A Spirituality for Ordinary Time

I have been musing about what it means to be beginning "Ordinary Time" for 2010. In one sense, the term has a simple liturgical meaning. "Ordinary Time" begins on the Monday after the Second  Sunday of the Year (The Baptism of the Lord). There is, paradoxically, no first Sunday in Ordinary Time. It runs until Ash Wednesday and, then, resumes again the Monday after Pentecost, until Advent. It is called Ordinary Time to differentiate it from the readings, liturgical colors( white, red, purple) for Advent, Christmas through the Baptism of the Lord; Lent, Easter until Pentecost. These seasons all celebrate and lift up special high points of Jesus’ life: his birth; his death and resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Spirit.

Ordinary Time lacks such a focus—it simply takes up many different  parables and narratives of Jesus’ ministry. One internet blogger, using the title, “Ordinary Time is also Extraordinary,” reflected that, during liturgical Ordinary Time, she can, therefore, focus on themes not found very prominently in Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. During Ordinary Time, she remarked, she can concentrate on  themes such as: (1) God the creator and our creation-care; (2) Christ and the call to be his incarnational presence in a broken world; (3) The  Holy Spirit who equips our life for quite ordinary forms of service; ( 4) God’s kingdom and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Is there, I wondered, an appropriate spirituality for Ordinary Time?


Ordinary Time is never really, of course, so ordinary. It takes up some 65 percent (33 weeks) of the liturgical year. In a similar way, for the bulk of our life, most days involve fairly mundane, even hum-drum, routines: going about our work; relating to friends and family; being a ‘householder’; doing our daily chores. Nothing special about them. A woman photographer and writer reflects on Ordinary Time: “In my life, not all photos or writing need to be about celebrations of life, the birthdays, graduations, weddings, holiday gatherings. Life is more than that, and when you write and take pictures, suddenly you realize what life is in its truest sense of the word. Life is 'more.' We just don’t realize that life is going on around us when it is happening most of the time."

We must not let the ordinary stay ordinary or simply sit around and wait for something "special" to celebrate. In a similar way, most spirituality is not mainly about  spiritual highs or lows’—dramatic or graphic reminders of God’s grace and action in our life or periods of mourning. The best spiritual guides all insist that spirituality is about being present to the real as it surrounds us in ordinary time and place. As John Ruskin once put it: “The secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of ordinary daily life and elevating them into an art”… and, I would add, a mysticism of seeing, dwelling on the ordinary as it presents itself. After all, artists take what we often think is ordinary and, by a deep probing, see in it something luminous.

Pablo Casalls, the great cellist, was once sitting on a park bench in New York City’s Central Park. He was weeping. When asked why he was weeping, he pointed to a nearby flower and said:” Just: look at that flower next to me. It is so very beautiful." Or, as the poet, Wallace Stevens--who spent most of  his  days as a hum-drum insurance adjuster, in between writing poetry-- once put it: “ It must be this rhapsody or none: the rhapsody of things as they are."

I recently read a lovely essay by D.J. Waldie, entitled “Ordinary Time: The Making of a Catholic Imagination.” Waldie has written a well-regarded memoir of growing-up and living in a relatively non-descript, working class, suburban area of Los Angeles, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir He says of his writing: “All of my writing is, in part, a meditation on the fate of ordinary things.” Waldie, however, thinks we can attune ourselves to ‘dwell’ in the ordinary and probe it in greater depth. He cites sociologist, Andrew Greeley who once said: “God lurks everywhere. That’s the fundamental Catholic instinct: That on the imaginative and poetic level, God is lurking everywhere. Right down the street, right around the corner, there is God.”  Elsewhere, invoking “A Sacramental Imagination,” Greeley claimed that “Catholics live in an enchanted world. The world of the Catholic is haunted by a sense that the objects, events and persons of daily life are revelations of Grace”.

There is, to be sure, a shadow side to Greeley’s sacramental imagination ( or, for that matter, to the Jesuit insistence that God can be found in all things, even the ordinary). “ Because the Catholic imagination believes that everything is a sign, it is prone, in its disappointments, to superstition, cults and the substitution of religion for faith, the replacement of authority for loyalty.”  A genuinely contemplative imagination learns to  ‘dwell’ in ordinary time and  gain a special vulnerability to the place where it lives. It knows that spirituality, sometimes, is about doing ( what we call  ‘practices’). At times, however,  it reverses, as the Zen masters did, that old bromide: “ Don’t just sit there, do something” into its converse:” Don’t just do something, sit there”. After all, as someone once remarked about Zen monks: “ What could be more ordinary than the cypress tree which the monk passes everyday, as he meditates? Is it this everyday ordinary thing which is to be , for him, the embodiment of enlightenment? But, then, that is exactly the point: it is the everyday thing, the paradox of everyday life, which becomes the magic window, as it were, into what is."

Waldie warns against letting this profound sense of God, lurking even in ordinary events, from degenerating into a domestication of God. Because, as Waldie insists, “For some of us, the touch of the everyday inspires horror. The imagination dwells on what John Didion memorably called "the unspeakable peril of the everyday"—the coyote standing by the swimming pool, the snakes in the baby’s playpen and the autumn wildfire whipping over the canyon lip." In the everyday where we find an imminent God lurking, profound transience also lurks. It—as our world and our lives—is passing. The Catholic imagination for the everyday of God’s lurking grace should not allow us only to "dwell." It should unsettle us, too, at times. Waldie comments: “That imagination should flinch when blows are laid on another’s back, lift in sympathy with the prayers of another’s worship, and savor another’s wisdom, even when expressed in cadences that are wholly foreign”.  We also need to recall, in seeking out the presence of God in all things, that:“The everyday isn’t perfect. It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but imbued with the Incarnation, it fires the imagination of others”..  So, the cross is equally found in the everyday. Yet, a Catholic spirituality for ordinary time will say, with Waldie: “ The weight of everyday life is a burden I want to carry.”

I am glad "Ordinary Time" has arrived. Like the color of the green vestments during "Ordinary Time," if I enter into it with an appropriate spiritual stance, it can become for me my own kind of  "greening" before, from and towards our God.

John Coleman, S.J.

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