From Our Archives
For Sunday April 30, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
1 Peter 2:19–25
This Week's Essay
In my essay last week about the Dinner at Emmaus, I mentioned the Spanish mystic and Catholic saint Teresa of Avila to the effect that "the Lord walks among the pots and pans." This homey assurance sounds good, but isn't it a far cry from the crazy days right after the resurrection?
In the reading this week from Acts 2:42–47, the first believers 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 now, 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? Exactly what is the "abundant life" that Jesus offers in John 10:10 for this week? Has the Spirit's rushing wind become a quiet whisper?
Not long after Luke's vivid descriptions of a vibrant movement, these questions became an obvious and complicated issue for the early church. Christians began to wonder — why did the "pentecostal" prevalence of dreams, signs, wonders, and miracles gradually wane in the decades after the resurrection and the first apostles?
And conversely, as the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan observed, as "apocalyptic vision became less vivid, the church's polity became more rigid." Was that what God wanted — the bureaucratization of a revolutionary movement?
Some believers repudiated any concessions to a status quo. 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. Perhaps to his credit, he was understandably trying to recapture those early days described by Luke.
The most famous Montanist was the African theologian Tertullian. Writing in the early third century, Tertullian gives us a snap shot of their 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." If the apostles Paul and John could have ecstatic visions, why not an ordinary believer?
Montanism's zeal made mainstream church authorities nervous. They responded in two ways — derision and denial.
The historian Eusebius (265–339) 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.
I don't think we need to drive a wedge between God's presence in miraculous interventions and in the church institution, or to construe them as binary opposites. 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 today.
I recently read Alice McDermott's novel The Ninth Hour (2017). In an interview with Adrienne Leavy in The Irish Times (October 19, 2017), McDermott joked that The Ninth Hour "is about nuns. And laundry." That caught my attention because in my family I do most of the laundry. With her glib comment, McDermott was suggesting that her novel is about the sacred ordinary.
The novel is set in the tenement housing of Irish Catholic Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century — a place much like where McDermott was born, raised, and attended Catholic schools. Most of the novel takes place in the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, and thus the liturgical reference of the book title.
Late one dark and dank February afternoon, a young husband named Jim barricaded himself in his apartment, turned on the gas tap to the oven, then carried the rubber tubing into his bedroom and began to suck on the hose. In addition to killing Jim, the gas ignited a fire that raged through the small apartment. Left behind to fend for herself was his pregnant wife Annie.
By mere chance or divine providence, an aged and irreverent nun named Sister St. Savior happened by the apartment at just the right time, and intervened to help Annie. She introduced her to the convent, where Annie and her newborn baby Sally found refuge.
It's in the convent, among the other nuns who exude a gritty sort of grace, that Annie experiences the presence of God in the midst of tragedy. The first person she meets is Sister Illuminata, who is in charge of the convent laundry. In the bowels of the basement doing the laundry with Sister Illuminata, Annie experiences the sacred in the ordinary.
The Cuban-American theologian María Isasi-Díaz (1943–2012) described this intersection of the miraculous and the mundane, the unexpected and the unexceptional, as "the daily thing" or "sacred ordinariness" (lo cotidiano).
In Quaker spirituality, the ordinary and the downright plain take center stage. With no creed, no liturgy, no sacred place defined by special architecture, no observance of holy days, no sacraments, and no professional clergy, Quaker simplicity revolves around silence, both in personal spirituality and in corporate worship. In the inner solitude of the human heart we meet the Lord of all time and space.
The Celtic tradition is similarly 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 miraculous 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.
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, Texas, 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: http://voxveniae.com/formation/page/6/.
On Gregory Popcak, see http://catholicexchange.com/holy-family-in-the-pots-and-pans.
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.
From Edwina Gateley, There Was No Path So I Trod One(1996, 2013)
We are too complicated.
We seek God here, there and everywhere.
We seek God in holy places, in books,
in rules, regulations, rites and rituals.
We seek God in pomp and glory and ceremony,
in relics and statues
and visions and shrines.
We seek God in Popes and Fathers and saints.
Ah, like lost bewildered children,
we seek outside the God
who waits to be found
in the small deeps
of the human heart.
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com.