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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Cubicle as Crucible

After Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church lost its distinctive counter-cultural and missional focus.  Many saw the church as being too accommodating of the surrounding culture, with many converting to the faith in name only.  As a result, “dissatisfied Christians began to flee the church in search of a purer form of Christianity untainted by collusion with empire.” 1  Those who fled into the wilderness went into the deserts surrounding the Roman Empire where they lived in caves, which became places of prayer or “cells”, to practice a more solitary and ascetic form of faith.  This monastic lifestyle grew such that “By the end of the fourth century, thousands of these hermits had settled along the length of the Nile River, and nearly 5,000 had established themselves in the desert on the outskirts of Alexandria.” 2  Eventually, their extreme devotion led others from the Empire to seek out these desert fathers and mothers, at they came to be known, in order to learn how to grow in discipleship.

Margaret Guenther, in her classic book on prayer, The Practice of Prayer, draws on the wisdom of the desert fathers when she quotes Abba (Father) Moses, “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”. 3  Guenther applies the idea of the cell to our everyday lives, whether that be cooking in the kitchen, driving in a car, or working in a cubicle.  Our modern-day “cell” is whatever happens to be our place of encounter with God.  But often, we yearn for a life that seems more “spiritual”, more transcendent, and so our cell is also that which tempts us to boredom or dissatisfaction with the life we have.  Just as the noonday heat and the monotony of the desert created a condition of acedia, or sloth, which the desert fathers sought to fight against while praying, so we also must fight against our own “noonday demons”.  Her insight into our contemporary interior struggles and how it impacts our daily work is worth citing at length:

The noonday devil is gray and shabby, nothing like Milton’s splendid Lucifer.  He is thoroughly at home in the ordinary and quite expert in the unspectacular, tacky sins of the everyday…The noonday devil can tempt us to little acts of meanness and impatience.  He can encourage our ugly little spurts of envy and persuade us that only the uptight pay much attention to the sins of gluttony and lust.  Perhaps most insidious of all, the noonday devil can insinuate himself into our thoughts, suggesting that God is not very interested in us and that consequently what we do is not important. 4

I don’t know about you, but I struggle from time to time with feelings of being appreciated and acknowledged.  It’s not so much that I need others to praise me, since I tend to be the sort of personality a little suspicious of too much praise, as it is that by not being appreciated I worry that what I do is not that important or that it’s not making much of a difference.  Even worse, I might begin to fear that my efforts are perceived as hindrances or that I’m not pulling my own weight.  This can lead me to a place of discontentment and dissatisfaction, where my motivations become based on the praise of others rather than the desire to serve God alone.  In fact, so great has been this struggle for me recently, that I decided to journal about it on a retreat.  The organizer of the retreat had brought a book, and as I was journaling, I decided to “take and read”. 5

It’s a children’s book called The Right House for Rabbit.  The story begins with a rabbit who has grown tired of the view from his house of a brown hill and a crooked tree.  So he goes to Mr. Fox, something of a real estate agent, in search of a new home.  Mr. Fox sends him to Mrs. Robin’s house, but that house, while having a great view, is a nest in a tree and has no roof and no walls.  Then Fox sends Rabbit to Mr. Beaver’s house, but while his house has walls and a roof, the only way in is to go underwater.  Finally, Mr. Fox takes Rabbit to a third house which is, unbeknownst to Rabbit, Mr. Fox’s own home.  Mr. Fox tries to capture Rabbit to make stew, but Rabbit slips out the window and races all the way back to his own home.  Once in his own home, Rabbit realizes that with a little shift in position and perspective, he has a different view from his house and learns to be content with where he is. 6

After reading that story, I bean to realize how small my perspective had become.  Interestingly enough, I had also opened to Scripture while journaling to one of the Old Testament prophetic books.  The prophet Isaiah records the following scene:

A voice was saying, “Cry out!”  Another said, “What should I cry out?”  “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word our God remains forever.” Isaiah 40:6-8

At the time, I could not understand how that passage connected with my motivations and my struggle for why I do what I do.  But as I have since reflected, it is clear that we should strive for and ground our sense of worth on what is lasting, which is God and His Word, not on worrying about what is here one moment and gone the next.  All that I do, and even my own self, will not last.  Even though I believe I will continue to exist beyond death, my life and accomplishments on this earth is but a blink in the eye of eternity.

Rather, I believe God’s priority is about forming His children into a community that lives joyfully and contentedly, rather than anxiously worrying about the opinion of others.  In a conversation that is reminiscent of the passage above from Isaiah, Jesus tells his disciples, “Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these!  If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you – you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).  Jesus then proceeds to exhort his disciples to seek first God and His kingdom.  All that we need comes from God, including affirmation and acceptance.

At the end of all my journal writing and reflections, I penned the following prayer:

Dear Lord,

Teach me to be content and to not be distracted by the noonday demon.  Enable me to go to my cell, my workplace crucible, with a gladness and joyfulness of heart, knowing that through it You are forming me into the person You are calling me to be.  May the sacrifices of my time and effort be pleasing and acceptable to You.  And may my presence, like that of incense which is here one moment and gone the next, be a fragrant offering that brings You glory and honor.

Lord Jesus, In Your Name, Amen.

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1 Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2010), 12, ebook.

2 Ibid., 13.

3 Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998), 108.

4 Ibid., 110.

5 The great Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, was converted to the Christian faith after hearing a child in a garden in Milan speak those words.  The child was speaking the Latin words, “tolle lege”, which translates to “take and read”.  He picked up Scripture, which he had with him.  He had been struggling with his inability to live a Christian life, and the words from Scripture which were from the apostle Paul on living a licentious lifestyle, convicted him of the truth of God’s Word.  For those who worry about not hearing from God when reading Scripture, all I can say is that learning to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit through Scripture is a practice that takes time, effort and discipline.  I won’t guarantee that you will always sense God’s presence when reading the Word of God.  In fact, I don’t always sense God’s presence.  But one thing I know: you surely never will if you don’t “take and read” for yourself.  We all have to begin somewhere.

6 Susan Saunders, illustrations by Jody Lee, The Right House for Rabbit (New York, NY:  Merrigold Press, 1986).

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.