The Holy in the Ordinary
by Ann Siddall
It is early morning at Stillpoint Spirituality Centre in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. A cool breeze stirs the gum trees, the kookaburras are laughing joyously, and the earth is fragrant after the first soaking rain for three months. As I set up for a small retreat, check the diary, and respond to e-mails, a deeper part of me is continually drawn back to engage with the splendor of God’s creation—the holy in the ordinary.
I have been engaged in spiritual direction and formation work for over 25 years, and I am still learning that the most important personal spiritual discipline I need to observe is the cultivation of a deep, contemplative awareness of God in the ordinary environment and experiences of each day. In struggling to stay true to this I take heart from the writings of Thomas Merton, who found himself frequently filling the time for contemplation by searching for more books about contemplation to “satisfy my raffish spiritual appetite.”However, two factors conspire to keep me awake to “the holy in the ordinary.” One is that I work for the Uniting Church in Australia, a denomination with a strong orientation towards practical ministry in mission and justice. Over the years I have frequently needed to find the language to convey that spirituality is not so other-worldly that it is a distraction from mission, in fact quite the opposite!
The other factor is that Australians have a wonderful way of bringing things down to earth, and any tendency to introduce people or congregations to practices couched in the traditional or more monastic language of Christian spirituality quickly draws a request for explanation.
I will never forget an early foray into a country congregation where I led an afternoon workshop on nurturing spirituality. Most of the group were women accompanied by a few reluctant males dragged away from watching “footie” on TV. I hadn’t gone too far in my introduction before one of these males told me, “I don’t think I’ve got a spirituality!” As we talked I realized that he was one of Australia’s true contemplatives—spending long hours alone on his tractor, on a large and remote farming property, thinking deeply about life and staying closely attuned to the earth and its seasons.A woman came to talk about her fears—which she was confronting with constant prayers and positive Scriptural quotes—and the inner guidance that came was to turn to her ordinary, everyday life and ask how she would respond if her child cried out in fear. Without hesitation she said, “I would go and comfort him” and from there we were able to look at a kindly God who comforts the fearful, and at the Jesus who knew fear.Initial formation as a spiritual director, ongoing, in-service training and conferences, and many books have been and are important. But the invitation to stillness, silence and contemplative awareness is insistent.
Mary Oliver (from “Entering the Kingdom.”) puts words around my longing: “The dream of my life/is to lie down by a slow river/and stare at the light in the trees …/to learn something by being nothing.” To give serious attention to contemplative awareness requires that I practice trust. I am invited to trust the empty spaces, to be poor in spirit, to not know all the answers, to resist writing denominational reports that imply success (because success can equate with continued funding), to trust that this person before me has innate wisdom for their life, to trust that God will act, that this ministry will continue and I am to sit lightly to present structures. My practice of contemplative awareness is simply to pause, to quiet myself, to remember the presence of God, and to begin to pay attention at successively deeper levels—from noticing (and savoring and enjoying) what is around me, to noticing what is going on within me, and then noticing a deep sense of connectedness to of all of life, in God.
Sometimes this is done not in a silent place, but in the vibrant, exotic old market in Adelaide town centre, or the noise of children coming from the Conference Centre, or in the midst of a small group retreat conversation. Then, as attuned to the holy as I am able, come the moments of recognition that a conversation, a retreat, or a prayer has become like an ordinary bush bursting into flame, and I want to take off my shoes because I stand on holy ground.
Ann is Director of the Stillpoint Spirituality Centre in South Australia, which offers retreats, spiritual direction and resourcing of congregations. http://mrn.sa.uca.org.au and click on “Stillpoint” firstname.lastname@example.org