On the Feast of the Pentecost, Christians celebrate the event when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles with tongues of fire. As a result, everyone gathered from all the nations and tribes could communicate and understand one another in every language.
Sitting through a uniquely different liturgy from any I’ve experienced around the world, but one that was commonly Kenyan, I was aghast by the irony of my complete inability to comprehend a single utterance. The language, liturgical movements, songs, and prayers were all in a set and setting utterly foreign. For two hours of dancing, clapping, wailing, and a thirty-plus-minute homily, my legs numbed as I sat perplexed with my back hunched upon a stiff wooden bench. All while the Xaverian Postulants, whom I’ve come to know this past week, joined in full heart and body as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
In the Fundamental Principles of the Xaverian Brothers, Theodore James Ryken writes, “If you allow yourself to be formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life, you will gradually experience a liberation and a freedom never before imagined.” As an intercontinental transplant, my common has been replaced by extraordinary circumstances. Freedom most often comes in the brief moments of silence away from others when there isn’t an expectation of communication.
Traveling to the opposite side of the world isn’t the only way to have your world flipped upside down.
Losing a job. Beginning a new career. Graduating. Starting a new school. Experiencing an injury. Walking with your own or someone else’s illness and hopeful recovery. The death of someone close. The birth of new life. The COVID pandemic.
In one form or another, we will inevitably find ourselves situated in an unfamiliar setting where nothing is common nor ordinary.
Glancing again around the parish, through the colorful fabrics, vibrant music, and flailing hands, unspectacular familiarity began to be slowly recognized. The numbness in my legs from the uncomfortable bench started to find life again.
Though there are many diverse ways to celebrate one’s faith, no one way is better than the other, even within the Catholic Church. Each has its merits and ways of loving and serving Christ. The same is true for government systems, languages and pronunciations, educational models, and other structures and ways of being.
That scriptural and structural reminder is a blessing to the frustrations I’ve experienced this past week.* Laughter and confusion from the students at my American accent. Constant repetition and rephrasing from both sides as we negotiate a conversation. Baffled bewilderment at learning objectives and educational standards.
As a privileged American, I could instantly bark back, “No, it is your Kenyan accent that is funny. No, it is your pronunciation that is incorrect. No, it is your teaching method that needs correcting!” However, I am the foreigner in a strange land. Or, more correctly, I am the foreigner in their normal land. Different doesn’t mean worse or better. Yes, I might find it unfamiliar, but that is because I am the different, unfamiliar, foreigner.
What is uncommon to me is common to them.
What is extraordinary to me is ordinary to them.
What is spectacular to me is unspectacular for them.
Once I recognized that life here moves in particular currents and waves and allowed myself the grace to release my preconceived notions and expectations into the rushing flow of local life, I was liberated to experience the freedom that exists here.
This same liberation has occurred throughout my life. Graduating, joining a Master’s program, and starting a new job. At each point of transition, I carried with me the standards, ways of being, and exceptions from my previous place. And in each transition, I encountered frustrations, longings, and resistance until I allowed myself the grace to experience the current flow of life and relax into the prevailing present.
The dichotomy of the apparent simplicity of the lesson rivals the perplexing reality of our lives.
How might one balance that perplexing simplicity?
How might one transition their previous flow through the canals and into the new currents of life?
Perhaps, it requires that we, “day by day,” as Ryken writes, “renew our response (to life) and not be discouraged by the difficulties.” A sort of Pentecostal Revival that encourages you to “surrender yourself trustingly” into the flow of life.
May we all find the grace to experience the liberative freedom of the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.
* Here I am referring to the second reading from Pentecost Sunday which includes Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:12–26).