The Presence of the Mundane
In this season of stay-at-home regulations, our worlds have contracted in more ways than just the physical and social. They have contracted creatively, intellectually, and imaginatively—and variety is in short supply.
For myself, my academic life has ground to a near stand-still, and I am currently putting on a rather shoddy performance of home-school educator and (“how can they be hungry again?!”) meal technician. I imagine that, especially for households with children, “repetitive” would be an apt word for the atmosphere, probably an understatement. A dear friend recently admitted to me a sense of despair at the idea of “another Monday morning.” And I knew exactly how she felt.
The unyielding cycle of the ordinary and the same, without a discernible end, un-punctuated by the extraordinary, feels crushing. It’s a natural impulse to want to escape the mundane.
The crucial difference for Christians, though, is that we believe in a God who meets his people in the unassuming. The God we worship is curiously endeared to the everyday; in a still small voice, a stable, a shared meal.
While in no way minimizing the grief accompanying this crisis and the space reserved for lament, we can at the same time take seriously the idea that God is present in the mundane, and we can learn to hear Him calling to us even in the profoundly ordinary.
The God of the Mundane
The grind of monotonous, daily tasks around which our lives have contracted is one way that God is, and always has been, teaching and shaping us. He does so through a kind of grubby and ordinary proclamation of the gospel, shining through the mundane.
This proclamation is different from the explicit teaching of the good news that we find in Scripture, in Church, or in theological treatises. It is the implicit murmuring of creation that attests to her creator and redeemer.1 The Scriptures tell us that all of creation speaks of God (Rom 1:19–20; Ps 8:3; 19.1–4; 148:1–6; Job 12:7–10; Isa 55:12). This means that everything, including the 567th load of laundry, speaks of him.
Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan, faced a similar question about the seeming ordinariness of Christian worship. In the late fourth century Christians shared the stage with pagan mystery cults that claimed fantastic and fearful encounters with gods and goddesses.
Ambrose worried that when new converts to Christianity experienced the church’s sacraments for the first time, they would find them disappointingly mundane. Ambrose imagined they might ask, “Is that all?” Ambrose answered, “I say, ‘Indeed it is all’ . . . You saw all you could see with the eyes of the body, all that is open to human sight. You saw what is seen, but not what is done. What is unseen is much greater than what is seen.”2
We can ask a similar question when we imagine the isolation-days stretching before us filled with meal prep, clean-up, kid-squabbles, home-school, etc. Is this all we have to look forward to?
For Ambrose, Christianity is so unique precisely because Christ can be found even in the most mundane elements. In the water of the font, and in the simplicity of bread and wine, we meet our creator. This is to say that there is more to be seen in the ordinary, and, for us, even in the isolation-drudgery.
Theodore of Mopsuestia, another fourth century bishop, shares this same sentiment. God “wished to convince us, from things belonging to this world, that we shall receive also without doubt the benefits that are high above words.”3 Theodore contemplated, for instance, our basic need of food for survival, and suggested that even this mundane necessity speaks about our dependence on God and his promises.
Christianity proclaims that God is as much the God of the mundane as he is the God of the extraordinary. Stuck in our homes, with only the daily rituals of eating, sleeping, and cleaning to break up the monotony, we are in fact sitting under the tutelage of the mundane.
Finding God in the Mundane
If we are honest, most of our pre-COVID–19 habits were structured around avoiding the mundane. Our lives were particularly susceptible to being filled with a busyness that dampened our sensitivity to God’s presence in the mundane. Indeed, in our modern distracted and restless modes of life, we often experience the mundane as tyrannical and desensitizing, rather than filled with God’s presence.
But Christians can use this time to cultivate God’s presence. Like liturgy, the time in which we find ourselves is slow, repetitive, and ordinary; but it is at the same time extraordinary. The grind of meal after meal served to bored and stir-crazy kids, though a chore, can also remind us of our absolute dependence on God—for our daily bread, and for our very existence.
We learn these quiet truths in the rolling return of the patterns of this earthly life that have, hidden inside them, hints of the life to which God calls us and has made a way for us in his son. We can discover, in this mundane time, God’s hand shaping us in the duties, places, and persons that in our busyness we may have previously overlooked.
How to Practice the Mundane
- Give yourself grace in the doldrums. Seek out comrades, like my dear friend, with whom you can commiserate over the despairs at “one more Monday” of household isolation, and with whom you can also seek the ways the mundane has also been a teacher, guiding our eyes back to the father. There is space for both.
- Consider the mundane as teacher. The good news of Christ is hiding in the unending dishes and the laundry, in the need for a breath of fresh air before returning to the fray of parenting. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your thoughts as you reflect on the mundane, and may the Lord give you the moments of reflection that allow you to glimpse his fruitfulness even in seemingly thankless jobs. There is no “getting this right” immediately through perfectly incarnating and contemplating a particular mundane activity in one go. Repetition is the key: it’s the gift of rhythm and return, of being touched by the mysterious depth of creation.
- Take heart. While our work-efficiency has suffered, and the mundane has become our COVID-companion, God’s work of making us more like Christ rolls on. There is an unhurried growth in grace that God brings about in us, and it has not been interrupted by this crisis. Trust that he who began the work will complete it.