In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis reaffirms the universal call to holiness and says that he explicitly wishes to propose it “in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges, and opportunities” (2). My colleagues David Cloutier and Matthew Shadle have already reflected on key themes of the document here and here, so I will try to avoid repeating what they have articulated so well already. I will focus on the theme of spirituality in everyday life, and especially on how the pope describes ordinary work as a path of sanctification. As a lay woman theologian who is also a working mom, my daily life combines both reflection on the reality of God and mundane tasks to keep the family going. But it would be a mistake to think that one is superior to the other in terms of bringing me closer to God.
Much of what Pope Francis writes about regarding holiness in ordinary life is not new. Ignatian spirituality has been a resource for many Christian seekers who have found encouragement to “find God in all things.” Kathleen Norris, in her 1998 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality, “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work,” draws on monastic traditions and feminist theology to help readers think about how daily work can be a place for finding God. Wendy Wright, James Martin, SJ, Henri Nouwen, Gregory Boyle, SJ, and many others have written about the spiritual life and finding God in unlikely ‘everyday’ places.
Here are some of the messages I found most life-affirming in Gaudete et Exsultate:
1. Lay people can be models of authentic holiness.
The Christian tradition has a complicated legacy with regard to the privileging of virginity over married life. Sometimes people in the church assume that priests are holier than married people in the pews, or that to really have an authentic God experience you need to go on retreat in a monastery or away from the daily tasks that drag you down. Pope Francis explicitly rejects the idea that the clergy are holier than lay people and that one must escape family life in order to find God.
To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain (14).
In this section, Pope Francis reiterates that the universal call to holiness really does include everyone. At the same time, there is great variety in how diverse people can live out their vocations in diverse ways. Pope Francis tells readers to “be faithful to your deepest self” (32) and that each believer must “discern his or her own path” and thereby “bring out the very best of themselves” (11). There is great freedom in this invitation. There are no “hard and fast rules for all” (11). But every lay person experiences the personal call to “be holy” “in his or her own way” (11).
2. Orthopraxy takes priority.
Pope Francis rejects what he calls “contemporary gnosticism” and describes how holiness requires loving action. One of my colleagues explains this by telling students that the entrance test to get into heaven is not a scantron test! Pope Francis explains that love is the measure:
“A person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. ‘Gnostics’ do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines” (37).
I think we do well to remember this when we think about how we prepare children and young adults for the sacraments of Reconciliation, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. While certainly it is important to teach children the faith, we err if we present the faith as claims they must memorize and to which they uncritically assent. Christian discipleship is not about “intellectual exercises” (46). While Pope Francis encourages us to “wonder” and take seriously the “questions of our people,” (44), he also rejects any claims to superior holiness rooted in knowledge or education (45). Orthopraxy has priority. As someone with an advanced degree who takes pleasure in crafting theological arguments and reading and discussing complicated theological texts, this section of the exhortation was a reminder that sometimes I need to get out of my head. And certainly, I need to be careful not to assume that my advanced training in theology makes me a better person than the person sitting next to me in the pew on Sunday. It doesn’t. Instead, how am I living my vocation to love? Theology can be used to belittle and demean just as it can be an instrument of empowerment. Theology can be a tool of the ego or it can be a vehicle for self-gift. Am I using my theological training to promote the common good and build up the body of Christ?
3. Daily tasks can be opportunities for grace and unceasing prayer.
Pope Francis explains how the Beatitudes and Last Judgment are like roadmaps for understanding the path of holiness: Blessed are the poor, the meek, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted… “Holiness, then, is not about swooning in mystic rapture,” (96) but feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and visiting the imprisoned (95). And don’t these describe some of the daily tasks of overworked parents? Packing school lunches, refilling water bottles, organizing carpools, doing laundry so everyone has something to wear tomorrow, caring for sick family members, calling relatives who live far away, organizing school and parish events that build community and widen our circle of compassion… aren’t these part of the daily chores through which we live out what it means to love?
“The common life, whether in the family, the parish, the religious community or any other, is made up of small everyday things. This was true of the holy community formed by Jesus, Mary and Joseph, which reflected in an exemplary way the beauty of the Trinitarian communion” (143).
In her Madeleva lecture, Kathleen Norris writes about baking bread, folding laundry, and washing dishes as opportunities for a “quotidian” spirituality. “Quotidian” means occurring every day, belonging to the commonplace. Norris writes with joy about how she noticed, at the first Catholic liturgy she went to, that part of the ritual involved the priest cleaning up and doing the dishes, right there on the altar. For her, it became a reminder of the way that the sacred and mundane are intimately connected. She describes how children delight in water play, splashing about in the sink and enjoying the pleasure of the feeling of water slipping through our fingers. She invites readers to think about how washing dishes can become an opportunity for contemplation. One can practice mindfulness while washing dishes by simply being in the moment and focusing all of one’s awareness on the weight of the pots and pans, the temperature of the water, the smell of the soap, the circular motions of scrubbing and the careful stacking of clean dishes. Any task that involves bodily repetition such as vacuuming, gardening, dusting, cleaning shelves, scrubbing floors, kneading dough, or chopping vegetables can lead to the sacramental through the cataphatic. When folding laundry, I take pleasure in the warmth of the cotton, in smoothing wrinkles and sorting like socks. I take out my daughter’s dress and look to see if the ketchup stain came out. I smile when I think about her table manners and how that ketchup dripped and I regret fussing at her for making a mess. I vow to savor our next family meal and to work on being more patient. I remember when her older sister wore this dress. I can’t believe that was two years ago. I think back to that picnic at the park when she was wearing this dress and learning how to pump her legs on the swing all by herself. And now she’s performing in her school talent show with friends as I look on. I think we’ll pass this dress on to my nieces in Houston when we don’t need it anymore. I think about my sister there, and am flooded with memories from when we were young ourselves. I reach into the dryer and pull out the next dress, the shirts, the leggings, each item carrying reminders of our week together. This is what she wore to church, this is what she wore to the grocery store, and these are the pajamas we wore for family movie night. The little details that seem insignificant except that they are our daily acts of love. Household chores are still chores, but in the right frame of mind they are also time for me to ponder everything in my heart. I wonder how my friend battling breast cancer is feeling today. I think about friends who are grieving- the friends who lost a child, the friend who just buried his mother, the colleague at work whose mother just lost her battle with cancer. I think of the news story I listened to this morning about a family separated by an unfair refugee crisis they didn’t create, and my heart aches for those who suffer in such terrifying situations. Is this what Paul meant by unceasing prayer?
When Norris writes about a quotidian Christology, she explains that “as a human being, Jesus Christ was as subject to the daily as any of us,” and that “God is intimately concerned with our very bodies and their needs.” (Quotidian Mysteries, 11-12). Did Mary wash his clothes as she pondered everything in her heart? Daily chores can be opportunities for pondering and listening, for letting our hearts “become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life” (172).
4. God is in the details.
There’s a popular saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” It is wise to see things with appropriate perspective. But when we are thinking about experiencing God in the ordinary moments of daily lives, it is important to relish the small stuff. Poets like Mary Oliver have a gift for helping us to pay attention to the beauty of the mundane, ordinary world around us. In “The Summer Day,” Oliver writes:
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./ I do know how to pay attention, / how to fall down / into the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, / how to stroll through the fields, / which is what I have been doing all day. / Tell me, what else should I have done?…”
Taking pleasure in the smell of a cup of coffee, or the fact that you caught three green lights in a row, or the songbird’s chatter outside the window– each of these can be moments of grace.
“The Bible is full of evidence that God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a Great Cosmic Cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us–loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life” (Quotidian Mysteries, 22).
Pope Francis builds on this argument when he says:
“Let us not forget that Jesus asked his disciples to pay attention to details:
The little detail that wine was running out at a party. The little detail that one sheep was missing, The little detail of noticing the widow who offered her two small coins. The little detail of having spare oil for the lamps, should the bridegroom delay. The little detail of asking the disciples how many loaves of bread they had. The little detail of having a fire burning and a fish cooking as he waited for the disciples at daybreak.
A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan” (143-145).
Jesus noticed the small stuff. Jesus sweated the small stuff. In building relationships with his followers, he paid attention to details. Sometimes we do well to remember how the little moments of our lives form the pattern for the whole.
Holiness is found in the daily task of caring for one another and making the world a better place. Each of us must do this in our own way, from wherever we are now. My struggles are my own, and I am called to continue to grow even when it is difficult (175). Seeking holiness is a life’s work and we’re never done. But Pope Francis invites us all to consider how the path to holiness is love.