Review: Tish Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP, 2016).
I am a recovering idealist. I suffer from an unhealthy infatuation with spiritual highs that sidesteps or overlooks the reality of daily living. I would much rather skip over all the details and rituals that must be enacted or endured every day and cut straight to the mountaintop experience, in which the limitations of time and space seem to fall away, and the truly spiritual unfolds before me.
As a teenager, I went on extended overseas mission trips as a way to pursue those mountaintop experiences. Leaving behind the mundane and unimportant things that occupied folks back at home, I was off serving the Lord in a foreign country, enduring hardships, experiencing another culture. This isn’t to diminish the spiritual growth I experienced while on these trips; those experiences shaped me in important ways for which I am very grateful. However, in hindsight, I see how I let these trips reinforce a spiritual idealism that, while exhilarating, was doomed to fail me as soon as we landed back on American soil and I had to face my mundane, everyday teenage life back at home. The time I spent in high school between those trips was difficult, in no small part because those experiences could not be duplicated in my everyday life.
Now, as a wife, mother, and Episcopal priest living in West Nashville, I find my days occupied, even consumed, with the very details of daily living that I would have scoffed at as a teenager as insignificant, frivolous, and unspiritual. Who can I find to fix the leak in our chimney? What can I do differently to get my toddler out the door on time more often? Is it time for my baby to transition from bassinet to crib, and how much will that disrupt her sleep and therefore my own? How have we run out of dental floss again? This shift in life has forced me to consider anew the spiritual importance of the mundane — to see it as the very nexus of my relationship with God. Even the most profound spiritual experiences of my life have taken place in the context of a day — in which I got up, dressed, and brushed my teeth.
In Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Tish Harrison Warren offers an antidote to an idealism that would elevate certain pursuits in life as more spiritual than others. As Andy Crouch says in the foreword, “[T]here is also the more subtle quest for a suitably “radical” life, a life of conspicuous sacrifice and service — a life that seems obviously set apart for something more than the mundane and (so we start to think) unimportant life” (p. 10). Warren admits to her own spiritual idealism that has drawn her to more radical and communal ways of living out Christian faith, at times to the neglect of more mundane ways of following Christ: “I can get caught up in big ideas of justice and truth and neglect the small opportunities around me to extend kindness, forgiveness, and grace” (pp. 76-77).
Warren invites us to take a hard and brave look at how to live out our faith in the way we respond to everyday situations and interactions. She reflects on the everyday rituals of our modern lives and finds unexpected theological significance in them. Email, for instance, so often feels like a monkey on our backs:
For me, being a “blessed and sent” one on God’s mission seems distant and inscrutable in the annoying task of email. Yet each message in my inbox, in some way, touches on my vocation, or rather, vocations. … This kingdom vision — our identity as those blessed and sent — must work itself out in the small routines of our daily work and vocation, as we go to meetings, check our email, make our children dinner, or mow the lawn. (p. 93)
Time spent waiting impatiently in traffic reminds us that time belongs to God and is not within our control; we wait, most importantly, not for the light to turn green, but for God to come and make all things new.
In other chapters, Warren draws connections between aspects of the liturgy and our daily lives. A fight with our spouse, for instance, calls to mind the passing of peace, the gesture of reconciliation in the liturgy that serves as a sign of the peace we should be pursuing in our relationships with those who are closest to us. The irritation we feel when we can’t find our keys is a reminder of the confession we make corporately each week: “[The] practice of communal confession is a vital way to enact the habit of confession that marks our daily lives. Through it we learn together the language of repentance and faith” (p. 57). As she weaves connections between the liturgy and the ins and outs of daily living, Warren takes on heady theological concepts — the communion of saints, ecclesiology, the eschatological orientation of our faith — and unpacks their implications for our daily lives.
This book asks me to look at the ordinariness of my day with new eyes. It is not something to be skipped over in favor of some shining, imaginary future, in which I’ve magically acquired all the character and virtue I wish I saw in myself. Instead, by God’s grace, the daily rhythm of life is the venue — the only venue — in which a recovering idealist can find the beauty and meaning that she seeks.