Posted by: godandchocolate | February 9, 2010

The Virtue of Ordinary Life

Wow, I need to get back to blogging…

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot, trying to pray as much, and reflecting on what I’ve learned in marriage and what I continue to learn from my friends in all walks of life. Seeing the humble faith and quiet witness of so many of you has made me realize so many things, and taught me so much about vocation. Below are a few of those reflections.

I wrote an alumni column that was printed in the latest edition of the Irish Rover. Reprinted here for your reading pleasure…

The Virtue of Ordinary Life

Students of Notre Dame, we are told, are high achievers. They work hard, and rumor has it, they play hard too. They conduct independent, groundbreaking research across all fields. They excel in rigorous classes and gain entrance to prestigious graduate and professional schools. On Facebook, they proclaim “I’m kind of a big deal…” and at Commencement exercises they congratulate themselves, wishing one another the best as they move on, of course, to bigger and better things.

Graduates of Notre Dame, we are told, are Heisman Trophy winners, Olympians, and professional athletes and coaches. They are governors, congressmen, ambassadors and cabinet members who shape American and international politics. They are writers and actors and movie makers. They are renowned academics, Nobel laureates, and researchers whose findings change the world and how we live in it. They are business executives and co-owners of professional athletic teams. They are noteworthy writers, actors, musicians, journalists, and TV personalities.

But other graduates of Notre Dame, shaped as they were by the Notre Dame educational experience, go on to simpler things. They are teachers and volunteers and housewives. They are accountants, IT professionals, and engineers. They are priests and seminarians, consecrated religious sisters and brothers. They commute long distances to a job that is far from their dream, perhaps to one for which they are over-educated and underpaid. They work in cubicles, file TPS reports, pay their taxes and raise their children. They are good parents and hard workers, but their accomplishments are not known by all and history does not record their significant deeds.

It is all too easy to look at these two groups of individuals and label one “success stories” and the other “not so much”. It is all too easy to say of this second group that they might in some way be “wasting their degrees”. It is all too easy, especially as seniors edge towards graduation, to think that upon leaving Notre Dame they will take the world by storm, change it, and make it better, thus proving to everyone else their own worth as well as the real world cash value of a degree from Our Lady’s University.

Any graduate of Notre Dame should be proud of their accomplishments. But does this admittedly caricatured attitude reveal more of a tendency to sinful pride than healthy self-respect? Might it betray a preference for prestige over life in the truth at one of America’s top academic research institutions (which, it so happens, is also Catholic)?

There are two ways one can view life in the “real world” outside of Notre Dame, particularly the world of the great recession of the 21st century. According to the first, reality is grim, harsh, and stifling. It prevents the full expression of each person’s extraordinarily unique gifts by forcing them to be less than they could be. In the real world, employees are squeezed into cubicles, genius is underappreciated, and everything stands in the way of personal self-discovery and fulfillment. According to the second, reality is an opportunity for each person to discover and to fulfill the purpose for their lives in each and every moment of each and every day. Reality is right now, this minute, as I discern my vocation, but do not determine it. In the real world, some are intended for greatness, though none seeks it; men and women pray and work, and work and pray, whether their workplace is McDonald’s or a monastery.

Our culture views life in the first way. Our Church views life in the second. Believe me when I say, from the other side, that the only way to survive is to live according to the second way, the little way, the way of ordinary life.

Instead, we all tend to measure ourselves by what we do, to try to make our lives clear “success stories” that stack up against the world’s (or Notre Dame’s) measuring stick. This tendency fits us; it lies in our hearts. It is pride, and ultimately, it always causes us to fall. Many seniors are filled with anxiety as they prepare for graduation not only because they worry about the next steps on their journey, but also because they wonder if others might judge their journey and find it lacking. I know that I was.

But this type of anxiety is misplaced. We all know in our heart of hearts that peer pressure and the judgments of others are by no means the way we can live our lives. We know that there is always going to be someone casting judgment on us and on our decisions. We know that it is just no use to worry about these things, but we are not always able to say why.

The truth is that pride blinds us to the truth that the vocation of all people is to follow God’s will, while the vocation of most people is to a quiet and simple life lived trusting in Love Himself. After all, the future is not in our hands, but in God’s. The true success stories, whatever their time and place, are always characterized by the fiat: “May it be done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). A life lived for one’s own gain and one’s own glory is always a failure.

The lesson here is not that students and alumni should be content to hide their light under a bushel basket. Instead, it is a reminder that their light is never their own, but is instead a reflection of Him who is the source of all light. We are not God’s gift to this earth, but rather everything and everyone, from the greatest to the least, are His gift to us.

The virtue of ordinary life is that it is filled with opportunities to do little things with great love, opportunities for giving of ourselves while expecting nothing in return. Every moment of every day can be a sacramental occasion—an instant in which our doing reflects God’s doing so closely that we become signs and instruments of His grace. Success in this life is not measured by worldly accolades, fame or fortune; it is measured by our openness to divine providence. If we are accustomed to only looking for divine providence at work in popular, memorable, or extravagant ways, we have prepared ourselves to miss those frequent moments in ordinary life when the extraordinary grace of God reaches in and transforms us.

This transformation is always happening, in the most ordinary moments and seasons of life. I have learned this because I have seen it with my own eyes in my life and in the lives of my friends. Grace reaches us, in the prayer whispered while stirring the simmering pot on the stove; in changing a diaper; in reading that article now instead of putting it off for later; in praying faithfully the liturgy of the hours; in gently dealing with an angry friend, or classmate, or customer; in openness to pregnancy at the beginning of a marriage; in doing honest work, even at a hated job. God teaches us and transforms us through these seemingly small things, each and every day. After all, if we fail at even the smallest acts of obedience, how can our lives ever be judged a success?



  1. Rachel, this is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful!

    If only more people in the world realized that God calls us not to do great things, but “small things with great love.”

    Hopefully, your article will touch some hearts!

    God bless,

  2. Might I suggest submitting this to the University’s magazine. It is gorgeous. I’m linking it to my sister who is also an ND grad. I’m one of those SMiC Chicks.

    Love your blog!

    • Thanks, Sherry! I’ve received a bunch of positive feedback on that article and I am considering submitting it to a few different places. Glad you liked it!

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