A Beholding that Ascends

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.

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Still Bearing Fruit

In recent years there have been a number of books published on the topic of aging, dying, and the Christian faith.  No doubt, this is to meet the needs and to answer the questions of an aging church in the West and to help those in the latter half of life respond to spiritual concerns about growing older.  While there are other books that examine the spirituality of the second half of life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward readily comes to mind), R. Paul Stevens takes a more unique approach in that his book relates primarily to the question of what one’s calling is in later life, and especially after one retires.

The book is broken up into three sections and the first part deals solely with calling.  The first chapter is notable for it’s argument that retirement is not a biblical concept, in that in the ancient world one had to work as long as one was able.  After a brief history of how retirement came about, the chapter one looks at how retirement can be a catalyst for growth and of a broader and more biblical concept of calling. While Stevens does not suggest we should not retire, his emphasis is that the idea of idling one’s remaining days in self-leisure is not a Scriptural notion and that one can still contribute to society, even if one is not receiving remuneration.  This last point is addressed in more detail in the second chapter as the concept of calling is explained and some guidelines on late-life calling are provided.  And the third chapter takes a closer look at some Scriptural examples of those who lived out their late-life calling faithfully, with special emphasis on Abraham and Jacob.

The second part of the book reflects on the spirituality that comes with aging.  Here, I felt the book had some similarities to Richard Rohr’s book, especially in chapter four where midlife is viewed as a time of transition from doing to being, and from living to accomplish much to living into a more contemplative lifestyle.  Stevens lists a few ways that aging provides opportunities for us to grow spiritually.  The next two chapters detail the potential vices and virtues that arise as one grows older.Aging Matters

The third section looks at how one’s calling affects others beyond one’s death in what we refer to as “legacy”.  Chapter seven is about different facets of one’s legacy, including factors to consider when bequeathing a monetary legacy.  There were two things that stood out for me in this chapter that are not talked about often enough: one’s non-monetary legacy, to include out investment in other people and how that affect our relatives for good or bad even after we are gone, and the importance of writing a living will.  The next chapter, chapter eight, is about preparing for death by reviewing the life we have lived and along that review to enable us to “finish well”.  And the last chapter looks forward to what we can expect in the life, in the new heaven and new earth, and does so by way of clearing some misunderstandings on the nature of death and on Scripture says about our life after death.

Overall, this was a welcome book to the growing bodies of literature on calling and on aging.  While some, perhaps much, of it was already familiar to me, I think Stevens did a great job at exploring the intersection of calling and the spirituality of aging.  He draws upon and interacts with some interesting thinkers in this area, some of who were familiar to me, including Catholic Richard Rohr and Jewish Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and some who were unfamiliar, such as psychiatrist Paul Tournier.  I think one of the best features of the book was the Scripture studies at the end of each chapter.  One of the studies that impacted me most was Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren upon his deathbed.  Having practiced vision divina with an artist’s rendering of that scene and knowing Jacob’s history, as one who stole his brother’s birthright and blessing, made it a very impacting study on aging, calling, and gaining wisdom from one’s mistakes.  Ultimately, Stevens, who has written a number of books on calling and the workplace from a faith perspective, and who is also in the third third of his life, draws upon a lifetime of wisdom and experience.  To the extent that this book passes on his accumulated wisdom to the next generations, I would say he has embodied the generativity that he wrote about in this book.

Small Beginnings

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.

~Zechariah 4:10

What Erik Erikson did when he gave description to the stages of life development, Beth Booram has done for the process of birthing a God-given dream.  In her book, Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream, the reader is introduced to the various stages of discerning, shaping, and birthing a dream.  The basis of the book comes not just from the above Scripture passage, but also from her own experience of fulfilling a dream to start an urban retreat center. Starting Something New Each chapter also features other individuals who have followed the Holy Spirit’s promptings, following the format of interview, chapter reading, and reflection questions.  The examples range from entrepreneurs who started their own small business to Christians who started a non-profit organization to individuals who simply felt called to use their talents differently.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book lies in the reflection questions or discernment questions at the end of each chapter.  It really is almost as though one has a spiritual director through this book, asking the insightful, Spirit-prompted questions that spiritual direction is all about.  I think anyone who has a desire to start something new should consider reading this book, but this is an especially excellent “go-to” book for spiritual directors themselves.  As for myself, I have been in the process of following my own God-given dream over the past year and this book has helped me to understand where I am at in the birthing process.  It has also helped keep me from getting ahead of myself and God.  Having seen some progress in fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was in Germany, I’ve been somewhat anxious to get started, wondering if I should pusue this path or that, when I know I need to wait and follow Christ’s leading.

I do want to point out that while one chapter does mention writing a business plan for those whose dreams require it, this book is less about the technical details of creating a new venture and more about the discernment process and stages of a dream.  The result is a book that is applicable not just for entrepreneurs in business or non-profits, but for all who feel a “small beginning” stirring in their heart.  To learn more about the book, the following link will take you to a beautiful promotional video for the book: http://www.ivpress.com/videos/3597.php.