I used to think of the Kansas prairies as a landscape to be endured, to be slept through in the back seat of the family station wagon as we made our way westward towards more spectacular scenery. Now, the prairies are my home. It took years before I could use that word to describe this place—home—and speak it with gratitude.
In the beginning, the sky felt too close. The land felt too barren and devoid of features by which to orient myself. The wind—the incessant wind!—felt unnerving. In the beginning, the prairie appeared an altogether plain sort of place, and I confess that often I looked at prairie people in much the same way.
To borrow from e.e. cummings, for “the eyes of my eyes to be opened” I required the passage of many prairie seasons. I had to grow in patience, and pause to watch light and shadow play on gentle swells of earth. I needed to let the wind press, push, and then pass through me. I needed to learn the generations-old rhythms of wheat farmers, and the much older stories of immigrants, abolitionists, Mexican rail-workers, the Wichita and the Kaw, the “People of the South Wind.”
It took time for me to perceive something of the extraordinary beauty that has been present all along in this “ordinary” place and people. It took time to see a mere fraction of what God already sees and celebrates with great love.
Long ago the singer of the Psalms wrote:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth the work of God's hands. One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:1-4
There is no place in this world, no moment in the passage of days, that cannot declare something of the glory of God. We catch inklings of this wordless proclamation as we hurry along our quotidian pathways, but there is much that we miss.
Our excitable minds are easily drawn to all that appears exciting, attractive, innovative, and extraordinary. What’s more, the mind has an amazing, natural capacity for categorization and evaluation; we are quick to judge our experiences and encounters as pleasing or displeasing, welcome or unwelcome, holy or unholy. Given these tendencies we can be found grumbling our way through the mundane, anxiously suffering through the pain, and chasing after transient moments of pleasure. An entire consumer culture has been built around our preferences, trying to sell us all manner of things and experiences to amplify the pleasure, avoid the boredom, and anesthetize the pain.
This isn’t just a modern phenomenon, of course; it is an old human story, as the biblical scriptures attest. The stories of scripture are full of women and men who are learning how to perceive the presence of God not only in moments of spiritual clarity and joy, but also in the midst of their daily rounds and the shadowed valleys of their lives. More than one character in the Bible echoes the words of Jacob who, surprised by God in the middle of a particularly barren moment, says: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).
One vivid example from the Gospels is the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. What intrigues me about this story is its timing in the liturgical life of the church. As a Mennonite Christian I typically hear this story told on the Sunday before Lent begins—a high point before we descend to the cross. Recently, I learned that my Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox sisters and brothers celebrate the Transfiguration right in the middle of Ordinary Time, amidst our sweltering days of August on the prairie. It strikes me as a perfect time to contemplate this story.
For those who may not know the story, in Luke’s version (9:28-36) we hear of the disciple Peter’s response to the vision of his teacher shining with Divine Light and visiting with Elijah and Moses. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings here for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Translation: This is fantastic! This is what it’s all about! It doesn’t get any better than this, so let’s stay right here! As usual, Peter is bold enough to say what most of us might have been thinking and feeling.
Peter quickly learns that preserving the peak experience is not the plan. Rather, the plan is to allow this shining moment to pass, and then for him, his friends, and his Master to hike back down the mountain into ordinary time. They must return to the push and pull of the crowds and the uncertainty of a journey that will eventually lead them into a valley of pain where they never imagined going. They must plunge right back into the messiness of life, and learn to see the Light there, too.
Most of our days are not feast days, and extraordinary experiences are rare. Most of our days are lived in the wondrous mess of quotidian life. This is where we have the opportunity to practice a more patient attention to the Presence. Here in our Ordinary Time, as dishes are scrubbed, diapers are changed, bills are paid and conversations are negotiated, the days will continue to pour forth their speech, and the nights will impart their knowledge of the glory of God.