The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord (next Sunday) will mark the official ending of this short Christmas Season and the resumption of so-called “Ordinary Time.” This liturgical transition is a rather apt symbol of a similar process that takes place repeatedly in our spiritual lives—that is, a return to ordinariness. We have just heard how the three Magi who worshipped the newborn King of the Jews and presented him with their gifts, didn’t remain in the presence of this noble and divine infant, but having been warned in a dream, departed for their country by another way. This kind of life-changing encounter that is followed by what seems like a departing from the one encountered is not unique in the New Testament.
A famous example is the Gerasene demoniac who after his liberation from years of demonic possession and enslavement is forbidden by Jesus from physically following him and remaining with him. Instead, he is instructed to go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you. One thinks also of the Ethiopian Eunuch who was instructed and baptized by Philip. We are told that when they came out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing. In each of these instances, a powerful and life-changing spiritual experience is followed by a return to their former way of life—though a way of life totally transformed and permeated by what they had experienced.
The gospel tells us that the Gerasene demoniac initially pleaded to remain with Jesus who had so wondrously freed and healed him. In a far less dramatic manner, as monks we can experience a similar tension between letting go of privileged experiences received in prayer and quiet solitude, and needing to take up the all-too-ordinary tasks of daily monastic life. Similar sentiments are sometimes expressed by our retreatants who reluctantly return to the noise and busyness of their daily lives after days of quiet and prayer and restorative peace.
Now, although this reluctance to return to the ordinariness of everyday is understandable and even a good sign, it is also an indicator of spiritual incompleteness. In terms of prayer, it is a sign that that elusive state of continual prayer is yet to be attained. For, when we reach this blessed state then, like the Magi and the Ethiopian Eunuch, we happily return to our ordinary activities which are now transfused and recognized as permeated by the One we encountered more intimately in prayer. At this point the distinction between times of prayer, work, recreation, etc., increasingly blur as our entire lives are ever more fully integrated into a living relationship with the Christ who has so powerfully touched and changed our lives.
I began by saying that our spiritual lives are inseparable from a repeated return to ordinariness, but as you will have guessed, once our prayer becomes continuous and uninterrupted by our daily activities and duties, they cease being “ordinary” and gradually everything is touched by the radiance of God’s glory and beauty which is found to be emanating from all reality so that what was once “ordinary” is now shown to be “extraordinary!” Then, as we gaze upon ourselves we will be astounded to see that we too are no longer “ordinary” but glorious and noble children of God. And, in the words of Paul, if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:17).