Ordinary and Extraordinary

People sometimes have difficulty with the idea of experiencing God in the ordinary. They think that a “real” religious experience has to be extraordinary – said in a way that precludes there being anything ordinary about it.

I read a line in my draft manuscript the other day in which I described something as being “at the same time, ordinary and extraordinary.” When I read the line (which I hadn’t read in a long time), I was immediately reminded of one of Thomas Merton’s foundational religious experiences (which he describes in Seven-Storey Mountain). Although I don’t have the book with me here at St. Benedict’s, I recall the passage well, since I often use it with people as a way of talking about the characteristics of special religious experiences. Merton’s experience was a quite extraordinary one, yet he writes in two places that what he saw was also quite ordinary.

Still ruminating on this, I picked up the galleys of a forthcoming book about which I’ve been asked to write a review essay. By coincidence (is anything ever a coincidence?) I started reading the author’s description of a deep experience of God he had, in which he said that the experience was extraordinary by definition, and yet absolutely ordinary.

This all leads me to think that the mistake people sometimes make is thinking of ordinary and extraordinary as two mutually exclusive categories. But with God, I think ordinary and extraordinary collide. And that means if one rules out God in the ordinary, there may be no extraordinary in which to find God.

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