As we returned to green vestments and numbered-time this month, last week we looked at the notion of “ordinary time” – not just the liturgical season, but those times in our lives that are unmarked by obvious highs and lows. There may be little joys and little crosses, but many days are routine, ordinary, usual. Most of us go through those seasons of life where our days seem to pass in a mix of routines and responsibilities, and the adjective that best describes our days is “same.”
Even when bigger events mark our lives – sickness or unemployment, weddings or new babies – we still have those times of routine. Commutes and to-do lists, grocery shopping and exercise.
How are we holy in these times? Prayer probably come a little easier in the joyful discernment of marriage or religious life. Offering up a debilitating disease or an uncertain phase in life brings us closer to Christ. But how do we pursue holiness in the routine and the habitual affairs of life? We rarely, if ever, hear about the saints sitting in meetings, calling insurance companies, commuting to work, or ironing. Can I be holy in those things?
Not only can you… you must. Today we will look at three tips for making the ordinary holy.
1. Make your first thought a prayer.
I have written before about the importance and beauty of the morning offering. It’s important to include this in your morning prayer ritual, because you are essentially giving the entire day back to God as a prayer. A simple one is:
I thank you, my God, for having created me, redeemed me, made me a Christian, and given me life. I offer you my thoughts, words, and actions of this day. Do not allow me to offend You and give me strength to flee from occasions of sin. Increase my love for You and for everyone.
But let’s back up a minute. What is your first thought when you wake up – whether that’s prompted by your alarm, your spouse, or a child? Is it “Thank you”? Is it “help me”? Or is it “Good morning, God”? It should be any of those.
A few months ago, I went to confession and was given this advice in the form of a penance: “Every day when you wake up, I want you to say, ‘Thank you for this day, make me a new person.’” It’s a beautiful thought; the problem was that he gave the penance without a specific end date, which is not helpful for a scrupulous person like myself, who wonders now if she’s permanently in the Order of Penitents. (Don’t worry—I spoke to a priest next time I went to confession, and I’m absolved.)
In the week that followed, that thought wasn’t always the first thing that came to my mind (hence the scrupulosity that ensued), but whenever I realized I neglected to pray it, I would say it. After awhile, it became more of a habit. I won’t claim that I wake up every day singing the Lord’s praises, but I am surprised how quickly the prayer or one like it comes to mind as I open my eyes. I thank the Lord for the new day and ask for help giving it back to him.
If you’re married, perhaps you could pray that prayer together before the morning rituals begin. To be clear, I’m not referring to a lengthy morning offering or an extensive morning prayer ritual. That may come later over a cup of coffee. I’m talking about a sentence as you open your eyes. We have to get used to talking to the Lord simply, frequently, and habitually. He doesn’t need fancy words. Just say good morning. First thing.
2. Don’t waste annoyances.
When we think of penance and mortification, we may think of fasting, abstaining from meat, or praying all the mysteries of the rosary. We might think of offering up a serious illness or chronic pain. All of these things are ways to unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and they’re important.
Most of us are less likely to think of the smaller things that happen to us. We would much rather give up meat on a Friday than listen to a coworker with a smile on our face. We would rather make a Holy Hour than not complain about our crazy neighbor. And we would definitely prefer to give up chocolate for a day than to be the subject of gossip and not defend ourselves.
How often do we waste the grace that comes with offering up the annoyances? We sit in Mass and think we’re getting holy, just to complain that Father has the air conditioning on too high or not high enough. We get annoyed they sang that song, and we judge the family in front of us. Then we walk out of Mass and immediately get mad at someone who parked badly (or simply not how we would park). All those graces, wasted!
At work we pat ourselves on the back for defending the Church at the water cooler, but the clicking nails of the woman in the next cubicle on her keyboard drives us to drink. Jesus is happy with the fact that you turned down that donut in the break room, but what about smiling at people in the hallway or not being such a grump at the next committee meeting? Jesus loves that you aren’t afraid to have Bible sitting out on your desk, but what about making sure you’re on time for meetings and mortifying yourself by keeping that desk neat and tidy?
There are so many opportunities for mortification that are wasted because they seem too… ordinary. Too small. Penance doesn’t have to be extreme to be valuable.
3. Just do it.
Depending on your personality, sometimes the hardest part of the routine, mundane tasks is simply starting them. If we have a list of things to do, most of us start with the pleasant ones. One easy way to mortify our desires is to flip that on its head.
Holiness is not just for the monasteries and convents. If this is true, it means that most of us will grow in holiness through the events, tasks, and requirements of our lay vocations. There are things in our life that come with living in the world, having a job, and/or having a family. Some of them are great and some are not so pleasant. But primarily, this is where we will grow in holiness. This is the stuff of sanctity. So the first step is… just doing it.
If you have to apply for jobs, apply for jobs. If you have to call that insurance company, call them and sit on hold. When you have to fold the laundry, fold the laundry. Do it. Because that’s what your vocation requires right now. So there, in the present moment, is where God’s grace is.
Inaction can be caused by things like laziness, fear, pride, or love of comfort. Or sometimes we can get caught in the paralysis of discernment: “And I supposed to move? Change jobs? Put my kids in another school?” Perhaps God would like us to simply walk forward until he closes the doors that should be closed. Just do it.
When advising his flock to about how to be truly devout, St. Francis de Sales advises that we begin by obeying the commandments. But then he added, “Beyond the general commandments, you must carefully keep the particular commandments that relate to your vocation. Whoever fails to do so, even if he were to raise the dead, will fall into a state of sin and, if he die, be damned. For instance, bishops are commanded to visit their flock, to teach, reprove, and console them. If I were to remain in prayer throughout the week, fast my whole life, and yet neglect these prescribed duties, I would die. If a person in the married state would work a miracle but not fulfill the duties of marriage or care for his children, he would ‘be worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Tim 5:8).”
What is more, de Sales says it’s not just a matter of fulfilling your prescribed duties, but how you fulfill them. “Yet the virtue of devotion does not consist in merely observing them, but in observing them promptly and willingly.”
You have an ordinary life, full of routines and obligations. Just do them.
Hopefully, these simply, straight-forward tips can help us begin to sanctify our ordinary lives. Regardless of our vocation, our lives are full of to-do lists and tasks—some we like, some we don’t. We have all been given the use of 24 hours today. If we begin the day with our thoughts on the God who gave it to us, strive to not waste even the smallest annoyance, and set our mind at present moment’s task, perhaps holiness is within our reach.
I can’t end this post without turning to St. Josemaria Escriva, who wrote more eloquently about these topics than most anyone else. “It is good for us to remember the story of that character imagined by a French author, who set out to hunt lions in the corridors of his home, and naturally did not find any. Our life is quite ordinary; trying to serve God in big things would be like trying to hunt lions in the corridor. Just like the huntsman in the story, we would end up empty-handed.”
Thankfully, our lives are full of little things, things we do not need to hunt for—things that fill our lives and give us plenty of material to become the stuff of sanctity.