Discovering Something Divine in the Ordinary
“God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary…. There is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.”
Passionately Loving the World, no. 52
St Josemaria concentrated much of his apostolic drive in convincing ordinary Christians that being ordinary is okay. But his message was not one of mere contentment with everyday life or of shunning the wealth and fame typically associated with “extraordinary” people. People can lead perfectly simple, even humdrum lives without being particularly pleasing to God.
Rather, inspiring Christians to mine the ordinary for “something divine” motivated the preaching and work of the founder of Opus Dei. And this goes beyond passive acceptance of one’s “fate.” In fact, it demands anything but a passive stance before the course of one’s life. Finding the divine in the human calls for an active faith, a lively desire to see what God wants us to see. What human eyes would never notice without grace to illumine them is precisely what we must keep in focus.
This calls for an essentially contemplative vision of life, “in the middle of the street,” as St Josemaria would say. Just as the people of Jesus’ time had to look beyond (not disregard) His human appearances in order to see God, so must we arrive at a clarity that leads us to the treasure buried in an otherwise nondescript field. The sameness that characterizes most of our relationships and activities is the unspectacular setting in which God chooses to reveal Himself.
Here, the familiar path of the Stations of the Cross may serve as a useful model of each day’s structure. As daily life has its own predictable places where we must pause to do or say something, so is each “station” an opportunity for grace, for loving or being loved. Whether we shoulder a cross or the less conspicuous load of daily duties, God is both pleased and served when we offer it up to Him. What to all appearances is ordinary work can be inwardly charged with a divine purpose.
The point of St Josemaria’s teaching is ultimately supernatural, because it is Christian. This means that the spirit St Josemaria sought to convey was Incarnational, giving matter back to God, just as God took flesh in Jesus without ceasing to be God, without ceasing to act as God even when He used the hands, feet, and voice of a man as His means of acting.
The phrase “ordinary life” is in some way a misnomer. What is essential to human life is shared by all. Everyone seeks to keep body and soul together; everyone pursues happiness, even if their idea of happiness is defective. Living in a mansion or a shack really only alters the playing field, not the same basic features of life, not the same fundamental desires.
What makes ordinary life extraordinary is to live it as something more than a one-way track with death as its inevitable destination. The ordinary must lead to holiness, and therefore to the fullness of life and joy. So, if holiness is the goal, daily duties the means, then what is the vehicle best suited to reach it?
Once we have accepted life on God’s terms and not on merely human ones, then we have accepted that there is more than meets the eye in daily life. So far so good. But St Josemaria would have us take a further step beyond acknowledging our inborn blindness to the divine something contained in life. Now that we have a sharper lens through which to view reality, our conduct must also conform to our new clarity of vision.
Encountering Jesus in the Gospels, measuring our lives by His standards, we arrive at one inescapable conclusion: God’s judgment on our so-called ordinary lives will come from the love that we have put into them. That is the secret, the treasure “hidden in the most ordinary situations.”
As Christ comes enthroned at the end of time to separate the sheep from the goats, one principle of division is on His mind: Did you love me in the least? Did you give what love demanded of you? And when both sides ask, “Where?” or “When?” the Lord gives the same answer: “In the least.” According to Christ, enthroned in majesty, He is found and loved in “little” people and events. The One “from whom men hide their faces” tells us to drop our hands, remove our blindfold, and see without despising that God is as near as our neighbor.
This is the teaching of all the saints, whether of St Josemaria or of such as St Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, both of whom gave particularly insightful expressions to this “little way” of love and sacrifice. Saint Therese was elevated to a Doctor of the universal Church, not for having discovered a new doctrine, but for having explored in great practical detail what the Lord’s teaching means for the average disciple. She hung the banner of love on every event of the day and so fulfilled the law of Christ.
Mother Teresa would say, speaking particularly to women what could be applied to all, “Maybe women are not called to do great things. Maybe. But to do small things with great love.” Once again, it is Gospel love that separates the merely trivial from the treasure discovered by the one who searches for it.
Those familiar with St Josemaria and the spirit of Opus Dei know all about these foundational truths. They likewise know that their application to professional or domestic work, or to those confined by illness, is mostly irrelevant. God is not more pleased by professional success than by the courage of the suffering. Everything is weighed in the balance of love.
That’s why this truth needs repeating. Once heard, the certainty that daily life provides the ordinary material for holiness and love calls for a daily recommitment, precisely because what constitutes our routine easily becomes a matter of just getting things done. Love must become a habit, it is true, and you can spot habits by the little reflection that goes into doing them.
But when it comes to serving God, His service requires a daily intensification of our love. Because love is meant to grow, we have to cultivate it in a conscious and intentional way. Yesterday’s love is not enough for today’s claims on our charity.
Just as we ought reasonably to expect every round of the Stations of the Cross to intensify our devotion, so should we look to our daily round of duties and see whether our love is deepening. How? By looking at how creatively we love, how tirelessly we give even when we’re tired, how willingly we do good even to those who don’t return our goodwill. Gospel standards, in other words, form the only measure of our progress.
The field of discovery of St Josemaria’s “divine something” cannot be charted by maps, but is the province of an inner awakening. God has invested our lives with a value that He will not force us to appreciate or even acknowledge. But to those who will receive it as humbly as the Lord offers it, we will find that our daily walk of faith is more of journey, unexciting perhaps, but never devoid of a glory carried about in vessels of clay.