Ordinary Time

Ronald Rolheiser
San Antonio, Texas
Reproduced with Permission

In a marvelous little book entitled, The Music of Silence, David Steindl-Rast highlights how each hour of the day has its own special light and its own particular mood and how we are more attentive to the present moment when we recognize and honor these “special angels” lurking inside each hour. He’s right. Every hour of the day and every season of the year have something special to give us, but often times we cannot make ourselves present to meet that gift.

We grasp this more easily for special seasons of the year. Even though we are sometimes unable to be very attentive to a season like Christmas or Easter because of various pressures and distractions, we know that these seasons are special and that there are “angels” inside them that are asking to be met. We know what it means when someone says: “This year I was just too tired and pressured to get into the Christmas spirit. I just missed Christmas this year!”

And this isn’t just true for special seasons like Christmas and Easter. It’s true too, perhaps especially true, for the season we call Ordinary Time. Each year the church calendar sets aside more than thirty weeks for what it calls “Ordinary Time”, a season within which we are supposed to meet the angels of routine, regularity, domesticity, predictability, and ordinariness. Like seasons of high feast, this season too is meant to bring a special richness into our lives.

But it’s easy to miss both that season and its intent. The term “Ordinary Time” sounds bland to us, even as we unconsciously long for precisely what it is meant to bring. We have precious little “ordinary time” in our lives. As our lives grow more pressured, more tired, and more restless, perhaps more than anything else we long for “ordinary time”, quiet, routine, solitude, and space away from the hectic pace of life. For many of us the very expression, “ordinary time”, draws forth a sigh along with the question: “What’s that? When did I last have ‘ordinary time’ in my life?” For many of us “ordinary time” means mostly hurry and pressure, “the rat race”, “the treadmill”.

Many things in our lives conspire against “ordinary time”; not just the busyness that robs us of leisure, but also the heartaches, the obsessions, the loss of health, or the other interruptions to the ordinary that make a mockery of normal routine and rhythm and rob us of even the sense of “ordinary time”. That’s the bane of adulthood.

Many of us, I suspect, remember the opposite as being true for us when we were children. I remember as a child often being bored. I longed almost always for a distraction, for someone to visit our home, for special seasons to celebrate (birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter), for most anything to shake up the normal routine of “ordinary time”. But that’s because time moves so slowly for a child. When you’re seven years old, one year constitutes one-seventh of your life. That’s a long time. In mid-life and beyond, one year is a tiny fraction of your life and so time speeds up - so much so in fact that, at a point, you sometimes begin to too long for special occasions to be over with, for visitors to go home, and for distractions to disappear so that you can return to a more ordinary rhythm in your life. Routine might be boring, but we sleep a lot better when our lives are being visited by the angels of routine and the ordinary.

Today there’s a rich literature in both secular and religious circles that speaks of the difficulties of being attentive to the present moment, of meeting, as Richard Rohr puts it, “the naked now”, or what David Steindl-Rast calls, “the angels of the hour”. The literature varies greatly in content and intent, but it agrees on one point: It’s extremely difficult to be attentive to the present moment, to be truly inside the present. It’s not easy to live inside “ordinary time”.

There’s a Chinese expression that functions both as a blessing and a curse. You make this wish for someone: May you live in interesting times! As children, had someone wished that on us it would have meant a blessing; our lives then were replete with routine and the ordinary. For a child time moves slowly. Most children have enough of ordinary time.

However, as adults, for most of us, that wish is probably more curse than blessing: The pressures, heartaches, illnesses, losses, demands, and seemly perpetual interruptions that beset our lives, though perhaps not normally recognized as “interesting times”, are indeed the antithesis of routine, regularity, domesticity, predictability, and ordinariness. And they deprive us of “ordinary time”.

The church challenges us to be attentive to the various seasons of the year: Advent, Lent, Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Today, I submit, it needs to challenge us particularly to be attentive to “ordinary time”. Our failure to be attentive here is perhaps our greatest liturgical shortcoming.