Becoming Ordinary

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When those In the synagogue heard these things, they were all filled with rage. They stood up and drove Jesus out of the town.
Luke 4: 28-9

The people of Nazareth are filled with rage at Jesus because they want a teacher and prophet who enhances their sense of of entitlement and exceptionalism. Jesus teaches, however, that the work of God is common to all and in all. This is the only ground on which we can know peace, but it is also one of the hardest truths for us to bear.

As infants and children it is imperative that we receive from our parents the sense that we are special to them. It is in seeing ourselves as the “apple of their eye” that we come to know and appropriate what is most precious in us. This need we have as children is so total, after all our very survival depends on our being wanted by certain adults, that we experience envy, jealousy and rage when others threaten it. It is no easy passage from that place of living out of our need to be seen as special to a place of recognizing that our true and deepest life is ordinary and common to all.

The last full day of my father’s life, I was cutting up his food so that he might be able to eat at least a few mouthfuls. I was not doing a very good job of it, so, as a way of expressing an appreciation for him which I found difficult to do, I said to him: “Dad, I can’t do this the way you would do it.” His response to me was quite a startling one: “I’m no better than anybody else.” Although it is taking a lifetime to unpack all of what was contained in this brief interchange, including how, despite his condition, he could recognize the falseness of the flattery I was using in lieu of deeper and more generous communication, he reminded me in that moment that he, myself, and all of us must recognize that the fullness of life lies not in being special or exceptional, but in the life we have that is common to all.

That infantile need to be special in the eyes of those who are our caretakers continues throughout our lives in multiple forms. So much of the evil in our world comes from this need to be “better” than somebody, in race, nationality, religion or any other distinguishing characteristic. As St. Paul points out, our differences are those of different members of one body. Our uniqueness is the outline of our responsibility to and for all. In this sense, each of us is both special and ordinary. The Lenten call is to reform those dispositions that are characterized by envy and competition into ones of appreciation and gratitude for the different gifts and one Spirit of us all.

A person who has been sent down by God from these heights into the world is full of truth and rich in all the virtues. He seeks nothing of his own but only the glory of the one who sent him. He is accordingly righteous and truthful in all things and has a rich and generous foundation which rests on God’s own richness. He will therefore always flow forth to all who need him, for the living spring of the Holy Spirit is so rich that it can never be drained dry. Such a person is a living and willing instrument of God with which God accomplishes what he wishes in the way he wishes. Such a person does not attribute these accomplishments to himself but gives God the glory. He stands ready and willing to do all that God commands and is strong and courageous in suffering and enduring all that God sends him. He therefore leads a common life, for he is equally ready for contemplation or for action and is perfect in both.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, Conclusion: The Common Life

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