By Dan Clendenin
If you’re looking for a good book to read this summer, I have a suggestion. Last month I finished Alice McDermott’s new novel, The Ninth Hour (2017). McDermott is the Richard A. Macksey Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Her 1998 novel Charming Billy won the National Book Award, and her other novels have been finalists for a Pulitzer Prize.
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’m the Laundry Guy. With her glib comment, McDermott was suggesting that in some ways her book 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.
In the late afternoon of a dark and dank February 3, 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 (take your pick), 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 laundry with Sister Illuminata, Annie experiences the sacred in the ordinary.
The Ninth Hour reminded me of the Spanish mystic and Catholic saint Teresa of Avila, who once said that “God is found among the pots and pans.” It also reminded me of McDermott’s earlier novel Someone (2013). The bland title suggests its universal theme — the everyday life of an ordinary person, Marie Commeford, who narrates her life story.
This novel is also set in Brooklyn. 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 happening in Someone is the quotidian life of an average person, told in rich detail. Marie is described as an “unremarkable woman with an unforgettable life.” The first morning of her honeymoon, she 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 sacred ordinary.
According to the church’s calendar, we are now in “Ordinary Time” — that six-month liturgical lull between the end of Pentecost and the beginning of Advent. Just normal, boring life. Like doing laundry. And notice, Ordinary Time is the longest part of the liturgical year. It’s in these ordinary times and places of life that we experience the sacred and extraordinary presence of God.
The Latina theologian María Isasi-Díaz describes this intersection of the sacred 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.
In the Celtic tradition, “thin places” are where the sacred and the profane intersect, the times and places when the spiritual permeates the material. Thin spaces are the ordinary places and spaces of life where we sense God’s extraordinary grace. Esther de Waal, a historian of Celtic spirituality, says that one of the gifts of Celtic life was that “it was a practice in which ordinary people in their daily lives took the tasks that lay to hand but treated them sacramentally, as pointing to a greater reality which lay beyond them. It is an approach to life which we have been in danger of losing, this sense of allowing the extraordinary to break in on the ordinary.”
The Celtic tradition is famous for its simple prayers by ordinary people about everyday life. They specialized in prayers for the mundane matters of life. God was present everywhere and in all ways. They 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, 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.”
For further reflection
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.
Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org.
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