From the Daily Mass to the Domestic Mess

For Sunday May 11, 2014
Mothers Day

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Acts 2:42–47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2:19–25

John 10:1–10

           "The Lord walks among the pots and pans," said the Spanish mystic and Catholic saint Teresa of Avila.

           Teresa's assurance sounds good, but it feels like a far cry from the first days after the resurrection. In Acts 2:42–47, people experienced "many wonders and miracles done by the apostles." They sold their houses. They shared their possessions. Every day they met in the temple, and every night they gathered in homes to share their meals. The Spirit of God blew like a violent wind, and thousands flocked to the new movement.

           So, fast forward two thousand years. Are washing the dishes and walking the dog where we meet the living God today? Is that the most we should hope for? What about God's mighty acts of power? Where are his signs and wonders? Just what is the "abundant life" that Jesus offers in John 10:10? Has the Spirit's rushing wind become a mere whisper?

Kids playing.

           Not long after Luke wrote, Christians started asking similar questions. The prevalence of dreams, signs, wonders, and miracles gradually waned in the decades after the apostles. And conversely, as "apocalyptic vision became less vivid, the church's polity became more rigid" (Pelikan). Was this what God wanted — the bureaucratization of a revolutionary movement?

           Around the year 150 AD, the prophet Montanus taught that the decline in the Spirit's manifestations resulted from the church's moral laxity in matters like divorce and fasting. He claimed to have direct revelations from the Spirit. The sect named after him, Montanism, was characterized by fanatical zeal, rigorous asceticism, and a pre-occupation with supernatural manifestations of the Spirit.

           The most famous Montanist was the African theologian Tertullian. Writing in the early third century, Tertullian gives us a snap shot of the movement: "We have among us now a sister who has been granted gifts of revelations, which she experiences in church during the Sunday services through ecstatic vision in the Spirit. . . . And after the people have been dismissed at the end of the service it is her custom to relate to us what she has seen."

            Montanism made mainstream church authorities nervous. They responded in two ways — derision and denial.

           The historian Eusebius derided those who "rave in a kind of ecstatic trance." He dismissed their "bastard utterances" as the "demented, absurd and irresponsible sayings" of a "presumptuous spirit." The Montanists, he said, "babble in a jargon" that is "contrary to the custom of the church which had been handed down by tradition from the earliest times."

           Hippolytus, a contemporary of Tertullian who was martyred in Rome in 235, taught that miraculous visions and direct communications from the Spirit ended with the Revelation of John around 100 AD. He said that the Spirit worked differently now than in the apostolic days. God speaks clearly, sufficiently, and reliably through three means — the canon of Scripture, the creeds of the councils, and the clergy of the church.

Man washing dishes.

           We don't need to make a binary opposition between God's presence in miraculous interventions and in the church institution. Montanism always had detractors and defenders. And the institutionalization of the church was both inevitable and necessary.

           The genius of Teresa's observation about finding God among the pots and pans is that it suggests a third way that the Spirit meets us.

           I recently read Alice McDermott's new novel Someone. It's her first novel in seven years, and won the National Book Award for fiction in 2013. The bland and anonymous title of the novel points to its universal subject matter — the everyday life of an ordinary person, Marie Commeford, who narrates her life story from a young school girl until she's an old woman living alone in a care facility.

           The story is set in Brooklyn, where McDermott was born in 1953, and in her family's Irish American Catholicism. Marie's friend Pegeen lives next door. Gerty Hanson was "the best of best friends" across many decades. Her brother Gabe was a priest for a year, but then quit and had a nervous breakdown. Dora Ryan married a person who turned out to be a woman dressed like a man. People die. Friends move away. They get sick and have accidents. The neighborhood declines and the apartments deteriorate. There's a first love as a teenager, then the long love of marriage to Tom.

           What's going on here is the quotidian life of someone, anyone, told in rich detail. Marie is an "unremarkable woman with an unforgettable life." Call it the sacred ordinary. The morning after her honeymoon Marie awakens to familiar urban sounds outside the window: "a disappointing sense of an ordinary day, even here in the lovely hotel, an ordinary day simply going on." But that's all anyone has, McDermott seems to say, and life can be very good indeed with its mysterious mixture of ordinary joys and sorrows.

           The Celtic tradition is famous for its simple prayers by ordinary people about everyday life. The Celts would concur with the wisdom of Teresa. They specialized in prayers for the mundane matters of life. God was present everywhere and in all ways. The Celts remind us that we meet the sacred in the mundane.

           The Celts had prayers for getting dressed and going to sleep, for waking up and for lighting the fire. They prayed for birth and death, healing and protection, hunting and herding, the farming and fishing. They prayed invocations to bless the loom and the land. Here, for example, is a "Milking Prayer."

Bless, O God, my little cow,
Bless, O God, my desire;
Bless Thou my partnership
And the milking of my hands, O God.

Bless, O God, each teat,
Bless, O God, each finger;
Bless Thou each drop
That goes into my pitcher, O God.

These simple prayers are sacred acts. They're tender and profound.

           They aren't the formal prayers of the institutional church. They aren't the ecstatic utterances of a miraculous vision. They are dignified, homely and eloquent, the ordinary and yet sacred stuff of life in God's Spirit. In short, they're holy because they're holistic.

Changing a baby's diaper.

           Gregory Popcak writes that while we meet God in the Daily Mass at church, we also meet him in the Domestic Mess at home. God's grace "allows us to be transformed by doing little acts of family life with great love; wiping noses, drying tears, drawing pictures, playing games, calming fears."

           At the Vox Veniae church in Austin, parishioners have written their own Celtic-like prayers — for driving in traffic, doing the laundry, brushing teeth, and washing dishes. We can imagine prayers for Little League and the lawn mower, for the Girl Scouts and the piano lessons.

           Popcak concludes: "We don’t need to escape our homes to find God and sanctity.  We don’t need to run away from home to pray. We need to follow Christ’s example, and empty ourselves, entering more deeply into the mystery of the domestic mess and finding the wholeness and holiness that waits for us there."


On Vox Veniae, see:

On Gregory Popcak, see

On Celtic prayers, see Esther de Waal, editor, The Celtic Vision; Prayers, Blessings, Songs and Incantations from the Gaelic Tradition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 2001), 171pp.

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3)