Monday, June 2, 2014

The Grace of an Ordinary Day

More than a decade ago, I took a graduate course entitled "Narrative and Spirituality" from the priest who would become the person I refer to as spiritual director emeritus.  (Although, having made a week-long retreat with him during Lent, perhaps I should dispense with the emeritus title.)

One of our assignments was a brief essay, "Grace Notes," by Brian Doyle, today a well known spiritual essayist, novelist and magazine editor, but at the time a voice new to me. 

Our family that fall was emerging from a dense, dark couple of years, from a sequence of events that, frankly, would have ripped most families to shreds.  Each day had required us to draw upon every resource of strength and creativity at our disposal, and then some more.  When Brian Doyle mentioned his wife's prayer for "the grace of an ordinary day," I glommed onto her words as I might have seized a literal lifebuoy out in the middle of the ocean. And I kept looking, for ordinary grace, and even sometimes for the grace of a whole, entire, sunrise-to-midnight ordinary day.

A few years later our Josh died of suicide, and eventually I began to come to terms with the reality that "the grace of an ordinary day" would forever elude me.

Or, at any rate, an ordinary day as I imagined such a thing.  I liked the ones filled with the heat and sunshine of summer, bare feet on a sticky kitchen floor, shorts and t-shirts for everyone, damp beach towels hanging over the deck railing, popsicles the chief ritualistic offering  of the afternoon, and small blond heads (mine) and dark (my next-door neighbor's) dancing through lawn sprinklers.  Those were my idea of grace-filled ordinary days.

After Josh died, I was stuck with mostly terrible, awful, tortured days.  Days, and then weeks, and then months, in which it seemed to me that crawling under the bed and staying there would have been infinitely preferable to going to one more seminary class or encountering one more person seemingly in possession of the grace of an ordinary day.

These days, though, it is occurring to me that, while I would trade it all in a second to get Josh back, while I would hand it all over in exchange for his life and never look back even once, I am now in possession of the grace of other kinds of ordinary days.  Days I would never experienced had I in fact slammed the door to my house never to emerge again, which I think others would have understood better than they understood my return to seminary.

A fairly typical day for me:

Listening to someone speak of grief and doubt and fear and isolation and longing,

Reading and researching and praying with Biblical texts and commentaries,

Praying with someone terrified of chemo or devastated by widowhood or caring for a friend or relative in distress,

Conducting tedious and tense calls and meetings at which major issues are at stake,

Enjoying discussions with colleagues about lectionary texts and theology and day-to-day life,

Exploring questions about career discernment and relationships and living arrangements (because I have young adults in my life),

Writing sermons and essays and presentations to which other people will actually listen.


In fact, all of the above took place in one form or another just a few days ago.

And I still got to do laundry and run errands and watch Fargo.

Many of those things would have taken place had Josh lived and had I finished seminary and been called to ministry, all as planned. 
But they would not have taken place in the same way.  
I listen to people in anguish differently than I might have had I not known how completely fear and despair can take hold of your ice-cold bones and frozen veins.   
I read Scripture and theology differently than I did before urgent questions of life and resurrection became my most personal moment-by-moment concerns.  ("Where is my son?" wails one mother. "I know my son is in heaven," asserts another.  I myself have no idea about these matters, I conclude.  All in the space of twenty-four hours.) 
I have a much better sense of priorities.  And I feel (almost!) no need at all to provide answers, as there are so few that we can accept and even fewer that we can comprehend.

Like, maybe only one, which is Love, and which is itself difficult to accept and nearly impossible to comprehend.

So, while I am envying some of my friends their leisurely retirement days, and many their travels, and others their restored homes and well-maintained gardens, I find that I am, surprisingly, also grateful for the grace of ordinary days in ministry, days in which I see and hear things I so easily might have missed.


  1. Robin, there would be no possibility of "leisurely retirement days" for you. You would go crazy in that life, and you know it. I am not going to tell you that all the trials you've been through have worked out beautifully to put you in the space you now inhabit. That would be cruel and insulting. But regardless of what had gone on in your life over the past decade, you would be in some form of active, outward-reaching life. You could not be anywhere else.

  2. I agree with Lisa, Robin, that you would not be sitting around enjoying retirement. When I retired three years ago, I jokingly told everyone that I would be lying around eating bonbons in my fluffy slippers and housecoat while I watched the soaps!! No way. Life has too many interesting opportunities and even in your sorrow and heart-wrenching grief, you cannot help reaching out to others. Your life is one of generous giving. You are a gift to so many. Blessings.

  3. Maybe not as many ordinary days as you would like, but from my perspective, you have a lot of heroic days...which I think are much better.