Time will never be truly ordinary, and everydayness will never dominate as long as we have recourse to silence and prayer…
There is a kind of harmony between the aftermath of Pentecost and the weeks after graduation. The great feasts are over, and the intensity of activity has abated. The world enters what the Church calls “ordinary time,” and our thirty-one graduates in the Class of 2018 leave behind the concentrated energies of finishing their studies and enter the quotidian world to make their mark in it.
This time is called ordinary to distinguish it from the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter—those great occasions of recollection and spiritual renewal. But for many people in our culture, time is never anything but ordinary, and the curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College reflects the dominance of that unfortunate perspective in the modern world. The juniors in my Humanities 302 class ended their semester by meditating on Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. In this story, the central character lives a completely ordinary and therefore “terrible” life until he has to confront the falsity of his existence because of the approach of death.
The 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger used this story in Being and Time to illustrate the phenomenon that he calls “everydayness,” the “inconspicuous domination by others” in which “everything primordial is flattened down as something long since known. Everything gained by a struggle becomes something to be manipulated. Every mystery loses its power.”
Heidegger decries the “leveling down of all possibilities of being” in this “everydayness.” This leveling down is of course what we hope our education will help prevent. One great purpose of our education at Wyoming College is to disrupt this default position of everydayness. We want our graduates to live every day open to the sense of its gift, its possibilities.
Silence is crucial. Our students have come to know it through their experiences of the wilderness. Several times in the last two years, I have written about silence as the necessary but rare thing that most of us need for our spiritual lives, but I have never experienced it myself as intensely as I did this past week on retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, New Mexico. Thirteen miles from the main highway on a winding dirt road through the desert mountains, the monastery lies in the valley of the Chama River, and there, in that blessed place (where our founding president, Fr. Simeon Cook, now resides), there is a quality of silence that is difficult to describe: spacious, deep, patient, expectant. Everywhere, one encounters reminders to be silent and to respect the silence of others.
It is difficult to detach my experience from my sense of that place, but I also associate it with a recovery of the sense of time, because of a book that my wife has been recommending for years. In The Sabbath, the great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “the main themes of faith lie in the realm of time. We remember the day of the Exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai”—and of course we as Christians remember the day of the crucifixion, the day of the resurrection. “Our messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days,” writes Heschel, who also notes that “there are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” Time will never be truly ordinary and everydayness will never dominate as long as we have this recourse to silence and prayer, as the monks do in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Most of us cannot stay in this silence. There’s a great “sending forth” that accompanies this time of year. The readings at Mass are often from the Acts of the Apostles, especially about the work of St. Paul as he goes through the world taking up the mission to the Gentiles that he has been given. Not all of our students will be literal missionaries, but after four years at Wyoming Catholic, they have learned that all activity requires the discipline of prayer, the exercise of the intellect, the conversion of experience that takes place through the poetic word, and constant recourse to silence. Many of them might sense it only mildly at present, but they carry within them a uniqueness that will unfold for the rest of their lives because of the education they have been given. They will discover that they know how to lead, how to think, how to bring their energies to bear on what needs doing out there in “ordinary time.” They will know how to find in ordinary time the extraordinary moment, the matchless hour.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (May 2018).
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