As one who spends a fair bit of time sitting in airports, I have the opportunity to people watch. There are the elite travelers who emerge from airline lounges with their power suits and designer cases, and then there are those who are traveling for leisure, souvenirs and gifts in tow. I love seeing the variety of clothing styles depending on what region I am in, and listening in on conversations betrays regional dialects and phrases. Business deals are made or broken, discussions over the day’s events all done in the parlance of the place.
More often than not, my attention is drawn to those who sit alone, as I do. In the smaller, regional airports I see the elderly gentleman in the wheelchair, alone. I look at the gate agent as she texts on her phone after yet another flight delay, hoping to hide from the ire of the passengers who needed to arrive at their destination hours ago. There is the single mother trying to corral her children, the slouched, sad looking twenty-something with a melancholic and listless gaze. There we all sit waiting. Wondering. Is there anything more than this?
The inherent routine, mundane tasks and waiting for whatever is next on the agenda can fill the days with a deepening ennui and a longing for something greater—something like a sense of finding and fulfilling one’s potential. As one who sits anonymously in airports watching and waiting, what does “potential” even mean? In a world of social media where status is measured by the number of friends or followers, likes or shares there is often a feeling that one’s life just doesn’t measure up. And in a celebrity culture, where success is measured by beauty, wealth, or status how can one ever feel she has reached her potential? If the exceptional is the guide for achievement, how will those of us who live somewhere between the average and the ordinary ever feel we’ve arrived?
Most of us occupy an existence often filled with the mundane or the banal. Never ending housework, constant bills, and running endless errands do not make one feel substantial. These are the daily details that make up often dulling routines. Indeed, for artists and bus drivers, homemakers and neurosurgeons, astronauts and cashiers repetitive motion is more the norm than moments of great challenge or extraordinary success. With endless quotidian tasks, is it any wonder that reaching one’s potential serves as an ideal to free us from the constraints of such ordinary lives?
In those moments of quiet reflection while sitting in airports, I often wonder how many of those sitting around me wonder if their lives matter when they feel so ordinary. I wonder if the predominance of the ordinary in our lives simply serves as a perpetual reminder of a failure to thrive?
What has been called the “simple lifestyle” movement attempts to locate potential in exactly the opposite ways of the predominant culture. Simplicity and contentment are the markers of potential, and ordinary living is the goal, not something to be avoided. Potential is found in faithfully attending to what might seem the most basic and routine. In the Christian tradition, as well, there were many who believed that one’s potential and one’s purpose could only be found in the radical call of simplicity. Some of the earliest Christians, who fled the luxury and security of Rome once Constantine united the Roman Empire under the banner of Christianity, believed that one’s “holiness” potential could only be achieved within the radical austerity of a monastic cell. There in the cloistered walls where each and every day presented simple routine, repetitive tasks, and the regular rhythm of prayer and worship, perseverance with the ordinary became the path to one’s potential.
Brother Lawrence, part of that monastic tradition, found his calling in the ordinary and the simple. In her book called The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther writes that “Brother Lawrence, our patron of housekeeping, was a hero of the ordinary.”(1) As one who found his potential in cultivating a profound awareness of God in the ordinary tasks of his day, Brother Lawrence radically re-defined what it meant to reach one’s potential. While he attended chapel with the other monks, he created his own sanctuary washing the pots and pans in the monastery kitchen. What we may not realize in the popularized retelling of his story is that he too struggled with the ordinary and mundane nature of his work and he wondered how the doing of dishes could be the height of his potential—as a servant of God. His abbot wrote about him:
“The same thing was true of his work in the kitchen, for which he had a naturally strong aversion; having accustomed himself to doing everything there for the love of God, and asking His grace to do his work, he found he had become quite proficient in the fifteen years he had worked in the kitchen.”(2)
Quite proficient in the kitchen. Despite his strong aversion to doing the dishes, he focused on meeting God in the faithful doing of the task. While many might find the example of Brother Lawrence as highlighting an absence of potential, the routine and ordinary task of doing dishes became a sacred place where Lawrence cultivated a profound sense of the presence of God. What could be a higher calling, or a grander potential?
Still, for all those languishing in all that seems ordinary about daily life and for all those who are enslaved to ceaseless striving after “greatness” that feels more like a despot’s rule than freedom, Guenther’s words speak challenge and encouragement: “Faithfulness rarely feels heroic; it feels much more like showing up and hanging in. It is a matter of going to our cell, whatever form that might take, and letting it teach us what it will.”(3) Availing himself to consistent faithfulness yielded the blessing of both proficiency and presence for Brother Lawrence—the presence of God—right there in midst of the ordinary duty of washing dirty pots and pans.
Fulfilling one’s potential has little to do with greatness. And yet, the heroism of the ordinary does not preempt “greatness” that our world confers to those who demonstrate staggering and dramatic achievement; for even those who achieve greatness have faced the doldrums of routine and tedium. But to assign the fulfillment of one’s potential solely to great acts and recognition is to miss the blessing that comes from faithful acts of devotion, often done routinely and heroically in the ordinary of our everyday. Perhaps it might be said of us, as it was of Brother Lawrence: “He was more united with God in his ordinary activities.”
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Boston: Cowley Press, 1998), 113.
(2) Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, ed. John J. Delaney (New York: Image, 1977), 41.
(3) Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Boston: Cowley Press, 1998), 112.
(4) Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, ed. John J. Delaney (New York: Image, 1977), 47.