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Breaking Open the Ordinary

Sandy Prather


I'm rather sad as I watch summer coming to an end. We are well into August's shorter days and the cooler temperatures that signal fall's imminent arrival and the inevitable return to workaday routines. Summer, even for adults, seems to hold a “school's out” mentality: we all slow down and relax a little more. We manage to take long weekends off, go on holidays, and hang out in parks and on beaches.

Revelling in being outdoors, we pour creative energy into our gardens, hit the golf course as often as we can and spend time cycling or walking. Anything barbecued becomes our favourite go-to meal and we eat outdoors and sit around campfires, roasting marshmallows, singing songs and telling stories. We throng to the various festivals in our cities, taking advantage of the chance to celebrate food, theatre and music. Summertime is, for many of us, a lovely interlude where we have the time to “re-create” and enjoy a gentler rhythm of life than is usually available to us.

As families with children can attest, that ends rather abruptly with September's mandate, “back to school.” It's also “back to work” for most of us and the normalcy of taking up our everyday routines and tasks. Lessons and sports start up again and we climb back onto the treadmill of our daily life. Busy-ness takes over and we quickly forget the, lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. If, however, we are lucky, or more accurately perhaps, if we are wise, we will carry some of summer's wisdom with us into our everyday life.

Summer, if we pay attention to it, frees us to experience the truth of poet Carl Sandberg's line: “Once having passed over the margins of animal necessity, human beings come to the deeper meaning of their bones: the song and the dance and the story and the time for thinking things over.” Summer, with its rich possibilities for down time, allows us to get to the “deeper meaning of our bones,” that is, the depth level of spirit/soul. In the dizzying array of daily demands, we seldom have the time or space to get there. Philosopher Simone Weil's words ring true for so many of us: “We in our materialistic culture are in danger of spiritual starvation, not because there is no bread, but because we have persuaded ourselves we are not hungry.”

It is not a question of disparaging work. In a few weeks we will be celebrating Labour Day and the contribution of workers worldwide. Catholic social teaching has always emphasized the gift and dignity of human labour, recognizing it as our contribution to God's ongoing creation. Work, whether paid or volunteer, comes to us as gift, as anyone who has struggled with unemployment or underemployment can attest. In our labour, we use our God-given gifts and talents to build a better world even as we are given the material means to support ourselves and our families.

But as Sandberg points out, once our physical needs are met and we step aside from work, we are able to attend to the small, quiet, voice within. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and the deeper meaning of our bones confirms our bone-deep need of God. Being both matter and spirit, both need nurturing.

That's where the song, the dance, the story and the time for thinking things over comes in. As artists, poets and mystics everywhere have always known, Spirit is accessed and nurtured more easily through imagination, symbol, and silence than it is through activity, performance, and constant noise. We intuitively know when we say that music “feeds the soul,” and similarly, we've experienced the ecstasy of expression that movement and dance provide. Through the lens of stories, we have gained insight into our hearts and heads as our encounters with great literature stir and enlighten us. All of these speak to spirit, and given the time to think things over, we are led to a more mysterious and profound way of knowing and being. We have touched our bone deep need of God.

Theologian John Shea tells the story of a woman who was asked what it was that she wanted written on her tombstone. “There's always something,” she replied. I find that to be true; there is always something to keep us busy and distracted. Even as we enjoy these last lingering days of August, as we say goodbye to summer and start making plans for September, let's not forget the deeper meaning of our lives. Let's not forget the wisdom of these golden days and the lessons we have learned: the importance of the songs we sing, the dances we dance, the stories we tell each other and the time we take to think things over. We will be more human because of it.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.