Means of Escape

Getting Beyond the Everyday – through the Everyday

By Deborah Danielski

A man dressed in khaki shorts and striped knit shirt stood within a foot of me, wiping the sweat from his brow as temperatures soared near the 100 degree mark. Behind me, my husband suffered in silence as one of the children asked for what must have been the 100th time, "How much longer?"

Our family stood there, packed together with at least 300 other people in a 400 square foot area, open to the elements on four sides. Our only real comfort was a canopy overhead that shielded us from the worst of the midday sun. Metal rails winding through the area turned it into a maze nearly a mile long. Hundreds of men, women and children marched single-file through the maze at a rate of about five feet per minute.

"It shouldn’t be too much longer, maybe a half hour," I answered our anxious nine-year-old daughter. We’d been there just about an hour and appeared to be about three-quarters of the way through.

What motivated us and these otherwise sane people to subject ourselves to such torture? What reward would be ours when we finally reached the end of this seemingly endless line? A three-minute ride on one of the world’s largest roller coasters. And hopefully – just before the end of the ride -- the speed of the car in which we rode and the sharp decline of the track it followed would lift us ever-so-slightly out of our seats and out of ourselves. A moment of transcendence.

This scene at a popular amusement park is just one example of what many of us are willing to sacrifice, or to what lengths we will go, for just one moment of release from the ego constraints that normally bind us.

Sound a little too "New Age" for a good Catholic? Almost 50 years ago, before the term "new age" had even been coined, one of Catholicism’s most popular theologians, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, wrote volumes on the subject of ego transcendence. It’s a key element of Catholic spirituality. But what exactly is "ego" and why would we seek to transcend it?

According to Webster’s Dictionary "ego" can be defined as: "One of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that serves as the organized conscious mediator between the person and reality especially by functioning both in the perception of and adaptation to reality."

Or as Bishop Sheen so eloquently put it, "The ego is what we [and others] think we are." The ego is the "self" we consciously acknowledge, the mask we present to the world, the collection of paradigms through which we interpret the events in our lives, and the barrier that prevents us from going beyond our normal patterns of thinking and behavior.

A roller coaster ride is a rather tame means for a healthy person to escape momentarily from the trappings of ego. Less healthy personalities may seek to do so through the use of drugs, others will use transcendental meditation, centering prayer, the Enneagram, and other forms of new age spirituality. For Christians, the opportunities for transcendence come in many forms – the liturgy, personal prayer, fasting, and music – to name just a few. But apart from these formal methods, God provides ample opportunity for transcendence in the daily activities of our lives – if we only have eyes to see.

Just over a year ago, as the editor of a respected, award-winning community newspaper, my days were filled with writing eye-opening stories, "important" interviews with city officials, phone calls from appreciative readers, planning meetings in which I was the ultimate authority and other ego-boosting activities. Then, quite suddenly, I found myself unemployed. At first this situation seemed like merely a stepping-stone to "bigger and better" things. Within a month, I had interviews with two well-known Catholic communications apostolates. "How would I ever decide which offer to accept?" was the question with which I expected to struggle. Instead, six months later, apart from some freelance writing, I found myself still unemployed and battling against encroaching bitterness.

It was in just such a mood, that I began one day to clean the bathroom. As usual, I swiped hurriedly at the hair that had escaped from my head and brush onto the vanity and at the dampened dust on the back of the toilet, putting off as long as possible the most unsavory job of all – the toilet bowl.

That was when the moment of transcendence unexpectedly occurred – when the unmistakable voice of God broke through my usual routine. "What would your life be like if you wrote stories in the same careless manner you use to clean the bathroom?" He seemed to ask, and suddenly I began to understand the reasons for my long period of "unemployment."

"Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your might," King Solomon wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes.

"In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward," wrote St. Paul in 1 Thess 5:18.

Give thanks while cleaning the bathroom? It was a concept I’d never before considered, but when I tried it, a huge chunk of ego miraculously began to fall away. In those two short verses I found my key to transcendence. If the task at hand is to write a story, I will do it with all of my might and thank God for the opportunity. If the opportunity at hand is participation in the divine liturgy, I will do it with all of my might and thank God for so great a gift. And if God’s will in Christ Jesus is for me to clean the bathroom, I must do no less.

After all, is cleaning even the dirtiest bathroom really any worse than standing in line for more than an hour in 100 degree weather for a three-minute ride on a roller coaster? Well, maybe, but when done in a spirit of thanksgiving, how much more lasting will be the effect, and how much greater the reward?

(Published in New Covenant magazine. November 1998)

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