that most of us will not have our names in lights, nor will be canonised saints of the Church. However this does not in any way diminish our call to holiness. We are called to find God in his creation and in a profound way in each other. In effect most of the time this will mean finding God in the Ordinary. Yes of course we will find him in the epic opera, the inspirational novena, on a grace-filled pilgrimage, but it would be important not to miss him in the butterfly, the hop of the robin, the smile of the old lady, the smell of fresh bread, the wildness of the blackberry, the coldness of the beer, and the cool breeze of the evening after the long hot day. We should not be surprised that the Saviour born in a stable, the Messiah who becomes the apprentice carpenter, the itinerant rabbi and God’s Son who hung on a Cross can be found in the minutiae of our lives. Surely it is his wonder that he is infused into the very fabric of our day. Let’s rejoice in the present moment. Let’s give God thanks for the simple and the ordinary daily riches that are all around us.