Don’t Fear the Same Old Thing — It’s Your Training Ground for Holiness

‘Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.’ —St. Thérèse of Lisieux

St. Thérèse of Lisieux
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about the routines, duties and rhythms that comprise the life of a mother. I’ve stayed home full-time to raise my children, the oldest of whom is now 20 (and the youngest of whom is 2, meaning I’ll be home a while longer yet). Really, though, regardless of whether you work outside of the home or not, much of this aspect of motherhood remains the same. Punctuated by joys and sorrows, so much of life with kids, or life in general, I suppose, is spent in a continuous cycle of mundane and simple tasks.

It’s been two decades since the days when I wasn’t at home with at least one baby, and so it is mildly hard to remember what life was like pre-children. I was in college, studying psychology with eventual plans for graduate school and licensure, and then I was married and working part-time, and then I was pregnant. Once my baby was born, well, the rest of my life was largely mapped out for me — in the best possible way. I knew it then, and it still holds true: motherhood is a profound gift. Part of what distinguishes it from my life pre-children is, I think, this seeming smallness and repetitiveness of the things I do. Maybe the meal-planning and caring for big, sad toddler feelings aren’t actually smaller tasks than, say, taking a college exam or landing an internship, but they somehow inevitably feel that way.

This seems to be the distinguishing aspect of domesticity: the repetition, the returning again and again to the dirty floors and dirty dishes, the same view of the mountains and barns and horses from the large window above my kitchen sink. Is this why, I wonder, it can be challenging sometimes for people to find fulfillment within the home? Could this, for example, paradoxically help explain the current “Trad Wife” trend on social media: in publishing (and/or consuming) a curated and elevated version of the otherwise simple and hidden domestic life, are women ultimately attempting to compensate for that mundanity? Are they perhaps revealing the reality that they are not, in fact, quite as fulfilled as they claim to be by the espousal of traditional gender roles?

And could it be that this problem tugs at people from all walks of life, not merely stay-at-home mothers? Might we all, in our humanness, be prone to lacking the proper imaginativeness that might lend dignity and meaning to the daily work that we do?

C.S. Lewis addresses this problem in his 1942 novel The Screwtape Letters. The book, a fictional account of the communications between two demons determined to destroy human souls and eternally separate them from God, reveals the sort of profound truth about faith, God and humanity that Lewis is known for. As Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood regarding good versus bad strategies in accomplishing their shared mission of separating people from the God who loves them, the reader is led to ponder more deeply the nature of the cosmic battle between good and evil.

At one point, referring to us fallen and broken humans, Screwtape advises Wormwood to “work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.”

“The horror of the Same Old Thing,” writes Screwtape in his letter, “is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart — an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. … But since He does not wish them to make change … an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. … We pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.”

And it is true, isn’t it? It’s not just the menial task at hand that discourages, but the fact that it was the same yesterday, and will be more of the same tomorrow. Small children seem to magnify this, somehow, although I’m not sure why. Is it their neediness, or their vulnerability, or their childishness punctuating every moment of every day? If we are looking for “absolute novelty,” it is clearly not to be found in the domestic confines of the home. My days fly by, though I don’t necessarily always have a neat list of What I Accomplished by day’s end. Sometimes, there is positively nothing to show for my day short of the little boys running around the kitchen, and the messes they’ve made in various rooms around the house.

It is more than possible, though, to love this life, these days that melt one into another, often indistinguishable but never, ever wasted. The Same Old Thing is the training ground for holiness, for happiness, for Heaven itself.

The Same Old Thing is where love grows and changes and takes root.

We all then must continually fight against the encroaching feeling of horror at the Same Old Thing. The craving for novelty and greener pastures, and the creeping disdain for the common and the mundane, is surely common to all, and yet inevitably and invariably destructive. Mothers in particular must take care because we can’t quantify what it is, exactly, we do when we’re with our children: loads of laundry, book pages read aloud, games and meets attended, and meals provided are difficult to weigh in appraising one’s life. Did it make a difference? Did I make a difference? Is there value to these most basic of things and, if so, do I have the eyes and imagination to see it?

In Susanna Clarke’s best-selling fantasy novel Piranesi, the narrator, Piranesi, lives in a house where he is, for the most part, very alone. (According to him, there have lived a total of 15 people in the world — and 13 of them are dead.) Piranesi’s life in this house is spent wondering at the vast halls teeming with birds (and the ocean, whose tides are forever washing in and out), unending vestibules, and untold numbers of majestic marble statues depicting humans, animals and fauns. His days are spent exploring the house and cataloging its contents, mending his fishing nets, and carefully tending to the bones of the dead. Over the course of the novel, Piranesi discovers more about his house and about himself — and about the possibility that there is another world outside of the labyrinth he knows and loves so well.

Clarke does a hauntingly beautiful job capturing the isolation, loneliness and wonder that marks Piranesi’s humble world. The things he does are unseen and small, and yet they matter immensely to him precisely because they are the very things that comprise his world. They are his humble contributions to civilization. Piranesi is admittedly pitiable in his isolation — his name is a reference to an 18th-century Italian etcher who produced a series of works depicting prisons — and yet this stunning depiction of a hidden life draws the reader to ponder what, exactly, makes for a meaningful existence. Piranesi has created meaning and beauty within an unbelievably limited and confined context, perhaps not so very unlike a mother rocking her small child back to sleep, or cleaning up the fifth spill of the day.

What’s more, when Piranesi is eventually saved and reenters what we might call the “real” world, he simply can’t help but see things through the lens of the enchanted place from which he came. Everything harkens back to a statue or other memory from his former house. Walking through a city park on a snowy day, he encounters an old man with “broken veins on his cheeks and a bristly white beard.” Piranesi says the man looks “tired and sad”:

As he screwed up his eyes against the falling snow, I realized I knew him. He is depicted on the northern wall of the forty-eighth western hall. He is shown as a king with a little model of a walled city in one hand while the other hand he raises in blessing. I wanted to seize hold of him and say to him: In another world you are a king, noble and good! I have seen it! But I hesitated too long and he disappeared into the crowd.

Oh that we would use our imaginations to see beyond just mere appearances, to find and cultivate great hope and meaning in the humblest of things. When we are sweeping and vacuuming, tending to a sick child, or running our sixth errand of the day, we can indeed choose to find value there. Immense dignity, beauty and life mark the small and largely unseen things we do each day, but we like Piranesi must peer beneath the surface and instead consider God’s perspective: All of it matters. Because love and life and our humanness and eternity matter. We can find joy, hope and beauty in the Same Old Thing, whatever it is.