I am writing about "the sacred in everyday life" because I am involved in a program for spiritual directors called Stillpoint. This topic intrigues me because discovering the sacred in the ordinary is the essence of our Quaker practice, and why I became a Quaker. My life as an academic was so complicated I needed Quaker simplicity. So I will begin by discussing how Quakerism encouraged me to seek the sacred in the ordinary..
Quakers were a branch of Protestants who emerged in the 17th century and rejected all the outward trappings of religion. They regarded church buildings, music, art and the like as distractions. They met in homes or in meetinghouses without ornaments. They had no paid pastors or prearranged order of worship since they sought to practice “primitive Christianity,” as described by Paul in his letter to 1 Corinthians: 40. They believed that everyone has direct access to the Divine since “Christ has come and teach his people himself.” They met in silence and “waited upon the Lord,” trusting that the Spirit would inspire and guide them. And they carried this radical simplicity into their everyday lives. Like Brother Lawrence, they “practiced the presence of God” as they went about their daily chores.
I discovered Quakerism twenty five years old when I began attending meeting for worship at an old 18th century Quaker meetinghouse in Princeton, NJ, my hometown. I was deeply impressed with the awesome quality of silent worship as we gathered together on Sunday morning with no agenda other than being fully present to God and each other. The only sounds were the crackling of the fire in the old stone fireplace, the occasional creaking of oak floors, and birds chirping and breezes blowing through the trees. The interior of the meetinghouse had no religious symbols, no quotations from scripture. Apart from its antiquity, it was quite ordinary. Yet a sense of the sacred could be felt there just as much as in the solemn Gothic splendors of the University Chapel.
When I went home from meeting, I began to apply Quaker practice of simplicity to my daily life. Simplicity means removing those things from your life, and your consciousness, that clutter your mind and make you feel separated from the Spirit. It often entails giving up some favorite habitual practice.
For example, I love to listen to music when I do chores, but when I first became a Quaker, I decided to turn off the radio and be fully present as I washed dishes and swept the floor. I realized that when I multi-task—listening to Mozart and scrubbing the floor—I didn’t really do either with my full attention. As I swept the floor in silence, I gradually began to open up to what was happening inside me, what I was feeling, how I feel connected or not connected to the Divine. The ordinary can become sacred when we give it our full attention.
I also took part in silent weekend retreats where we made meals and did all our chores in silence. This seemed strange at first, but then liberating. I no longer needed to talk or chatter compulsively to feel connected to others. We could work and be together in silence and feel the presence of Spirit drawing us closer together in a shared, worshipful experience.
I want to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with music, or art, or any of the other devices used by religious people to draw closer to each other and to God. But such outward forms can become a distraction and make us think that we must go to some special place or engage in some special ritual in order to experience the Divine.
I deepened my understanding of Quaker faith and practice in 1989 when I spent nine months at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia. There students and teachers live together and have daily practice of work, study, and prayer, just as in a monastery. Everyday chores, like weeding the garden, become an opportunity for spiritual growth. I will never forget the time when I was having a conflict with one of my co-workers and went to the Pendle Hill gardener for advice. She was conducting a class on weeding the strawberry patch, and welcomed me to join in. She told us to apologize to each weed as we pulled it out. This seemed a little crazy but I did it just to see what would happen. After an hour, I realized that if I was willing to apologize to weeds, surely I could apologize to my co-worker I was having a conflict with!
During the recent holidays, I re-read a sermon I wrote twenty years ago in which I talk about Advent from a Quaker perspective. It’s called “What are you waiting for?” Many Christians focus on the historical coming of Christ that took place in the past, or the future coming of Christ, that will take place in the Last Days. But the coming of Christ that matters most is the one that takes place in the present, in our everyday lives.
Here in this moment, as we go about our daily tasks, washing dishes, minding the kids, taking out the garbage, smelling the roses, making love, sharing joys and grief with our friends and loved ones—here is where we must look for the advent of Christ. If we are ever going to be enlightened by Christ, we must recognize that His Light is right here under our noses, as real as our heartbeat and our breathing.
As we breathe in, we are receiving the holy spirit of life. As we breathe out, that spirit goes forth from us into the world. Breathe in, breathe out, the spirit of Christ--this is what Paul meant when he said we can pray continually. Breathe in and breathe out the holy spirit of life: that is the way to be continually aware of Christ's advent.
This is what I wrote twenty years ago, and I still feel it to be true. We need to be fully present to the presence of the Living Christ here and now. But of course that’s easier to say than to do!
Query: Do I make my home a place of friendliness, joy, and peace, where residents and visitors feel God’s presence?
Finding the Seeds of War and Injustice in Everyday Life
When we make an intention to experience the sacred in everyday life, we soon become aware of what separates us from the Divine. Sometimes this happens because we are forgetful and preoccupied with worldly things, such as our jobs, our families, our worries and fears.
Sometimes we feel separated from God because of our possessions or our behavior. John Woolman, an eighteenth century American Quaker, was asked to notarize a will authorizing the bequest of a slave. Woolman felt uncomfortable doing this ordinary task because he realized that slavery is wrong. He later became a leading opponent of slavery and helped to bring about the abolition of slavery among Quakers in 1774. He also advised Friends to look to their possessions, their homes, for the “seeds of war.” He refused to wear dyed clothing because dyes were made from indigo, which was gathered by slave labor.
Today, Quakers ask ourselves: Are our purchases made with child labor, or are they fairly traded? How do our purchases affect the environment?
We can also become separated from God by thinking the Divine can only be found in a special place, like a cathedral or a beautiful natural setting. Jesus warned against this kind of attachment when he responded to the Samaritan woman who wondered which holy mountain was the most appropriate place in which to worship. Jesus turned upside conventional beliefs when he declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:21-23).
Jesus was able to turn ordinary experiences, like encountering a woman drawing water at a well, into a moment of profound spirituality. By being fully present to the “ordinary,” Jesus was able to help her find the living waters within herself. As a result, she became the first evangelist, bringing to her people the good news that the Messiah has arrived and is present among us.
This week I had a special encounter that turned an ordinary conversation into something extraordinary. A friend of my wife’s visited us from Minnesota and shared her feelings and views for a couple of hours. This woman is a somewhat conservative Evangelical Christian, and I am a very liberal Quaker, but we both had great respect for each other and the conversation became an opportunity for sharing from the heart. My wife and I listened to her so compassionately that our friend didn’t want the conversation to end, nor did we. She felt so accepted and appreciated by us that she was moved to tears and asked that we end our conversation with prayer. It was truly a sacred moment. Later I told my spiritual director about this encounter and he said, “Now you have had an experience of what it’s like to be a spiritual director.”
Listening compassionately isn’t easy; it’s even harder than learning to write and communicate well. Even after twenty years of practicing, and going to Israel/Palestine for intensive compassionate listening training, I realize I still have much to learn. For example, I’m still trying to figure out how to listen compassionately to my wife! Giving another person one’s full attention, listening with one’s whole heart and mind, is not easy, but it’s well worth the effort!
As I write this reflection, I look around the living room of my home and realize how sacred this place has become for me in the year and a half that I have been married to Jill. In this room we have had parties, Bible studies, and numerous guests, from homeless men to missionaries. My wife and I have laughed and cried and danced and gone a little crazy in this room. The books in the bookshelf are old friends who have traveled with me from house to house, and now they are encased in book shelves given to me by my dear sister-in-law. Most of the pictures on the wall were painted by Jill’s mom, a gifted artist and a dear, sweet woman who embodies love. Each piece of furniture has a story, a memory, associated with it. I can think of no place more sacred than this living room. And I hope you can say the same for your living room.
The holy is embedded in our everyday lives, in what we wear, in what we purchase, in how we spend our time. Conversely, the unholy is present in material things that separate us from God and from each other. To escape becoming possessed by our possession, we need discernment. We need the guidance of the Spirit. We need spiritual friends and a spiritual community that can help us grow closer to each other and to the Divine.