Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ordinary Theology

If monastic wisdom informs, in certain ways,  the work of theology, it is nevertheless the case that there is much more to learn.

On my first visit to Mount Saint Mary's Abbey with my students, one element of the sisters' corporate life, in particular, left us all unnerved. Even after we had joined in their beautiful liturgy and sampled their unbelievably good chocolate candy, we all left with the same thought--"I could never do this"—and for the same reason.  

It happened after Sr. Karen had explained a bit about the community's daily life: rise at 3am, pray, eat, pray, work, pray, eat, pray, and so on until it was finally time for bed at 8pm. We had already begun to soak in the rhythm of it all: regular as clockwork, unhurried as the ages. Then, one of the students casually asked how often the sisters left the abbey for outings. Sister paused, and she did mention one or two exceptions—one of the sisters might have to go to the hospital, someone was assigned to purchase groceries—but, of course, in a cloistered community, the answer for most was clearly something very close to "never." Their property runs to a square mile or two, and that is where the sisters live out these absolutely regular days, as the weeks stretch into years, and years into decades. Even if I had known it intellectually, I was almost knocked flat in absorbing this reality right along with my students. These sisters did not follow their rule in anticipation of a weekend or a vacation or a leave. The horizon of their lives was exactly what we saw: their rule and their place.

The Cistercians speak of living of intentionally seeking a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." The very first in this triad was exactly what my students and I encountered. In our bones, we could feel the life that the sisters describe as their vocation: resisting the lure of everything special, exciting, unusual, they face head-on the temptation to distraction and to entertainment. They choose, by God's grace,  instead to sink themselves deep, and deeper, into in the rhythm of their rule. Ordered and ordinary.

They do insist, I should say, that once they have committed to their rule and their place, they experience it as a wide and spacious world. "In monastic life," writes Sr. Katie of Mount Saint Mary's, "one is led out into the desert where there is no place to hide... The horizons stretch as far as the eye can see, allowing hearts to expand on the journey towards the God..." It is clear, though, that this freedom is found not in turning aside from the ordinary, but by giving themselves to it completely.

What would it mean, I wonder, for those of us engaged in theology, to take a commitment of this kind to heart? What would it mean, in both our study and our teaching, for us to count orderedness and ordinariness as deep wisdom? We have our own rhythms—weeks and semesters and years—and we certainly have our own work, which can seem as tedious as any. What would it mean not simply to get through these, or to look to novelty or distraction? What might it mean for us to cling to the ordinary, and to consider, it, even, the possible path to the salvation of our souls?

In the world of a thousand innovations, and schools, and movements, ordinary theology may be what we need most of all.


  1. This is a great reminder; thanks. Any thoughts on what it is about being ordinary that is so terrifying to many of us?

  2. I'd say: our addiction to distraction only allows us see "ordinary" as emptiness and lack. The terror is something like an addict who can't find a hit, isn't it? Getting sober, at that point, just feels like dying...

  3. Stay tuned for a terrifying look at obscurity. :)