What's Tony Thinking

Even the Smallest Act


I’ve started reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. In some ways, it is a natural for me as Dreher calls for Christians to build a stronger counter-culture, one strong enough to withstand a society that is pervasively materialistic and nihilistic. But in other ways, Dreher’s book isn’t an easy fit. Dreher sees the movement of people who are lesbian and gay as part of the problem. I struggle with that.

In today’s New York Times there’s a “benedict option” sort of column, “Get Me to A Nunnery” that I found charming. I doubt that the author shares Dreher’s take on LGBT issues, but she is drawn to the simplicity, beauty and spiritual power of a cloistered life and community.

One line in that piece particularly struck me.

“At the abbey, even the smallest act is considered an act of devotion, so that every dish washed or loaf of bread baked takes on heightened importance. I couldn’t have understood this as a kid, arguing with the parish priest. But I see it now. There is something powerful about being in the presence of faith when you yourself are doubting.”

“Even the smallest act is considered an act of devotion.” We long to live in a world charged, rather than devoid of, spiritual meaning.

In Dreher’s book he draws from the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor and his magisterial 2007 volume A Secular Age, to describe the vision of reality accepted, one might say “assumed,” by the early church into the high middle ages. Taylor notes three pillars of this world:

  • The world and everything in it is part of a harmonious whole ordered by God and filled with meaning — and all are signs pointing to God.
  • Society is grounded in a higher reality.
  • The world is charged with spiritual force.

“These three pillars had to crumble before the modern world could arise from the rubble, Taylor says.”

These days a fair number of people speak of the “spirituality” of Native Americans. I think they are talking about a similar pre-modern world charged with spiritual force. So the contrast may be less between Native American and white man, and more between pre-modern and modern.

At any rate, what J. Courtney Sullivan found inside the Benedictine Abbey, that called to her was the way that “even the smallest act is an act of devotion.” Everything has spiritual meaning, even washing the dishes. At times I glimpse this, even experience it, here outside the Abbey. I’ve been helping out at a nearby Soup Kitchen that feeds the homeless. Yesterday I, with the help of John, Nancy and Jessica, peeled, chopped, boiled and baked twenty pounds of sweet potatoes. A small act with spiritual meaning — plus a lot of brown sugar and butter.

Certainly the meaning of Christmas, at least in part, is the sanctification (“the world is charged with spiritual force”) of this world and of the ordinary. God does not stand apart from the material world, but enters it wholly. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In some respects, this too was a small act: a human birth in a most humble place. But this small act is an act of God’s devotion, one that invites us to make of our own actions, however small, acts of devotion charged with spiritual meaning. A blessed Christmas to you all.





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