john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Heaven in Ordinary

    Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, 26/8/2007

    A friend of mine who I go to for guidance and direction on my very precarious spiritual journey, suggested to me a while ago that I start a Personal Bible.

    The Personal Bible is based on the idea that our personal and spiritual development shouldn't depend on the need to always keep seeking out fresh new experiences and resources, for we actually all already carry with us a wealth of stuff - be it scriptural texts, poems, philosophical writings, lines from songs, stories we've heard or told - which have been massive influences on us in the past and can and will be again, if we keep reminding ourselves of them and perhaps spend more time with them, revisiting them on a deeper level.

    So the Personal Bible is a notebook in which you gather together those collections of words which mean a lot to you. And you can carry it around with you and hopefully be enriched by the experience of spending good time with it.

    This sounded like a good idea to me, so a few months back I went out and bought a nice black Moleskine book, and began to fill it with some quotes, poems and other texts which have meant a lot to me over the years. Then I put it to one side and haven't done much with it for the last few weeks.

    Preparing for this talk I thought it would be interesting to go back to my Personal Bible to see if anything in there might be of use to us here today, thinking about what we mean by Heaven in Ordinary. And it was interesting to open it at the very first page and to see that the very first thing which I entered in the book is this poem:

    let me be your vacuum cleaner
    breathing in your dust
    let me be your ford cortina
    i will never rust
    if you like your coffee hot
    let me be your coffee pot
    you call the shots
    i wanna be yours

    let me be your raincoat
    for those frequent rainy days
    let me be your dreamboat
    when you wanna sail away
    let me be your teddy bear
    take me with you anywhere
    i don't care
    i wanna be yours

    let me be your electric meter
    i will not run out
    let me be the electric heater
    you get cold without
    let me be your setting lotion
    hold your hair
    with deep devotion
    deep as the deep
    atlantic ocean
    that's how deep is my emotion
    deep deep deep deep de deep deep
    i don't wanna be hers
    i wanna be yours [1]

    [If you are of a similar vintage to me then you may recognise this as I wanna be yours, by Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke]

    The poem is not a perfect, but a pretty good, way to start this talk as we begin to explore what Heaven in Ordinary might mean.

    Because if heaven is where loving reverence and devotion find their voice - this poem has all that;
    Because if heaven contains the promise and carries the hope of new things happening - this poem aches with all that;
    Because if heaven is where joyfulness and satisfaction are found - this wilfully entertaining poem certainly does that:
    And it does all this not using transcendental language or imagery. It does it by talking about very ordinary things - the vacuum cleaner, the Ford Cortina, the coffee pot, the raincoat.

    Let me be your electric meter
    I will not run out
    Let me be the electric heater
    You get cold without

    - I first came across this poem when I was a student living in a damp room on a shoestring budget and you sense that John Cooper Clarke probably penned this somewhere similar, probably a shoddy Manchester flat, but by connecting the minutiae of his mundane bedsit experience to his most heartfelt desires and emotions the poet creates something quite beautiful and transformational: he raises the ordinary things of his life heavenwards; he calls down the heavenly to connect with and enrich his everyday.

    Now I may have dragged John Cooper Clarke closer to a religious position than he would probably comfortably like to be, but I believe that his words are as valid for our discussion as anyone else's, from inside or outside any faith tradition. Because I think that once you start believing that you can find Heaven in the Ordinary then you'll start looking for it everywhere, and you'll potentially find it anywhere.

    But let's hear from another writer who will frame our exploration in more recognisably Christian terms, a friend of mine who used to organise the film programme at Greenbelt and who like me still hovers around at the fringes of the festival hoping to chip in something potentially profound every now and again, Peter Barrett, who a while ago emailed me these words:

    Where's God?:
    She just walked past you, actually,
    Smiling at the kids,
    Remarking to their Mums how well behaved they are.
    He was wiping tables at the cafe,
    Asking after you, funnily enough.
    She was taking her younger brother to the park
    So Mum could have a break.
    He was opening a door
    For an old couple to enter Boots.

    Where's God?
    In the grit, in the grime
    In the mundane joy
    Of washing dishes,
    Hoovering the house, wiping baby's bottoms,
    Visiting the sick, listening to the lonely.
    Often out of sight
    Infamously working with a kind word
    Whispered in passing.
    An understood look between friends;
    An arched eyebrow between lovers.

    As we scratch beneath the make-up
    Of our raw lives,
    Tenderness and compassion
    Are available
    If we look hard enough
    Into the magic and mystery
    Of the routine and humdrum. [2]

    This urge to investigate the hidden depths of the humdrum, the mysteries of the mundane, the Heaven in the Ordinary, goes back a long way and is enjoying quite a renaissance today.

    Scripture gives Christians particular permission to do this, especially the gospels which are dominated by the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven, a phrase interchangeable with the Kingdom of God - the central idea of Jesus' teaching, and one which he unfailingly taught by telling stories which are deeply rooted in ordinary life:

    stories of the mustard seed and the yeast and the fishing net, which illustrate to us that the Kingdom of Heaven starts very modestly but expands excitingly;

    stories of the wedding banquet and many other meals which he either talked about or enjoyed taking part in, not least that one we now knowingly call The Last Supper, all of which illustrate to us that the Kingdom of Heaven is a festive, joyful and communal event;

    a story about a vineyard owner who pays equal wages to all his staff regardless of the hours they worked, which illustrates to us that the Kingdom of Heaven is a scandal of grace;

    other stories about employers settling accounts with their workers which tell us that in the Kingdom of Heaven certain obligations should be met;

    and stories about lost sheep and lost coins and treasure hidden in a field, which help us to know that in the Kingdom of Heaven small things are valued highly, and ought to be sought out.

    Other parts of scripture - particularly the Hebrew texts - promote strongly the sense that heaven is a transcendent 'other' place where God lives. Jesus himself affirms this when he tells his friends that he is going to prepare a place for them 'In my Father's house [where there are] many rooms'.

    But his chief concern is to break down any supposed divisions between a heavenly, spiritual kingdom and an earthly, physical kingdom. That's the whole point of the incarnation of course, that's why he came to earth. To bring heaven and earth together. To completely and intimately connect the spiritual and the physical. And, though we hold to the hope of a final wondrous home where we will live with God, Jesus teaches us that our foretaste of that heaven, and our preparation for it, are to be found in the here and now, and in the closest, tiniest things which are so familiar to us that we generally neglect or debase them. And not 'within us' or 'in our hearts', but in the tangible stuff of ordinary life.

    The Kingdom of Heaven is 'in your midst', Jesus says in Luke 17.21, or translated another way, The Kingdom of Heaven is 'within your grasp'.

    The present-day prophets who are telling us this afresh are often to be found outside the faith traditions, but they tell it well.

    In 1973 Georges Perec published an essay called Approaches to What?, which is quite a polemic against our neglect of life's ordinary things:

    What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motor-cars is to drive into ... trees.

    ... The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn't concern me, doesn't ask me questions and doesn't answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.

    What's really going on, what we're experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual? [3]

    The problem with the habitual, Perec writes, is that we're habituated to it. 'We don't question it,' he says, 'it doesn't question us, it doesn't seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren't the bearer of any information. ... We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space?'

    Perec proposes a language to speak of these 'common things', an anthropology not of some distant 'other' but 'one that will speak about us'.

    What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Why? Where? When? Why?

    Perec anticipated the sorts of questions which would be raised by his proposal: What is there under your wallpaper?, What is in your pockets?, How do you use your tea spoons? - and he acknowledged that social scientists and other serious thinkers would accuse them of being 'barely indicative of a method, at most of a project', as seeming trivial and futile. But he insisted that '[seeming trivial and futile is] exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we've tried in vain to lay hold on our truth.'

    Long before Perec wrote, others had been doing the work of investigating the seemingly trivial stuff of ordinary life. Most familiar to us, perhaps, is the work of Mass-Observation, a project which began in the UK 70 years ago, when Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist) invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, which they called an 'anthropology at home'. They were keen to develop what they called 'a science of ourselves'. [4]

    Joe Moran has written at length about these Mass-Observationists:

    They hoped that their investigators would develop some new insights into subjects such as: '[The] behaviour of people at war memorials ... Shouts and gestures of motorists ... Anthropology of football pools ... Beards, armpits, eyebrows ... Female taboos about eating'.

    They were criticised in the press as being 'busybodies', 'snoopers' and 'psycho-anthropologic nosy-parkers'. But despite this rejection an enthusiastic army of lowly paid or unpaid Mass-Observation researchers set about interviewing people in the street, writing down conversations overheard in pubs, factories and public toilets, and observing people carrying out ordinary activities such as smoking, drinking and dancing.

    At a time when ordinary people were rarely seen or heard on film or radio, way before vox pops became media currency, and when Lord Reith's BBC was staunchly upper-middle-class and dinner-suited, Mass-Observation wanted to make ordinary citizens' lives and thoughts better known to the people who governed them. Mass-Observation was annoyed by the lazy assumptions about 'the man in the street' which were made by the media/political elite, who they criticised as being 'a tiny group, with different habits of mind, ways of life, from those millions they are catering for'.

    In the post-war boom years the Mass-Observation project was overtaken by the growth industry of market research, which was also interested in recording the views of ordinary people, but at far less depth and for explicitly commercial purposes. Today the opinions of ordinary people are co-opted by the entertainment industry as votes on reality TV shows and as contributions to political 'focus groups'.

    Mass-Observation challenged the notion that history consists solely of the lives of great men. In its relatively brief heyday Mass-Observation opened the minds of the masses to their own potential, and to the value of their previously hidden, neglected or deprecated ordinary everyday lives.

    And the Mass-Observation ethos continues today in various forms - when I spoke on this subject at the Greenbelt Angels Day in Leeds in March I discussed the recent project called A Day in the Life of Leeds where ordinary people recorded the details of their day and shared them online [5]; a project which like many similar ones was well-received and much talked about in the community it affirmed, because it affirmed that community and engaged with the usually hidden depths and complexities of the ordinary lives of its people.

    I suspect there's something quite heavenly in taking other people seriously, in taking time to listen closely to them and observe.

    It can be quite a radical act, as the theorist of the everyday Ben Highmore writes,

    To invoke an ordinary culture from below is to make the invisible visible, and as such has clear social and political resonances. [6]

    I'm aware of that, living and working among people I'm learning to think of as ordinary in the positive sense of that word, rather than the dismissive or judgemental sense in which it's often used against them.

    On every road on our estate there are many white vans, because the sons and grandsons of those who used to work on the docks continue to scrape a living in the transportation of goods. Being a White Van Man is a vulnerable and exhausting way of life which is oddly reviled by wider society, rather than respected.

    Norris Green, where I live, recently featured in A Guide to Chav Britain, a centre spread in the Sunday Sport [7]. The purpose of the article was of course to revile people. The Sport reported that according to a market researcher our estate has the highest concentration of shell-suit ownership in the UK. This is an interesting statistic; alongside it I'd like to have seen some quotes from our shell-suit wearers sharing why they like wearing them and what they mean to them, opening up a positive dialogue about fashion, jettisoning unhelpful stereotypes for healthy contradictions and nuanced thoughts, all of which our folks are well able to shape.

    And while on the topic of fashion I must mention the most famous daughter of our parish: Coleen McLoughlin, who knows what it's like to be ridiculed by mainstream society, with all those nasty photos taken of her looking lumpy in her gym slip, all those bitchy pieces about her lack of fashion sense, those tacky boots, her passion for shopping. But as her boyfriend's biographer Hunter Davies recently wrote,

    ... now, ... four years after she first surfaced, the world of celebrity is even more obsessed by her than ever. More surprisingly, they all love her. Oh, they do. Serious commentators are analysing her importance as a postmodern icon. Vogue has put her on its cover. The tabloids are predicting she'll be the new Cilla Black and get £1.5m to front an ITV series. The advertising industry is falling over itself for her face and name. [8]

    Davies has a theory that I warm to, that Coleen's appeal is to do with her wonderful ordinariness. He writes:

    ... it's probably her lack of airs and graces that appeals most. She's not a threat. She knows it's been luck, her celebrity status, but she's determined to enjoy it, make the most of it, while not harming anyone or doing bad. Which, of course, is what every well brought up Catholic girl should do.

    Respect, to Coleen, for working hard at keeping a healthy ordinariness about her. Her critics neglect that, with her penchant for hard work, her organised outlook on life, her 11 GCSE's and as an ex-Head Girl at her secondary school she was always likely to do ok, Coleen. Her story invokes an ordinary culture from below and makes the invisible visible, and I welcome the social and political resonances her story provokes.

    Virginia Woolf said,

    It's not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it's the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses. [9]

    And this is echoed by Siegfried Kracauer who wrote:

    We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up. [10]

    And the tiny hints of heaven, which are our main concern today. Let me share a story with you to illustrate these points, about a young woman who interrupted my eating one day. [11]

    She had the whole restaurant on our knees, looking for it. The earring which became dislodged somewhere between the entrance and her table, and had bounced away across the floor.

    We had to find it, the other diners, because there were tears rolling down this young woman's face, there was great distress in her voice at the thought of losing this precious thing.

    Now this didn't happen in an expensive eating place; we weren't the most sophisticated customers, and this was not a special occasion for anybody there. We were in a roadside service station, mostly eating processed food from cardboard containers in the middle of an ordinary day. I'd guess that most of us were just passing through, refuelling.

    The earring was found by a plasterer in the corner seat by the TV screen, and those who watched him return it to the deeply grateful woman saw that this earring was very ordinary, nothing special at all.

    The woman, wiping the tears from her cheeks, noticed our reactions and offered an explanation.

    "I know it's only a cheap thing," she said unapologetically, "but it was my best friend's, you see. I was with her when she bought it, it cost her six pound fifty. But she loved it. It really matched the colour of her eyes. And she died last month. Cancer. But when she was ill she gave this to me. It means a lot to me"

    No loss is insignificant. Even the loss of small things, in the most ordinary places, are important. We're thinking about the idea of Heaven in the Ordinary. This story hints at how it may be found.

    Because if heaven is a community where people coexist in caring concern for each other - this story demonstrates that;
    Because if heaven is a place where tears shed can be wiped away and new possibilities begin to emerge - this story aches with that;
    Because if heaven is where human needs for intimacy and affirmation are met - this story certainly demonstrates that:
    And it does all this by describing something which happened to a group of ordinary strangers in a very ordinary place, not a group of pilgrims to a holy site. Looking at it in this way, the roadside service station becomes a sacred place.

    Trying to find Heaven in Ordinary soon engages you with places and their significance to us. Heaven is a place - in scripture, and in most people's imagination. When we picture heaven we tend to see it as a familiar place. When we talk about heaven it's in terms and images we understand - ordinary terms and images. I find this all the time in my job, spending time with the recently bereaved: I take a funeral for a man whose passion was fishing, and his family tell me that they can 'see him now', sitting by that river where there is no pollution and where the catch is always good.

    All our ideas about heaven are connected to the way we see life on earth. That's why the first thing most nightclub comedians tell us about heaven is that there's a bloke - like a bouncer - standing there at the door.

    Looking for Heaven in Ordinary our search takes us to particular places. The book of Revelation portrays the new heaven and the new earth this way: it's Jerusalem, a very familiar city albeit scrubbed-up nicely so that God can live there with the rest of us.

    Jerusalem, like Mt Sinai and the Temple, were always regarded as special places, of course, easily associated with heaven. But scripture also introduces us to places which weren't special at all, until something happened there which made them significant: Mount Moriah, where Abraham and Isaac met their maker; Bethel, an ordinary place until God appears to Jacob there in a dream, and Jacob, sounding surprised, says, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it...' Suddenly Jacob took a first look at where he was and found himself exclaiming, 'How awesome is this place! [It is] the house of God, [It is] the gate of heaven...' (Genesis 28.10-22)

    In the gospels we hear another voice of surprise, or is it cynicism, asking, 'Can anything good come from Nazareth?' Well, yes it can, the same good which turned an ordinary well into a heavenly place when Jesus transformed the outlook of the Samarian woman he met there, the same good which turned an ordinary tree into something Zacchaeus would always afterwards remember as the one he climbed the day that Jesus turned his life around.

    We don't even know the name or address of the Upper Room where Jesus had that simple supper with his friends the night before his arrest, but its significance to generations of believers has turned that ordinary place into the Christian world's most celebrated venue, a setting reproduced in countless works of art, drama and film and every day in places of worship across the world.

    We have our special places where we expect glimpses, at least, of heaven: our Holy Islands, our Lourdes, our Taizes, our Ionas. The trick in searching for Heaven in Ordinary, is to expect that any place can be the platform for a transforming, awe-inspiring, affirming, joyful, encounter with the divine.

    We have our sanctified pilgrimage destinations where the pilgrim knows what is expected of them, as T.S. Eliot does when he writes, in the Four Quartets, about being brought to his knees at Little Gidding:

    You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report. You are here to kneel
    Where prayer has been valid. [12]

    But another poet, R.S. Thomas, reminds us that it is often the unsanctified, unacknowledged places, where our behaviour goes unmonitored by any religious authority, that bring us close to heaven. He writes about The Moor in this way:

    The Moor

    It was like a church to me -
    I entered it on soft foot,
    Breath held like a cap in the hand.
    It was quiet.
    What God was there made himself felt,
    Not listened to, in clean colours
    That brought a moistening of the eye,
    In movement of the wind over grass.

    There were no prayers said. But in stillness
    Of the heart's passions - that was praise
    Enough; and the mind's cession
    Of its kingdom. I walked on,
    Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
    And broke on me generously as bread. [13]

    In its entry on Sacred Spaces the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery says:

    In keeping with the Bible's way of picturing the unseen spiritual world as reaching down into the ordinary routines of life, any place is a candidate to become sacred by virtue of a visitation from God. [14]

    ... or possibly by virtue of a visitation by another person of influence, or by virtue of a remembered event. We all have ordinary places which have for one reason or another become special - or sacred - or heavenly - to us.

    There's the park bench which has become special to her, the office worker, as the place where she can take a break from work each day, sit in sun or shelter, quietly catching up with herself;

    There's the park bench which has become special to them, the loving couple, as it was there that he proposed to her and she agreed to his request for them to spend the rest of their lives together;

    There's the park bench which has become special to him, the homeless man, as a place of rest at night, somewhere to lay his weary bones away from the hustle of the hostels and the street.

    I used to live on a very ordinary Liverpool street, called Penny Lane, just up the road from an unremarkable house called Strawberry Fields, which were immortalised in what many critics agree was the best double-A-side single by anyone ever, because somehow Lennon and McCartney's songs describing these places they remembered from their childhoods, struck a chord with listeners worldwide. Two very ordinary places made extraordinary in their art.

    And time and again when imaginative souls engage themselves with ordinary everyday things, the consequences can be consciousness-altering, world-changing, let's say heavenly. Heaven in ordinary - it springs from where you least expect it:

    Very plain girl that Mona
    Very normal street that Penny
    It gets a car from A to B, Route
    Sixty Six,
    It's an old cart in a field, the

    Regular river route that Ferry
    Cross the Mersey,
    A green space in the city, Central
    Everyday agribusiness, Maggie's
    It flies upwards, Vaughan Williams'

    Daily cloud formation, Waterloo
    Suburban cul-de-sac, Brookside
    Modest little vegetables, Green
    Companions to us, Father, Son and

    Many artists have found interesting ways to bring to light the wonders hidden in the mundane. Like Antonia Rolls whose picture of a tired Mary holding a very lively baby Jesus at 3 in the morning, has adorned the Greenbelt website for the past few months, illustrating our theme. [15]

    Like Ellie Harrison who for a year kept a Daily Data Log detailing the minutiae of her everyday routine: exercise taken, bodily functions, foods eaten, every person spoken to, her responses on a scale of 1 to 10 to the early evening news; she then turned all this data into a stimulating and provocative multimedia exhibition. [16]

    Like Richard Wentworth who describes the Caledonian Road, a messy urban corridor heading north out of King's Cross, as An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty and makes sculptures from street litter which he finds there, to illuminate our understanding of the way we constantly change our environment. [17]

    Like Martin Parr whose collection of Boring Postcards promotes what seems to be an oddly English obsession with cataloguing the mundane, with its pictures of 1960s shopping precincts, motorway service stations and identikit hotel lobbies. [18]

    Like Saint Etienne, a band with a strong sense of place, a poetic appreciation of the ordinary, a love of commonplace people and the towerblock-streetlevel-marketplace arenas where we live out our modest lives. More than one reviewer has noticed how their lightness of touch and celebratory tone makes London seem almost heavenly; and in the sleeve notes to their Tales from Turnpike House album Jeremy Deller recalls an adolescence spent in the same South London suburbs as Saint Etienne, where a whole new world was opened up to him on Saturdays spent exploring the magical world of jumble sales. [19]

    Like Andrew Kotting whose film Gallivant is a wondrous celebration of what happens when three generations of a disjointed family take a journey around the entire coast of Britain - himself, his aged grandmother and his severely disabled daughter, two women who had hardly ever met prior to that epic, maverick documentary journey through our ordinary land. [20]

    And like Iain Sinclair whose psychogeographic circuit of the M25 motorway, on foot, which became a book and a film called London Orbital [21], triggered my interest in urban exploration which is causing me to take two months walking the M62 motorway, from Hull via Leeds, the Pennines, and Manchester back home to Liverpool, a journey which I start - God willing - this coming Friday. [22]

    Heaven in Ordinary - it seems that the artists have an instinct for revealing and celebrating this stuff. But if it's ordinary then we can all take part in this work. And even if we don't see ourselves as artists, we can all pray.

    It was the sixteenth-century priest and poet George Herbert who coined the phrase, 'Heaven in Ordinarie'. It is a line in one of his poems which is simply entitled 'Prayer'. [23] So Heaven in Ordinary is one way of describing what prayer is. And everybody prays. Sometimes.

    Maybe the poet had in mind those sorts of prayers we pray in the middle of everyday life: prayers while travelling: God help me get through this airport without any problems, prayers while working: God give me strength to meet all my commitments today, prayers on seeing our loved ones leave the home: God bless them, we'll miss them, keep them safe.

    One contemporary writer of prayers, Greenbelt's own Martin Wroe, documents his creative struggles to find his God in the middle of the mess of everyday life. In one of these prayers he asks 'what are you like?':

    a burglar in the dark stepping on a loose floorboard
    the smell of frying bacon wafting from an unseen window
    a bird rustling her clothes in motionless branches
    the opening bars of a song you know
    ... before you can name it
    a sneeze so shocking it clears the head
    the fleeting embarrassed eye-contact
    ... opening the soul
    a rumour so strange, that maybe it's true

    what are you like? [24]

    We encounter Heaven in the Ordinary in all sorts of ways - a child's question, a youngsters' giggle, a glance, a surprise, a kind deed. Heaven in Ordinary: it's that moment when you find yourself welling up, simply because someone has touched you on the arm. Heaven in Ordinary: it's in the routine, or let's call it the ritual of our waking, working days. Heaven in Ordinary: it's there all the time if you just attune yourself to be open to it.

    How do we develop the senses we need to discern hints of Heaven in the Ordinary?

    I think that the prayers from the ancient people of the British Isles - the Celts - help us with this. They had special prayers for getting washed, or making the bed or lighting the fire [25]. They also had this prayer which to me is about asking to be sensitised to find Heaven in the Ordinary at the start of a new day:

    Bless to me, O God,
    Each thing mine eye sees;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each sound mine ear hears;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each odour that goes to my nostrils;
    Bless to me, O God,
    Each taste that goes to my lips;
    Each note that goes to my song;
    Each ray that guides my way;
    Each thing that I pursue;
    Each lure that tempts my will;
    The zeal that seeks my living soul,
    The three that seek my heart,
    The zeal that seeks my living soul,
    The three that seek my heart. [26]

    The person praying isn't asking God to bless them with good things through the day - what they are doing instead is asking God to help them find blessing in everything they encounter and experience through the day.

    Bless to me, O God,
    Each thing mine eye sees;

    - that's the beauty in the baby's smile - but also the sight revealed by the opening up of that child's nappy;

    Bless to me, O God,
    Each sound mine ear hears;

    - that's the music on the car radio calming you in the traffic jam - but it's also the repeated mobile phone bleeps of the person sitting next to you on the train engrossed in text messaging;

    Bless to me, O God,
    Each odour that goes to my nostrils;

    - that's the satisfying smell of your perfumed self, post-shower - but also the smell that greets you when you walk past a drain on the high street which quite clearly needs some attention.

    This is where we might struggle with the idea of Heaven in Ordinary. Because some things we see or hear or sense just don't seem to be blessings in any conceivable way.

    The idea of Heaven in Ordinary seems to suggest that there's goodness in everything, and so we should accept everything as it is. But some things we see or hear or sense are patently bad, wrong, unjust.

    This is where we must remind ourselves that what we're looking for is not a vague sense of loveliness in the world, but for the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom which roots the gracious, just rule of God in ordinary life, a Kingdom which takes ordinary things and transforms them, takes ordinary people's lives and turns them around, a Kingdom which overturns prevailing powers and raises up the lowly.

    So when we're asking God to bless each thing our eyes see, then we're asking to see everything through the eyes of the Kingdom of Heaven; and when we see bad things, then the blessing is in our responding to them in the way of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    So when we're asking God to bless our smelling of that rotten high street drain, then our Kingdom of Heaven response might be to call the council up to get it fixed; and there's blessing in that.

    And when we're asking God to bless our listening to the repeated text messaging of the person next to us on the train, then our Kingdom of Heaven response might be to turn to that person and open up a friendly conversation; and there's blessing in that.

    Heaven in Ordinary: it's a strategy against complacency. It's a force for transformation.

    Ben Highmore is keen to underline that everyday life is fluid, that there is a great variability in what is meant by 'ordinary' between one culture and another, between one person and another. This is to challenge the dangerous assumption that what one group regards as 'ordinary' might be the only correct 'ordinary' there is - which is of course the viewpoint of the dominators and the crusaders.

    So Highmore encourages explorers of the everyday to 'practice a kind of heuristic approach to social life that does not start out with predesignated outcomes.' [27] Or to translate that into our terms, finding Heaven in Ordinary comes by trial and error.

    This should be fine for we who sense the reality of heaven but without quite knowing what it really is. We see it as through a glass dimly, Paul tells us, in the faith that one day we will see it clearly. 'No eye has seen, no ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him', he writes in 1 Corinthians 2.9.

    All we can see of heaven is what we have in front of us now, what is in our grasp today. And that is plenty good enough, for now, if we believe with the eucharistic prayers of many traditions that we hold immediately before us 'the ordinary things of the world ... which Christ will make special.'

    Bless those who will today stand waiting in a cashier's queue:
    For the great patience and good humour which they need.

    Bless those queuing to receive benefits and pensions,
    anxious about the amount they're due,
    planning how they're going to make ends meet this week.

    Bless those queuing to deposit money:
    hard-earned cash, possibly winnings, or a gift,
    saving towards a longed-for holiday, or wedding, or a new investment.

    Bless those who will today stand waiting in a cashier's queue.

    Keep them composed while listening out for that familiar voice which will call them: 'Cashier number One, please';

    Help them tolerate others in the queue whose patience is wearing thin;

    Give them the gift of conversation to ease the tension and the boredom.

    We give thanks for those behind the cashier's glass
    Who tirelessly deal with the customers and their needs:
    may there always be enough of them to cope at the busiest times of the day.

    We give thanks for those who provide happy distractions in the queue -
    playful children, adults blessed with the gift of humour:
    may their sense of fun lighten the mood.

    Bless those who will today stand waiting in a cashier's queue:
    Those needing to make a complaint;
    Those applying for a passport, or tax disc, or a loan;
    Those for whom money hasn't yet bought happiness
    and those whose happiness can't be bought at any price.

    Bless those who will today stand waiting in a cashier's queue:
    we hope to be blessed as we stand there with them.


    [1] John Cooper Clarke, I Wanna Be Yours
    [2] Peter Barrett, Where's God?
    [3] (and following) Georges Perec, Approaches to What?, (extract)
    [4] (and following) Sources for material on Mass-Observation: Joe Moran, The Science of Ourselves, New Statesman 29 January 2007, Mass-Observation Archive, and Nick Hubble, Mass Observation and Everyday Life, Introduction pp.1-16
    [5] A Day in the Life of Leeds, BBC archive
    [6] Ben Highmore, The Everyday Life Reader, p2/3
    [7] Sunday Sport, 27/7/08
    [8] Hunter Davies, Sunday Times, 17/12/06
    [9] Quoted in Joe Moran, Queuing for Beginners; The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime, p.22
    [10] Quoted in Joe Moran, Queuing for Beginners, p.60
    [11] Published in slightly different form in Wise Traveller: Loss
    [12] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Little Gidding
    [13] R.S. Thomas, The Moor, in Collected Poems, 1945-1990
    [14] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, entry: Sacred Spaces
    [15] Antonia Rolls
    [16] Ellie Harrison
    [17] Richard Wentworth
    [18] Martin Parr, Boring Postcards, Phaidon Press 2003
    [19] Saint Etienne
    [20] Andrew Kotting, Gallivant
    [21] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital
    [22] John Davies, Walking the M62
    [23] George Herbert, Prayer
    [24] Martin Wroe, Cough from The Sky's Window
    [25] and [26] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations from the Gaelic, Floris 2004
    [27] Ben Highmore, The Everyday Life Reader, p3

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