The question was asked and the room fell silent: “Does anyone ever feel they’ve lived up to their potential?” It was a loaded question, not only because it was asked in a group of persons struggling with vocation, but also because the word “potential” is elusive in its definition. What does “potential” mean in a world that views achievement as athletic prowess, celebrity status, or economic success? If the exceptional is the guide for the achievement of one’s potential, how will those of us who live somewhere between the average and the ordinary ever feel we’ve arrived?
The inherent routine and mundane tasks that fill our days contribute to the struggle to understand our “potential.” How can one possibly feel substantial when one’s day-in, day-out existence is filled with the tedium of housework, paying bills, pulling weeds, and running endless errands? These tasks are not celebrated, or noticed. They are the daily details that make up our routine. Indeed for artists and bus drivers, homemakers and neurosurgeons, astronauts and cashiers our days are filled with repetitive motion, even if we do have moments of great challenge or extraordinary success. It is no wonder then, with our societal standards and our routine-filled lives that we wonder about our potential. Indeed, does much of what we do even matter when it feels so ordinary? Does the “ordinary” contribute to our sense of meeting our potential, or does its predominance in our lives simply serve as a perpetual reminder of a failure to thrive?
The “simple lifestyle” movement attempts to locate potential in exactly the opposite ways of our society. In this movement, simplicity unlocks the key to potential, and not acquisition, or achievement, or recognition. Clearing out what clutters and complicates makes room for finding potential in what is most basic and routine. In the Christian tradition, as well, there are many who believe that one’s potential and one’s purpose would only be found in the radical call of simplicity. Some of the earliest Christians, who fled the luxury and security of Rome once Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, believed that one’s “holiness” potential could only be achieved within the radical austerity of a monastic cell. There in the cloistered walls where each and every day presented simple routine, repetitive tasks, and the regular rhythm of prayer and worship, perseverance with the ordinary became the path to one’s potential.
Brother Lawrence is one of the most well known of this type of monastic. In The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther writes that “Brother Lawrence, our patron of housekeeping, was a hero of the ordinary.”(1) As one who found his potential in cultivating a profound awareness of God in the ordinary tasks of his day, Brother Lawrence was an ordinary hero. While he attended chapel with the other monks, his true sanctuary was amongst the pots and pans of the monastery kitchen. What we may not realize in the popularized retelling of his story is that he actually began by hating his ordinary work. His abbot wrote about him:
“The same thing was true of his work in the kitchen, for which he had a naturally strong aversion; having accustomed himself to doing everything there for the love of God, and asking His grace to do his work, he found he had become quite proficient in the fifteen years he had worked in the kitchen.”(2)
Quite proficient in the kitchen. Could it be that Brother Lawrence was able to fulfill his potential by washing dishes? Despite his strong aversion, he found purpose in the very midst of the most mundane and ordinary tasks of life. He fulfilled his potential by focusing on faithfulness. This is not faithfulness that triumphs over the desire to fulfill one’s potential. Indeed, as Guenther describes it “faithfulness rarely feels heroic; it feels much more like showing up and hanging in. It is a matter of going to our cell, whatever form that might take, and letting it teach us what it will.”(3) Availing himself to consistent faithfulness yielded the blessing of both proficiency and presence—the presence of God—right there in midst of the monotony of dirty pots and pans.
Fulfilling one’s potential has little to do with greatness. And yet, the heroism of the ordinary does not preempt “greatness” that our world confers to those who have reached their potential with staggering and dramatic achievement; for even those who achieve greatness have faced the drama of routine and the tidal wave of tedium. But to assign the fulfillment of one’s potential solely to great acts and recognition is to miss the blessing that comes from faithful acts of devotion, often done routinely and heroically in the ordinary of our everyday. Perhaps it might be said of us, as it was of Brother Lawrence: “He was more united with God in his ordinary activities.”(4)
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Boston: Cowley Press, 1998), 113.
(2) Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, ed. John J. Delaney (New York: Image, 1977), 41.
(3) Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Boston: Cowley Press, 1998), 112.
(4) Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, ed. John J. Delaney (New York: Image, 1977), 47.