Work vs. Wonder

Live Mary’s choice while doing Martha’s work.

A dim, shadowed day has finally come after the long cacophony of hot ones. The air is like cool, still water, the clouds silken grey, a canopy under which the birds cry in the windless quiet. My candles flame and my oldest Celtic music is playing – that first set of Irish songs that stirred my blood and quickened the breath of my sixteen-year-old soul. This still, dark, eerie day, feels like the shelter of God’s wings to me, a hidden room of a day in which to hide and rest my weary mind.

I want to remember, or somehow even to inhabit again the unfettered wonder of that sixteen-year-old self. I need her calm eyes, her ability to trust in the goodness of coming days. I need her surety. Today, I wonder if past selves can sometimes be a mental presence to which we can return and shelter from the busier, confused selves we have become. I wonder if those past selves can somehow counsel a current self, speak again of the vital things forgotten in the intervening years.

Sometimes, of late, I stop an instant and wonder when I grew up, when my days took on, so completely, the cadence of adulthood with its work and bills and constant deadlines. When did the mass of people – friends, connections, partners, acquaintances, peers, mentorees – grow so great around me and when did I accept the work of their many holy demands? It’s not ungratefulness or impatience that asks, its my inmost self taking stock as my outer self increases in action. It’s the girl in the inmost room of my heart, the girl who does not change however many years slip by, holding the woman I have become to her oldest ideals, her ancient faiths.

For many years I have pondered and defended the keeping of a quiet heart, a childlike wonder, a cultivated innocence. For me, to live in awe, to walk outdoors, to roam imagination was simply to be as God made me. If I spoke or wrote about them as work, it was only because I wanted others to join me in the joy I knew within the realm of wonder. So when, I ask my older selves today, did those natural gifts become my battlegrounds? When did wonder and inmost hush become the illusive, fleeting, pearl of great price treasures I now must fight and seek and wait with holy patience to attain?

I am aware of the world in its work and hurry rising up around me, challenging me each day to greater action and work, discipline, love, and sometimes, suffering. My limited spaces of time and thought begin to be crammed with the many demands of the active life, the working, loving, giving life required of those who love God in this world. Dreamer, writer, free-souled girl though I be, I cannot deny those burdens. To do so would be, not creative, but cowardly, a squandering of all the richness I’ve been given by love and training. And so I work hard, write, travel, clean… give. And my present self has become quite capable.

But today, in the dim light, I know that my work will be empty, my labor vain, if it echoes with exhaustion. If all that I accomplish bears the tang of bitterness because somewhere along the way, I lost that inmost, essential quiet. My temper is quick these days. My words too swift, too sharp. I scorn rest. I forget to wonder. Until I stop, as in this darkling morning moment with the candles like eyes staring down my soul and the music a road I walk back to my inmost self. And I know that I have forgotten to live in love, love that is the only sustainable basis for action. Love, that drove me to work and give in the first place as I saw it at play in all creation. I settle into the hush around me. My old self draws near with her innocent, eternal ideals.

I find myself thinking about Mary and Martha. I ponder them because Mary was the woman who embodied the hush and wonder I wanted for myself from the earliest days of my faith. I wanted to be the woman who chose the one good things, not the busybody who bustled and fretted right in the face of her Savior. Now, though, I often wonder about Mary, because it seems her choice is impossible to any responsible adult. I would love to slip away, even as I write, I would love to set this computer down, ignore the emails, the deadlines, refuse to notice the dirty dishes and hungry hearts in need of my touch. To do so would only be to burden someone else, to heap a weight of strain and need upon the other good people in my life, to refuse the work of loving as God loves me. So I work, and hurry, and get awfully fearful at how swiftly my thoughts move and my mind races.

But there is always that core self, the real self, the old self, alive below the bustle, seeking a place of quiet, fighting toward the inner, silent room of my heart where a great Love dwells in unchanging presence. A ceaseless hunger accompanies me throughout the day, that truest self fighting to dwell in peace, to find rest, to live in wonder. And I begin to ask myself if choosing the one thing, like Mary, the one great task of sitting at the feet of Christ, has very little to do with outer action at all. Perhaps that work is more truly the choice of an inner orientation. A choice to remain in the inmost room of my heart with my Beloved, to sit at Jesus’ feet in my interior self, even as the outer bustles about to accomplish all that truly is necessary.

I begin to think that the wondering life of my youth is something separate from circumstance, but crafted in spite of it. Perhaps the contemplative life – that disciplined way of prayer and quiet, wonder and love that has always fascinated me and of whom Mary is the traditional representative –  has little to do with outward quiet. I even wonder if my conception of the contemplative life as a luxury of isolated prayer and unbounded time is a falsehood, a conception essentially centered on self rather than God. The hard, Christ-like, heroic virtue of true contemplatives lies not in the degree of their separation from the work and care of life, but rather in their disciplined inner pursuit of Christ. Their ceaseless choice to dwell in the inner room, whether they work or rest, in crowds or hush, in action or stillness. True contemplation is learning to dwell – that abiding in Christ that Jesus said was the secret, vital life to those who loved Him.

To abide in God is to live Mary’s choice while doing Martha’s work.

And in that understanding, the wondering self of my past, the working self of my present, are united.

But God knows that is a lifelong, excruciating work. Which is why dim, darkling days of angel-wing quiet like this one are always his gift. I do wholly believe in days of rest. I begin to think of them almost as spiritual discipline, a chosen quiet that must be claimed in the very face of incessant worldly action. For rest can be just as vital a work as action. For it is only an inward hush that allows me to travel back to the inner room of my heart when I have strayed, shake off the demon hands trying to keep me away from the door of the room where Christ waits to give me all good things.

So I revel today in every grey, song-haunted minute. I walk in soul, and I will keep on walking until I reach that room in my heart where Christ dwells, until I sit down at his feet, rooted once more in the Love that keeps me quiet amidst every clamor in the world.

Sarah Clarkson
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.

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