Our daily lives can be a form of lived-prayer, where prayer is not a pleading or shopping list of requests, but a kind of whole-hearted care and attention to the life-tasks God has put before us.
We know this already — Augustine, Brother Laurence, Mme. Guyon, Richard Rohr, Thomas Moore, (even Levinas, I’m told) all remind us that our daily tasks can be a form of prayer if we undertake them with the care and attention we might give to a session of focused meditation. When I think of that, I think of being alone doing the gardening, or sewing something with perfect attention to detail. Or writing. It is probably quiet, and I am probably alone. Augustine, in his letter to Januarius for example, describes the kind of ‘effortless’ activity of praising God we might begin ‘in this life’ as we rest in Christ:
This rest is not slothful inactvity, but a kind of indescribable tranquility coming from effortless action…. we don’t pass on to it through a period of quiet, which is then replaced by effort — that is, the beginning of the activity does not put an end to the quiet. No, there is no return to effort and anxiety; the qualities of quiet continue in the activity, so that there is no weariness in work and no restlessness in thought.
In reality however, there are many things demanding our attention, and it is rare that I have the space in my house to complete my work in quiet without effort or anxiety. I wrote about my weekend recently:
I went to bed late after finishing watching the Handmaid’s Tale with DH, was woken during the night by crying children, awoke too late for quiet time. Made lemon pancakes to order while balancing hot chocolate requests and assistance with toileting, dressing gowns, getting down plates etc. Talked to DH about the state of the university and the upcoming conference. Organised the family to clean and tidy as much of the house that was possible. (DH completely re-sorted all the stuff in the lounge, the kids made their room worse, I did the bathroom, washing, kitchen, master bedroom, vacuuming and generally just bossed people around and crossed things off a list).
I then spent some time with my youngest, then put on my exercise gear and walked to uni with my backpack to get my computer because I realised I can’t actually go to work on Monday since DH will have to work (and I have to care for my youngest) so I can go to Auckland on Tuesday for the conference starting Wednesday (which is my normal day for childcare responsibilities). Oh, at some point I talked to my dad while I was doing dishes about gender discrimination in the workplace and the conference he went to last week.
While I walked I tried to auto-dictate my thoughts on work/worship and care/attention but it was too hard because it started to rain. On the way home, I bought lunch for all from the supermarket and a few things we needed like dishwashing liquid. I got back home, organised lunch, hung out another load of washing, had a cup of tea then went to bed for a nap. At 4pm I was finally able to sit in bed doing some writing while the kids played on the computer.
Throughout all of it, I thought of my friends going through relationship troubles, the enneagram types of people I care about, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, the handbook I am editing. The things I didn’t get to: ironing, cleaning out the laundry which stinks, the cat food spilled everywhere, the gardening… work. I fought off panic that these things will never get done, and that my life will descend further and further into chaos.
So how do we make those prayers of quiet activity in this kind of rush and chaos? I don’t feel centred, quietly attentive, balanced. I feel unbalanced and constantly wobbling on the edge of falling off. If I miss one weekend of this carework, the whole things caves in and it takes me months to get back to a state of normalcy. I feel guilty that I don’t give friends (let alone strangers in need) outside my family enough time and attention, but also feel panicked that if I don’t get my jobs done on Saturday then the following work week would be chaos with no uniforms, dirty work clothes, lost homework and toys all over the house, tears from the children as we rummaged through our stuff to find whatever was needed. So much of life is just managing the arrangement of material stuff. I don’t give the people in my life enough of my joy or playfulness because I am always worrying about not doing enough, not being organised enough, and falling into chaos.
Part of all this is the worry about not being enough as a carer and as a mother. As women, we are told in different ways our whole lives that these things are our responsibilities, that the children will grow up neglected and damaged if we don’t do our jobs properly and their faces aren’t clean and their school socks matching. That however much we give our children and families, it is never enough. That it is not OK to find enjoyment in work and success because we are probably failing our families. The men in our lives have often been brought up with different pressures: to perform in the workplace, to be a star, a success, to always be confident and Mr Fabulous, to produce and produce and to be a strong protector of the women and children in their lives and not to rely on them for friendship or care too much but also certainly not to rely on other men for care either. To not have so many feelings. To not be hurt so often. Most of us know that both those identities are impossible, and that no one can really fulfil them. They are lies.
The truth, as Augustine identifies, is to find our identity in the refuge and rest of God, since ‘through him we can do all things’. Not all the things. Just all things that are given us in this moment. For me this is where the attention comes back in. We can do our work with care and attention, offering it up to God as a form of worship – as Paul says in Romans 12 we can offer our very bodies (and their activities I presume) as our spiritual worship. So can I apply this to my busy Saturday, where quiet was not very often present?
I did actually try this. All day, as I tried to do all the tasks before me, my attention kept slipping to obsess about all the relationships and tasks in my life, and the panic and stress would arise that it will be never be enough. Like one does in meditation, I tried to acknowledge my feelings or the interruptions from others without judgement, then bring my attention back to the task at hand, and accept I can only do what I can do for the amount of time I have to do it. I have to trust that that will be enough. At work, I tried to do this too: panic arises regularly when the tasks and relationship demands overwhelm, and I have begun to deliberately take an audible deep breath then as I exhale, deliberately acknowledge, then put aside, all the things and focus on the one thing that has to be done right now. With relationships, I tend to obsess over everyone else’s problems. But I can then offer those up to God (after laughing at myself) and turn my attention back to what I can do in the time and space I have, then let it go. Usually, listen with care and attention, try not to offer to help or fix everything, but to just be there in the moment. It doesn’t feel enough, but it has to be.
So, all of that is to say I guess I can apply Augustine’s idea that a form of prayerful activity can proceed from the space of quiet rest. It isn’t really effortless, yet, for me. But I think the key idea is this: Do what you can when you can with care and attention. Then hand over the rest to God and continue to pay attention when something comes your way that is again yours to do in the moment. What else can we do? There is never enough time, and maybe that is how we grow to depend on the One who is beyond time, who invented time.