Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life
A lot of people think very highly of this book. From the flyleaf: Michael Horten describes it as a “big gift” in a “small package.” “This book will brush the dust from your dingy days,” says Karen Swallow Prior. Warren has “beautifully ‘enfleshed’ the concepts and doctrines of our faith into quotidian moments,” offers Katelyn Beaty, and in the foreword Andy Crouch says Warren has done so “with the writer’s (and indeed the poet’s) gift of slowing down and paying attention.” James K. A. Smith suggests that this “little book has the slant of light” that illuminates the difference between drudgery and epiphany. “Tish gets it,” says Todd Hunter, and “if you let her be your guide, you too will get it: a life in God in your everyday life.”
When one actually gets around to reading a book bearing such lofty praise, it can easily disappoint. Not to worry; Liturgy of the Ordinary bears up under such praise, inspiring and provoking the reader to reflect on their own ordinary and perhaps peculiar daily practices as integral to their ongoing spiritual formation. This alone would be sufficient reason to take up and read the book. But there is also a larger and even more compelling reason to consider this work. As Micha Boyett writes, “In this moment in culture, when much feels complicated and shallow, Tish Harrison Warren offers a beautiful and life-giving narrative: a way toward the ordinary sacred” (flyleaf). Indeed, if ever there was a time when all of us, and especially the emerging generation of adults, are in need of a beautiful and life-giving narrative that helps us find our way toward the ordinary sacred, it is now.
Just over a decade ago now, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton reported on the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers in their highly acclaimed book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). “Most U.S. teens,” they noted, “have a difficult to impossible time explaining what they believe, what it means, and what the implications of their beliefs are for their lives” (Smith and Denton, 262).
Those teenagers are now young adults. It is sobering to realize that they, their peers, and all the younger siblings that followed after them, were born and raised in the aftermath of a half-century carnival of social deconstruction and civic fragmentation. There are so many maddening and marvelous facets to this kaleidoscopic reality that for many the world seems to be both inspirationally invigorating and fearfully overwhelming all at once. How then should they/we live?
If one does not understand how one’s beliefs might shape the habits and commitments of daily living, how ought one to navigate and engage all the wonder and worry of the world? Or perhaps there is no “ought,” no real consequence to any of it? Indeed, does anything, in the end, really matter? Who cares if a politician says outrageous things? Who cares if a denomination tweaks its organizational design yet again? Given the speed and scope of change in this increasingly digitally-augmented world, does it really matter if one (or no) particular personal, political, professional, or religious relationship holds (let alone forever)? Is it even possible to imagine an architecture of daily life that offers enduring stability, ordinary beauty, and transcendent meaning in the midst of it all?
The typical architecture of North American Christian spiritual formation was ill-suited to this constantly morphing kaleidoscopic reality. Increasingly, teenagers simply could not explain what they believed or how it mattered. And so, not surprisingly, as the world kept getting reconfigured all around them, many emerging adults could not see a reason to maintain their childhood religious practices. The result has been a growing absence of youth in the church, and a steady rise in those who describe their religious identity as “none.”
It is into this dry and thirsty landscape that Tish Harrison Warren’s book offers such a profoundly refreshing way forward. Warren invites us to imagine an architecture for our lives that reconfigures ordinary habits into sacred practices, practices that are inseparably interconnected with the ancient and enduring practices of Christian worship. She invites us to keep things simple, to start with the ordinary elements of our actual daily habits and routines. Beginning there, she invites us to discover the ways in which the ordinary work of our lives (our daily liturgy) intersects with and is integral to communal Christian worship and our daily spiritual formation.
Warren takes us through a single day. She invites us to consider waking much like we understand baptism. Before anything else, we are already beloved of God, and that identity is “deeper and more real than any other identity we will don that day” (19). But then what? Do we immediately reach for our “smart-phone”? Is our first and regular action after waking each day to get connected? To a glowing screen? Like impressionable ducklings, do these glowing screens imprint within us the value and direction of our day? Perhaps, says Warren, a better way to launch and shape our day would be simply to make our bed and meditate for a moment on the daily provision of God’s grace.
Most of our day is consumed with maintenance. “Things need upkeep or they fall apart” (37). Just as we need to brush our teeth every day, so, too, do we need to engage embodied practices of worship over and over again. It is not rocket science, but as we reflect on these practices we realize that it is not the “loudest, flashiest, or most entertaining” elements of our day that most significantly sustain and form us; “it is in the repetitive and the mundane that [we] begin to learn, to love, to listen, to pay attention to God and to those around [us]” (36). So much worship today strives to be remarkable, but it fails to nourish. By contrast, like eating leftovers for lunch, the daily bread by which God feeds us is more typically ordinary and unremarkable (62). Peace, passing the peace of Christ, finds its way into our day “mostly in small, unseen moments of ordinary living … peace is always home-grown” (79, 80).
What we need, Warren suggests, is to reconfigure our ordinary work and worship in ways that bind them together. The mission of God is made manifest, not in abstract ideals, but in the midst of checking emails. We worship God by the way we wait in line; by the way we handle traffic jams. Our love for God and others is worked out “in the hard pews (or folding chairs) of our particular, local congregation” (124) just as surely as it is nurtured in the public square of our work, in conversations with a friend, and in expressive times of personal pleasure. A cup of tea, the smells and bells of worship, work, and rest … it is all important, pretty ordinary, and integrally connected. And all of it takes practice. The ongoing challenge of reconfiguring the liturgy of one’s life is not easy, but it is a thoroughly good and satisfying endeavor.
Warren inspires us to keep on imagining how our ordinary everyday habits help and/ or hinder us from living an integrally Christian way of life. The well-earned lofty praise for her book, however, does have its limits. One area that Warren does not really take up, but is increasingly integral to us all, is the nature and contours of a liturgy of everyday life inside our increasingly augmented reality. How might the ever-expanding augmented/digital reality that is already integral to the way of life of so many now also inform and shape an architecture of Christian spiritual formation for the decades to come? Could it be that reaching for one’s glowing screen first thing in the morning is not the issue so much as what it is one connects to on that screen? As our engagement with augmented/digital reality increases, how might those behaviors also connect us to the patterns of classical Christian worship? (9). And while it might be the case that some habits and forms of digital communication are in fact far more deleterious to embodied souls and storied communal living than we yet understand, is it not also likely that there will be some increasingly ordinary sacred practices hidden in there too? Warren does not address these things in any substantial way, though she surely does set the table for digital natives to now take up that task.