A Contemplative Table: Exploring the World of Work

(These lovey images are from a rare Christian art flowering in China and are from here...hat tip to Feminine Genius for these! Up top is Christ with Mary and Martha, and several images of Our Lord with Our Lady are below. About them:

" A Chinese Christian school of painting....arose in Beijing between the two world wars at the Catholic University of Beijing, but lasted only until 1949. The university was founded by American Benedictine monks from Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1925. Two years later, the Ministry of Education recognized it under the Chinese name Furen, an expression taken from the Analects of Confucius (Book XII, ch.24) which can be translated "promotion of righteousness." )

Christine over at Abbey of the Arts is having a poetry party, inviting poems on the topic
"Illuminated from Within". Just couldn't resist this one, so here's my little poem for the party:

In longing for your pen oh Lord, we await
For your precious light to enter,
Scrolling across the heart page
In its wake your Words, bordered with your Images
Like the sacred manuscripts of old, an ancient newness
Longing, oh Lord, for your pen

Truth is, something of that image has been here all day really, while just going about the little things of the day. Started when opening
Universalis earlier today and finding this passage (below) for St Bernadette's feastday today. Well, technically her feastday was yesterday since its after midnight now.... but Blessed Belated feastday : ) Here was the the qoute:

"Imagine that you are a poor girl – not even working-class, because your father hardly ever has any work – poor in a way that we can hardly conceive of – unintelligent and uneducated, and suddenly something happens to you. Overnight you are famous. People come in crowds to see you...Wouldn’t that turn your head? ...
Here is Bernadette’s response, in conversation with one of the nuns:

"What do you do with a broom?"
"Why, sweep with it, of course."
"And then?"
"Put it back in its place."
"Yes. And so for me. Our Lady used me. They have put me in my corner. I am happy there, and stay there.""

Isnt that amazing? And it reminded me of something Saint Therese had said in her "
Story of a Soul":

"Ah! how true it is that God alone knows human hearts and that creatures are terribly narrow in their thoughts! ...If a piece of canvas painted on by an artist could think and speak, it certainly would not complain at being constantly touched and retouched by the brush, and would not envy the lot of that instrument, for it would realize it was not to the brush but to the artist using it that it owed the beauty with which it was clothed. The brush, too, would not be able to boast of the masterpiece produced with it, as it knows that artists are not at a loss, they play with difficulties, and are pleased to choose at times weak and defective instruments.

My dear Mother, I am a little brush that Jesus has chosen in order to paint His own image in the souls you entrusted to my care. An artist does not use only one brush, but needs at least two; the first is the more useful and with it he applies the general tints and covers the canvas entirely in a very short time; the other, the smaller one, he uses for details.

Mother, you are the precious brush that the hand of Jesus lovingly holds when He wishes to do a great work in the souls of your children, and I am the very small brush He deigns to use afterward for the smallest details..."

I just can't get those images out of my head lately....being God's little broom, and being God's little paintbrush. Two such moving images, and they are such apt images too of how we as women can do our work.

For just like with wealth, i strongly believe that there is more than one Biblical path to a woman's work as well. I know that's pretty hard to see sometimes, since our culture has been so bombared with the Protestant work ethic as "the" work ethic, which is exemplified by Martha's busy productivity i feel. And yet, of course there is also Mary right alongside her in Scripture...being more contemplative, reflective, calm, quiet, inward. Just like there is the physical strength focus of Proverbs 31...and yet there is also a more reflective way of being shown in Proverbs 8. And so it feels there is the more actively focused Martha as a model for a woman's work, but there is also the more receptively focused Mary as well. Likewise, it's true there is the path of the missionary in Christian living, but there is also the path of the contemplative in Christian living as well.

The problem i've had so much with the Protestant work ethic is it glorifies all the formers in the above there as work, and forgets that that is only half of the picture. And worse yet that it passes ridiculous judgements on those not blessed with physical strength, or those without what it proudly considers ambition (actually, the high focus on pride is another puzzling part of this ethic for me...yes, we have pride, but i thought that was something we were meant to try and heal, not instead cling to as a virtue). The thing is, i used to hate even the word work really in the none too distant past, becuase i was seeing it through that one sided lens.

But over time something has been slowly healing, in learning that there is so much more here, a whole other side to the puzzle. St Benedict put it so amazingly well when he said that prayer is also work, and work can also be prayer....and this did not come out of the blue either. Work as prayer may be more blatent in Scripture, but prayer as work is there too, woven in so beautifully and quietly it takes one's breath away if one opens to it. Well, perhaps that makes sense really for a quieter path : )

I really do feel, more and more, that Our Lord knew that a quieter more contemplative path of being, and a more naturally contemplative path of work there too, would be looked down on through much of history...and i feel maybe that is why he so kindly defended Mary when visiting Martha and Mary. Martha had "pull", her elders and such were behind what she was doing, and she probably could pull out Bible verses right and left in defense as well (Proverbs 31 and the like). Mary's way was quieter, more vulnerable really, more receptive, less blatent, more subtle...it reminds me so much of the humble "little brush" above.

It also reminds me very much of a comment quote came across on a veiling discussion a bit back: "The ones I hear opposing the veil don't sound gentle. They sound tough, sometimes judgmental. I find myself diffident before them, unable to share the delicate graces that moved me to start covering .... " Its that feeling, being "unable to share the delicate graces" in the face of such overall misunderstanding from the world. The Marys of the world especially can really go though this i feel, becuase they arent as "sharp" and battle ready as the Marthas of the world (no coincidence that St Martha is often shown vanquishing a dragon on holy cards, a battling strength/desire is so much a part of
that archetype). So those more Mary oriented arent usually as outward and impressive in defending their way of being, they are often instead i think simply needing to protect something precious from being destroyed (much like the womb does really, that image just really comes to mind). I wonder if thats part of why the Protestant work ethic took hold as "the" work ethic so much, becuase those with a quieter path of work have not had a loud voice in all the hubub. And still don't. Maybe never will.

But the healing thing is, maybe that doesn't mattter. Thats what's really been coming to heart lately. Why should those seeking a quieter life, with its quieter work (and sometimes a more subtle form of mothering too), be dismayed by the world's frequent misundertanding there? For Christ already defended Mary's more contemplative way of being, and that healing and chivalrous protection is still here for us. Such precious treasure, given to our hearts where it cannot be taken... now how kind and chivalrous is that : ) ?

With the whole Mary Martha thing there is a wonderful bridge though of course, and a deeply healing one: Our Blessed Mother is both, becuase she is all that is holy and feminine, the one woman we all can look up to for guidance and support in living a holy and feminine life. Truly, there is such an amazing bridge there. And its funny, its hitting me now that even simply with the little images used here of broom and paintbrush that bridge-ness comes up too in a sense.... becuase its amazing how similar those things happen to be to one another, both in shape and even in feeling. The healing of co-in-see-dance is just so precious isn't it? : )

That bridge-ness feeling comes accross especially strongly in these lovely Chinese images, which is why was so drawn to putting them here. I really love the work--and it truly is work, when a lovely"working" is taking place--that has created things like these holy cards. What creates things like this is not just skill, but a contemplative slower more reflective and prayerful way of living. Painting is not the only way to do that of course...there is writing, or even just doing one's everyday domestic duties in a contemplative spirit, or even simply entering into a life of full time prayer (as both professional and lay contemplatives may do). Yet there really is something special somehow about tangible contemplative works like this, they so beautifully help remind us of what is more subtle and fragile and precious. And its the way they do so that moves me so much really. For they have used neither their tongue or even their Bible as a battling sword....but rather have simply let God use them as His "little brush" in some way. I long for such a way of being so much!

Thought i'd end here with a favorite passage from Lucy Montgomery's
Emily of New Moon series:

“This has been a lyric spring day–and a miracle has happened. It happened at dawn–when I was leaning out of my window, listening to a little, whispering, tricksy wind o’ morning blowing out of Lofty John’s bush. Suddenly–the flash came—again–after these long months of absence–my old, in expressible glimpse of eternity. And all at once I knew I could write. I rushed to my desk and seized my pen. All the hours of early morning I wrote; and when I heard Cousin Jimmy going downstairs I flung down my pen and bowed my head over my desk in utter thankfulness that I could work again.

“Get leave you to work–
In this world ‘tis the best you get at all,
For God in cursing gives us better gifts
Than men in benediction.’

So wrote Elizabeth Barret Browning–and truly. It is hard to understand why work must be called a curse–until one remembers what bitterness forced or uncongenial labour is. But the work for which we are fitted–which we feel we are sent into the world to do–what a blessing it is and what fulness of joy it holds. I felt this to-day as the old fever burned in my finger-tips and my pen once more seemed a friend.

‘Leave to work’—one would think any one could obtain so much. But sometimes anguish and heartbreak forbid us the leave. And then we realise that we have lost and know that it is better to be cursed by God than forgotten by Him. If He had punished Adam and Eve by sending them out to idleness, indeed they would have been outcast and accursed. Not all the dreams of Eden ‘whence the four great rivers flow’ could have been a s sweet as those I am dreaming to-night, because the power to work has come back to me.

‘Oh God, as long as I live give me leave to work’, Thus pray I. Leave and Courage."

(These beautiful images are from the 1930's and 40's, from the Catholic University of Beijing,

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