We meet Sister Lucy in the Guadalupe Room at the Spirituality Center, a retreat center on the grounds of St. Placid Priory, a Benedictine monastic community for women. We greet each other with hugs, and then settle in for a session of spiritual direction. As we begin, Sister Lucy asks, “What shall we hold in our hearts today?”
My husband goes to spiritual direction with me because he loves me, plus he’s always up for talking about ideas. I go because I love the Benedictine women I’ve met at St. Placid’s who anchor their lives in contemplative practice.
We prepare for spiritual direction, my husband and I, over breakfast, in the shower, while we walk the dogs. We regularly return to this question – what is spirituality?
I’ve pursued the question for years. My siblings and I grew up going to a Presbyterian church with my mom and her family. We occasionally attended Episcopal services with my dad and his family. For 10 years, my children and I lived in a Quaker community.
When we moved to Washington, we attended celebrations led by the Community for Interfaith Celebrations. Eventually, I began attending praise at St. Placid’s, the services held morning, noon and evening where lines of psalms are chanted in an alternating fashion. The simple organ melodies accompanying the service are haunting and beautiful.
The advantage of going to spiritual direction with my Marxist-atheist husband is that some questions are clear. Distinguishing between the sacred and the mundane is not an issue for him; nothing is inherently sacred. As thinking people, we can freely choose to examine the social and political structures that shape our lives, and we can decide how to live our lives, regardless of circumstance, with dignity.
Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore makes much the same point in “Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World.” In that book, she aims to challenge the separations endemic to the Western worldview between the mundane and the sacred, particularly the view that the material world has only instrumental value while the sacred is intrinsically valuable.
Moore argues that the material world, the biological world we find ourselves in, is sacred — it has a value in and of itself.
A spiritual perspective, grounded in Marxism or in environmental philosophy, requires us to learn to see what is sacred in the everyday. We need to learn, as Moore writes, that “the mundane — the stuff of our lives — is irreplaceable, essential, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding.”
My life-long Episcopalian father died from prostate cancer six years ago. Toward the end of his life, we talked about spirituality. He was interested in the Jesus Seminar, the scholarly group that met for more than a dozen years beginning in 1985 to explore the historical Jesus. We both liked Marcus Borg’s writing, including the idea that too often, we live our lives unaware of the presence of the sacred.
Where do we find the sacred? It’s here, in us, in all of us — everywhere. As moderns, we tend to miss it. Borg reminds us that “our modern preoccupation with producing and consuming leads us to live on the surface level of reality and to seek our satisfaction in the finite. But the sacred is known in the depths of reality.”
My dad knew this. That’s why he organized his last days to have personal time, reading time, time with my mom, time with newspapers. As he got sicker, he paid more attention to the depths and the details of his reality.
Kathleen Dean Moore knows this. That’s why she exhorts us to notice the beautiful world around us. “How can anyone help but be grateful on a night like the night of the razor-clam tide? To be alive to the damp wind and the laughter of children, to feel the pressure of the sea against your boots and the weight of clams in your bucket — this is enough, a great gift. And is this night so different from any other night?”
My husband knows this. For him, to see the sacred in the mundane, in the quotidian, is not only to see what’s beautiful but also to understand the human condition in all its complexity, including its tragedies.
I keep learning to notice and to pause and take in the sacred beauty and sadness of the everyday that is always with us. We live in the quotidian; that’s all we have.
Emily Lardner teaches at The Evergreen State College, where she also co-directs the National Resource for Learning Communities. She is a member of The Olympian’s 2014 Board of Contributors. She can be reached at email@example.com or @emilylardner.