The most ordinary things in life sometimes hold the most profound significance. With Thanksgiving this Thursday, Rozann Carter writes about how gratitude can help us to recognize the extraordinary within the ordinary, especially as exemplified by the Greek word for thanksgiving, "Eucharist."
Strolling down the magazine aisle in a bookstore several days ago, I came across an artsy-looking publication entitled “Seeing the Everyday.” It had an abstract, blurry photo on the cover that looked like little hexagon rays of glittery light shining through a tree, and the subtext of the bold logo read “A Magazine on the Prosaic.” After I realized that this was not a magazine about the intricacies of creating artwork from bits of broken tile (that’s MOsaic, Rozann) I was curious as to the meaning —and apparent value— of the prosaic.
The publication was a collection of short essays and ordinary photos, of simple graphics, typefaces without flourish, and modestly profound quotes. Still trying to get a feel for the theme, I flipped through and saw that the teaser for one essay read, “More is happening than just washing the dishes.” -- My kind of magazine! Pull those dishpan hands out of the sink and get out there! Live life! Household chores can wait! I quickly purchased the issue and paged through for a justification of my lack of attention to the mundane processes, the routine elements of life that seemed to distract from the big adventure of actually living.
In it, however, I found the exact opposite. The magazine’s ethos was about seeing the “washing of dishes” differently, about finding the most valuable aspects of life within the ordinary rather than beyond it. The issue was an artistic advocate for a total re-vamping of one’s vision, a re-prioritization of joy within the unromantic details of the ordinary. Its focus was not on ideal moments, but upon moments themselves as ideal, as ingredient in an unknown process by which we are forming relationships and transforming ourselves.
This Thursday is, of course, Thanksgiving. Thursday morning, our to-do’s might include preparing that mystery green bean casserole, putting the sweet rolls in ziplocks, and loosely covering the pumpkin pie in aluminum foil to head over to the relatives’ for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe some of us will circle around a table with a turkey in the middle, hold hands with relatives we haven’t seen in a while (hopefully not your pesky brother who tries to squeeze your fingers off), and try to think of something original when it comes our turn to say what we are thankful for. Abstract “goods” will come to mind— health, prosperity, family togetherness and the blessing of friends. But beyond the clichés, after the dressing is tupperwared and the turkey is put away, the real transformative power of gratitude and thanksgiving will surface in how we discover and offer it within the minutia of the “everyday.”
This “Seeing the Everyday” seems simple enough in theory. But, the elevation of ordinary to extraordinary, of prosaic to poetic, lies in acquiring an attitude of unrelenting thanksgiving. And that is a complete and total conversion. Gratitude has a built-in dimension of humility. It demands that you lay down your attempts to return, to out-do, to make up for, and ultimately, to understand. True and committed gratitude is as difficult and as transformative as any spiritual exercise. (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux called it the “Little Way,” and anyone who has ever attempted it might tell you that it calls for nothing short of your complete effort and your entire life.)
It is no coincidence that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” And it is also not by accident that the consecration is the transfiguration of the ordinary to the extra-ordinary par excellence. The simple elements of unleavened bread and fermented grape juice are consecrated into the real body and blood of Christ.
To take it further, however, the significance of this incredible gift— this unspeakable miracle of our redemption— is magnified in our own lives by our change of vision, our humble recognition of what it really is, means, and does. The transformative power of the Eucharist takes hold of our souls independently of our recognition, but it affects our lives, our actions, our behaviors to the degree that we bow our heads in humble, exhaling, control-releasing gratitude. Over and over and over again. It transforms our way of seeing, and this new vision converts our very souls. As Meister Eckhart so aptly put it: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.
This is the beauty and genius of our Church, of Christ. The ordinary disguises the extraordinary and draws us into humble, grateful, transformative participation. God’s communication with us is always like this: humble in appearance, seemingly too simple, too small, too unnoticeable. Surely not, we think. This? This is what you meant? I would have never guessed this.
More is happening than just washing the dishes. And certainly more is happening than just swallowing a wafer of stamped flour-and-water and a tiny sip of wine. We are being conformed to the very person of Christ. Prosaic? Hardly.
Rozann Carter is the Creative Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.