When I decided to write a review of Nancy J. Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, the first word that came to mind was “impressionist”. And indeed, her book on calling and vocation does not so much state her perspective directly as it leaves the reader, through vignettes of her own life and through other illustrations, with a distinct impression of what she is conveying. So subtle can the distinctions between her stories be, often interweaving two or more in a chapter, that it can be easy to miss the point she is trying to make. In this sense, her work is distinctly artistic.
But on other, I would have to say that her book is also iconic. Not only does her book, through the use of personal stories and reflections on art and literature, reflect the way in which the Divine shines through and is mediated by the natural world, as icons do, but she also at one point quotes from Russian Orthodox thinker and priest, Pavel Florensky, when she borrows the phrase, “a beholding that ascends”. Florensky was specifically describing the religious impact of icons in that phrase.
There is another sense in which her theology of vocation is iconic. It comes through in the way in which she perceives and writes about one’s calling. Where it has become popular in certain evangelical circles to cite Frederick Buechner’s “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”, Nancy Nordenson takes a different approach or, at the very least, a different emphasis. Buechner’s quote is one I have often found inspiring myself, but I have to admit it can be a tad idealistic, being actualized very seldomly in a reality tainted by sin and the effects of the Fall. Thus, Nordenson takes the tack that much of our calling is lived out in places of necessity and pragmatism. She writes that “work, even good work for which we are grateful and love, has a shadow side.” And her own life illustrates this. Much of the book, especially later on, is taken up with reflections during her time having to work after her husband lost his job. She had planned to reduce her work schedule while going through graduate school, but found herself adjusting to the reality of what was.
The book itself is presented in three “acts”. The first act reflects on the limitations of life, “where we encounter ground level and metaphysical realities…idealistic work experts and criteria for ‘good work’; hiddenness and exhaustion; and a longing for meaning and a will to be satisfied.” The second act is primarily on learning to rest and paying attention to what is unfolding before us in our life and work. It is in this act that one reads Florensky’s quote and sees how she applies the concept of beholding to one’s vocation. It is also at the end of this part that she writes the chapter about her husband coming home after losing his job. Prior to this, her reflections were based on earlier memories of past work experiences, but with the last chapter of Act II, the readers is segued into Act III, “where we encounter love, devotion, and guidance; the sacrament of the present moment and every moment;…patience and transformation; and a blessing of countenance.”
For me, one of the joys of this book was her interaction with other writers and thinkers that I am fond of. These include quotes from Simone Weil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis, Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing, T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. But as one might guess from the quote above regarding Act III, she quotes from that French mystic, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in his book The Sacrament of the Present Moment. And this reinforces the iconographic nature of her writing. For, in attending to the moments of her life and her work as present realities which mediate God’s grace, she is able to write, “On one level we make our livelihood; on another level we keep our eyes open and find it.” Nancy Nordenson’s book is a testament to what revelations can result when we open our eyes to what is in front of us and receive it as grace. Truly, in the reading of this book one is engaging in a beholding that ascends.