Illuminating the Ordinary
The other day I was chatting to an acquaintance about the changing face of Sheffield. We started off from the work going on to improve the City centre. Road-works closing off familiar routes, the mess, the noise – all the moans that accompany any sort of inconvenience, however minor it be, were aired.
But the conversation soon moved on from present day grumbles to reminiscences about the past. It was the sort of conversation in which we old delight, living in the past to avoid thinking about the present and the future. It could have taken place in any town or city, with words hardly changed.
“Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
The last of life
For which the first was made.”
wrote Robert Browning. And for we over-sixties, and perhaps for some of us a year or two more than that, not the least of that best is to indulge in recalling a rose-tinted past when the sun always shone, rain came only in the night, and if hardships now and again came our way, we bore them with admirable fortitude. Nostalgia is the drug of choice for we senior citizens.
So my companion and I remembered the fields of youth now covered by factories or industrial estates; meadows upon which maisonettes stand where cattle once grazed; valleys in which the winding stream has been hidden beneath the dual carriageway; the woods from which now sprout, not trees, but high-rise flats and office blocks; the play-grounds of childhood transformed into super-market car parks.
My companion spoke also of buildings from his childhood which were now either demolished, or used for purposes far removed from their original intent. Before retirement, he had been a builder in a small way. As a youth he had served an apprenticeship as a carpenter (or was it a joiner, I’m never too sure about which is which). So he looks at buildings with a professional eye, particularly at those aspects in which timber plays a part. He appreciates points which pass by laymen like me.
He spoke with warmth of a building, near the City centre, which stands on what was once a railway goods yard, now a timber yard. “Just look at that roof”, he said. He used a technical term to describe it. I’m afraid I do not recall the word now, but I have looked at that roof since. It is a timber roof with an intricate pattern of beams and struts. My friend, who prided himself on his ability to lay out the framework for a house roof, understood the skill, the technical problems to be overcome, in constructing a great canopy over a large space. A covering which was at once both effective and aesthetically pleasing.
I relate this trivial anecdote because it illustrates a point. There is beauty to be seen in the ordinary. Not only that, but the enthusiast can relay to others something of his or her joy, so that the listener has eyes opened to majesty to be found in the mundane. Even a wood-shed roof may rival the vaulted covering of a church.
One of the minor satisfactions in life comes when it is revealed that the ordinary is not merely humdrum, if seen through the eyes of sympathetic understanding. Walk round an area with a local historian, say, and houses, streets, squares come to life, for they all have a story to tell.
Maybe we listen to the naturalist describe a world of wonder within an ordinary meadow, or stretch of woodland. Millions sit watching the television set as the expert reveals that even a rubbish dump, or the motorway verge, or an apparently empty wasteland is full of interest to those who know how to look. We older ones wandered with Romany and Nomad in Children’s Hour on the wireless, long before television entered virtually every home. Today’s children sit and see on TV images from exotic places far from home. I trust they marvel as did we as children.
Many of us have had the experience of going round a cathedral or a church in the company of a guide. Windows, tombs, carvings and plaques become more than cold inanimate objects, as details are explained and tales woven around the cold bare facts. It is as if a light has been turned on and we see what was previously unobserved.
The world in which we live is full of wonder, much of it unnoticed, disregarded, until a carpenter says, “Do you see that roof?”, or the bricklayer marvels, “That’s a fine stretch of wall”. The craftsman looks at the type of brick and the skill with which it was laid, or the way heavy wooden beams are inter-locked to give strength, proportion and symmetry.
There were no photographers or television cameras recording episodes as Jesus wandered the countryside, preaching in the villages, conversing with friends. We rely on the New Testament accounts, mostly written down a little time after the event. But we cannot doubt that crowds listened as he spoke. And what did he tell them? He spoke of common domestic experiences, of farming, of the countryside, the herding of sheep and goats, of fishing, of simple inter-actions between ordinary folk. And those who heard, saw these things in a new light. The common things of life might be everyday, but they were precious – rich in meaning, full of beauty, the yeast of life.
He described searching for a lost coin, and related this to reclaiming lost souls. Planting a small seed, and seeing the miracle of life as a great tree grew, spreading its branches, was something his audience witnessed daily. He pointed out that helping a victim of crime was truly charity to a neighbour, even though the victim be a stranger, born of another race. Child-like humility was a starting block in a race to true greatness, he proclaimed, as the children gathered round him.
As the enthusiast conveys the excitement and beauty of life to the ignorant, understanding develops. Many can recall how a teacher or preacher, parent or friend, neighbour or chance acquaintance, through enthusiasm communicated a little about the underlying verities of life. They opened our eyes and we marvelled. They touched our hearts and we remember.
Such is conversion. We enter a career, we become sportsmen or sportswomen, ramblers, painters, train-spotters, DIY cranks, stamp collectors, cooks, or gardeners, because someone was an enthusiastic advocate and we were hooked.
What is less obvious is the success of the churches, and by that I mean men and women who profess a Christian faith, to portray to others their enthusiasm. The peace that comes through worshipping with others; the strength to endure adversity; the patience to accept our short-comings along with those of others, are what we enjoy. But perhaps we practice rather than preach. We hold unto ourselves rather than sharing with others.
Why this is so I find difficult to analyse. Is it because in dealing with profound, yet personal emotions, we feel we should wrap our thoughts in obscure language? Do we believe that things spiritual cannot be ordinary, that intense feelings should be enveloped in fog? Is beauty something apart from everyday life? Is the appreciation of aesthetic form something not to be confused with day to day living?
Surely this is not so. Though there are moments of spiritual rapture which are special, personal, a private inner sanctuary in the building housing everyday living, surely the essence of faith is that it permeates life.
There are those occasions when faith supports through grief, trouble or despair. There are other times when joy may swell into rapture because of our religious convictions. But these times are not the whole of life and living. Indeed they are but a small part when set against the whole. Much of life is ordinary, predictable, normal. Unexciting and routine tasks are repeated, familiar routes traversed, common sights and sounds observed. But there is a form of worship in marvelling at the small nugget of yeast which leavens the whole, observing the intricate construction of the web of the spider, watching a leaf turning from the delicate green of spring to the golden russet of autumn. To hold in the hand the pebble formed tens of millions of years ago, can be to humble oneself before powers beyond our understanding.
We speak of our spirituality enabling us to live life to the full. Life to the full is many faceted. It is about relationships with others. Respect, love, charity, tolerance all come into it, as do forgiveness, understanding and compassion. A part is worship, contemplation, meditation and an acknowledgement that there are things too great for our understanding. But to my mind one can encompass all this and yet find something lacking.
For the additional ingredient is the ability to see beauty, awe, and the miraculous in the ordinary, the everyday.
The other day I heard a carpenter point out there was love and craftsmanship to excite the mind in a roof over a wood-shed. Two thousand years ago another carpenter talked of ordinary, everyday tasks and sights, linking them to a philosophy of life that has endured for two millennium, spreading around the whole globe.
As we grow old we have a responsibility not merely to reminisce about the past, but to use what we have learnt and pass it on to those who follow. All generations should learn of the glory to be found in the familiar. Grandeur is not only to be found in the grandiose, but may be discovered in simple sights and sounds.
An old Sunday School hymn went
“I learned it in the meadow path
I learned it on the mountain stairs,
The best things any mortal hath
Are those which every mortal shares.”
What we share is life. What we share is familiarity with the ordinary sights around us. What we share are the common experiences of life, with its hopes and fears, disappointments and moments of ecstasy . We grow older and hopefully wiser with experience. Let us make sure that we seek to past on to those who come after us the joy of the everyday, the splendour of the simple, the deep satisfaction of knowing that wonder surrounds us.
Age withers us, as in time it will wither our children’s children. But as we once learned to sing
“Glad that I live am I,
That the sky is blue..”
let us endeavour to see that they too will rejoice in the glory of living in a world where the ordinary is extra-ordinary, the mundane a source of marvel, the everyday a part of eternity.
C.J. Rosling 20 August 1998
Hucklow 23 August 1998; 10 August 2003