Oikonomia and Ordinary Life

Editor’s Note: The following is the edited transcription of a talk given to participants of the TWI Come and See Vocation Conference July 16-17, 2013 in Washington, DC. 


The domestic joys, the daily housework or business, the building of houses, they are not phantasms; they have weight and form and location.” -To Think of Time by Walt Whitman

There is a painting called “The Angelus” (pictured above) by Jean Francois Millet. It was painted somewhere around 1857. I actually first came across this painting because my friend Sally Lloyd-Jones gave a talk about her life as a writer, and how this painting provided comfort—you can pray and pray and pray over this work of creativity and there is so much that’s happening that you can’t see. These are potato farmers praying over their crops and she shared the encouragement of this painting: “In writing this is what it feels like. I’m working and working and working and there are all these forces that I can’t quite see but I’m trusting they’ll be fruitful. I’m trusting that in the end, it’ll bring forth something.”

Over the years I’ve come back to this painting again and again, and it hangs in my house by the stairs going up to my kids’ bedroom. Every time I see it, it reminds me how ordinary our vocations are and that our vocations are connected to all of human history. I can look at this painting and think, I need that reminder. I need the reminder that in the majority of the world, most people are praying over their crop. They are making a feeble effort, doing their best, trusting in a sincere and authentic act of faith that their work matters. Not philosophically, but that it matters to feed their children and that it matters to their communities. So I love what this picture evokes.

When my husband and I lived in Oxford, we lived about three blocks up from the Catholic church where Gerard Manley Hopkins was a priest. So we would often walk by and his poetry was all over and there was this wonderful bookstore where he was. Here is a line of a much longer reflection from Gerard Manley Hopkins in an address that he gave about St. Ignatius of Loyola’s writings, his spiritual exercises. He writes, “To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give him glory too. God is so great that all things give him glory if you mean that they should.” And when I look at “The Angelus,” that’s what it evokes for me.

Over the years, I have tried to hold together my own sense of calling, “What is it that God is uniquely beckoning from me?” It’s not really sufficient for me to ascribe to a single role but instead to insist and to work out and figure out what is mine to do. To find out what God is asking of me. Motherhood has always played a central role, so that central topic will ebb and flow throughout this talk because it’s how I’ve experienced an answer to this question.

Secondly, this talk is titled “oikonomia and the ordinary” and basically, I want to reflect on the economy of ordinariness and the economy in a very big, very classical sense. How all things are held together and how we think about that amidst our ordinary lives. Three quick points and then I will provide a more central thesis. I want to talk with “The Angelus” in mind, to the unique value of the work of the home, the language of the work of the home, and rhythms of the work of the home.

Andi Ashworth is a sage, a saint, one of my favorite friends on this topic. She wrote this beautiful book years ago called Real Love for Real Live: The Art and Work of Caregiving. And when it comes to talking about the value of the home, or if we want to be really technical, the economics of the home, I like how she summarizes this best. She says,

“A view of work that only values what is paid and visible to the public reflects a small and incomplete understanding of all that God has given us to do.”

As Christians, we probably instinctively agree. We say, “Yeah, that seems right to me.” But figuring out how we  ascribe value to it, what do we actually mean besides, “God bless you, that’s good, holy work. Carry on.” How do we actually think about if this work of the home really does have weight and form and location as Walt Whitman suggests to us that it does?

Two things that I draw from “The Angelus” is this historic, economic relationship of the home. I have a good friend who’s studying at Oxford. She’s just now finishing her DPhil at the business school, studying the barriers preventing the most marginalized people from gaining access to the markets. So we’ve had different conversations at times about whether or not the work of the home has economic value. And a lot of this as you all know depends on your definition of what’s economic.

We need to recognize that for most of human history, the work of the home and the work of the “market” have not been separate, they’ve been one, human work bound together. For most of the world that’s still the case today. Women are weaving baskets with their three children at their feet, or men are out picking beans for the cocoa crop and they are doing it with their sons and daughters—reminding us that we have created certain distinctions that may not serve us well in this space. There actually is a wholeness and a fullness of human experience that we might do better just to let some of the mix, the overflow, mingle and linger together and not need so much definition as we like to have.

Andi talks about this trend of outsourcing work that has traditionally been done out of love. And just to be perfectly clear, I definitely have a woman who comes and helps me keep my house clean, or my sheets might never get changed. Outsourcing is part of our life in the West, it’s worth noting, or it is a curiosity I suppose, to think about how we are increasingly willing to outsource this work.

Wendell Berry, the great poet and philosopher talks about this in his essay “Feminism: the Body and the Machine.” He offers a helpful window into the idea of a household economy. He says,

“The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family and to the profit of the suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversions elsewhere.
There are however still some married couple who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have, they have in common, and so to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them “mine” is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as “ours.”
This sort of marriage usually has at it’s heart a household that is to come extent productive. The couple that is makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery, of carpentry, and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture and even of woodlot management and woodcutting. It may also involve a cottage industry of some kind such as a small literary enterprise.

It is obvious how much skill and industry either partner may put into such a household and what a good economic result such work may have, and yet it is a kind of work now frequently held in contempt. Men in general were the first to hold it in contempt as they departed from it for the sake of the professional salary or the hourly wage. And now it is held in contempt by such feminists as those who attacked my essay. Thus farmwives who help to the run the kind of household economy that I have described are apt to be asked by feminists and with great condescension, “But what do you do?” By this, they invariably mean that there is something “better” to do than to make one’s marriage and household and by “better” they invariably mean employment outside the home.”

This reflection pulls into stark focus the simple irony that lies at the heart of so much of the angst that flows through churches, and roles, and positions, and callings, and work, and “not work”, and what counts, and what doesn’t, which I find, for the most part, to be distracting. The heart of the question is what it means to be human, and the many forms that takes. How do we discern within it and become creative within it. So that’s a little bit on the economic value of the home. Now there’s also communal and relational value.

Andi Ashworth in her book says, “Home in the nature of its physical layout draws people within close range of each other. Devoting ourselves to the good of others begins with demonstrating love and service to those nearest to us.” So there’s this communal and relational value that the home provides in a way that other places do not, a place where we have need.

You see this a lot in developing countries, where particularly among the women their work is the place that is their community. So they are weaving together, they are building baskets together, they are picking crops together. The home becomes the place where they are caring for one another’s children, they are caring for another’s relatives, they are taking up and being trained and apprenticing in a type of work.

So there’s this tremendous communal and relational value to the home and the work that is associated with the home. Berry speaks to this as well, he says, “A proper community, we should remember, also is a commonwealth, a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs practical, as well as social and spiritual, of its members. Among them: the need to need one another.” Homes are a place that forces us to experience that need in a way that other places do not.

Finally there is value in the home in identity and purpose. On this topic, one of my favorite books is Eve’s Revenge: A Spirituality of the Body for Women by an accountant named Lilian Calles Barger. She talks about how women cultivate their identity, saying, “Instead of kinship in place our identity is based on lifestyle choices.” She gives the example of families who would say, “We go to the Outer Banks for summer vacation. We’re an Outer Banks family. My kids are in soccer. We’re a soccer family.” She argues that these sort of lifestyle choices that we glom onto to create a type of identity. She writes, “Even as we have more possible identities from which to choose, we do not know who we are except through fleeting and easily broken associations.” The home is the remedy for kinship, the salve for that type of ache.

So what gets tricky is there’s only so much enthusiasm with which you can beat the drum that the work of the home is work, work, work. I always wince a little when every Mother’s Day or so someone writes about the salary a mom would get paid if she was compensated for her many roles: minivan driver, taxi, chef, and so on.

Part of that is because there’s a part of our soul that says, we don’t want to feel that it’s work. I don’t want to drive my kid to swim practice because I have to, the way that I have to turn in a spreadsheet. I don’t want to read bedtime stories because it’s work. I want to read bedtime stories because it’s something else. You know, it’s effort, it’s skill, and human creativity. It requires me to bring my personhood to it, but I don’t want it to be work in the way that I think about “work.” So how do we begin to think about the language of the home without just getting into a sort of semantic back and forth?

One writer who’s helped me a lot with language is Kathleen Norris, a Catholic poet and writer. This book is called The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. She is not a mother, but pays attention to the daily menial tasks that are common to us all, like laundry, dishes, floor washing, tasks that we all, regardless of gender, do. At one point she notes,

“The origin of the word ‘menial’ has it’s root in the word ‘manner’ and is derived from a word meaning ‘to remain’ or ‘to dwell in a household.’ It is thus a word about connections, about family, and household ties that it has come to convey something servile (the work of servants or even slaves), is significant…Cleaning up after others or even ourselves is not what we educate our children to do, it’s for someone else’s children, the less intelligent, the less educated, the less well-off.”

She’s arguing, of course, that our understanding of work that is menial has adapted because our ability to comprehend it’s meaning has changed. We understand it differently so the word had to change and adapt. While originally conveying a sense of rootedness and connectedness, in our modern context it has no expression except to imply a rote, undervalued, anonymous sense of house help. And this is noteworthy not only because it divorces the menial nature of housework from it’s relational context (which is how it still ought to be probably pursued in many avenues), but also because it views this work only in monetary or economic turns.

Wendell Berry echoes this sentiment when he writes this, “The orthodox assumption in the industrial economy is that the only help worth giving is not given at all, but sold.” This is a fundamental assumption that we are up against any time we talk about vocation in the home. Over the years I’ve found Andi’s very careful choice to write a book here about caregiving important. And if you ask her about it, she will say there’s no need to use words like “hospitality” or “motherhood” or partition off roles when really we are talking about giving care to other people. And she said, she’s become insistent about this word because it provides the inclusivity of caring for a child with special needs, of caring for an ailing parent, of caring in a very attentive way for a neighbor who might be lonely. And caregiving is something we all have in common. It isn’t specific to women and it provides into a conversation about how we all share this work of caring for one another.

If you use the word “work” in a context or conversation with all women, you can guarantee that you’ve already thrown defenses way up. This is because most of them don’t know what you’re talking about. “Are you talking about me? Are you talking about her? Are you talking about my life that I did before I had kids?” So “work” is a word that gets really tricky and because “vocation” has become so synonymous with “work,” if you talk about vocation loosely you get a lot of churn. Over the years, I’ve become very intentional about words like “commitments,” “responsibilities,” “efforts,” “skills.” Words that are less charged, and inspire a less visceral reaction—opening the door as widely as possible so it embraces the variety of loosely held connections that women feel responsible for in a given day.

This was evidenced at a dinner I hosted up in New York last Wednesday. This woman wrote me afterwards. I had offered, simply by way of introduction, this big inclusive definition of vocation, which I offered this morning, which is really Steve’s definition. It is that vocation is our entire life lived in response to God’s call. And this woman is doing ministry in New York and says, “Kate, thank you for your definition of vocation. Initially, when I found out this dinner was about faith and vocation, I automatically connected vocation with career, and because I’m in ministry with several part time jobs, I didn’t feel like I belonged or that I could come to the table. I really appreciated your definition so much because then I felt that it was inclusive of everyone and that I could join in on the conversation.” So language goes a long way, especially when you don’t necessarily know how your audience is conceiving of what they bring to the table.

And finally, rhythms of the home. “The Angelus” is a Catholic spiritual practice that commemorates the incarnation by reciting certain verses and responses with three Hail Mary’s and a concluding prayer. At the time that it was used regularly, it was recited morning, noon, and evening when the church bells rang. This is why it’s called “The Angelus,” Angelus being from the angelic sound of church bells ringing. So there is this sense of daily rhythm within the painting. There’s the rhythm of agriculture, of morning, noon, and night. I find that within the home there are certain rhythms that are manifest in work of the home, which are much more aligned with nature and the body than you find in a marketplace enterprise.

Several years ago Judith Schulevitz, wrote this tiny little blog post reflecting on her own role in becoming a mother. The article was called “Motherhood Changes You.” She argues that one of the primary tensions mothers face when they seek to reconcile or compare the tasks and work of the body in the home with other more marketplace oriented jobs, is not dissimilar to the challenges that peasant farmers, faced during the era of the Industrial Revolution. As she writes,

“The time of peasants, agricultural time, ebbed and flowed. It was task oriented that is evaluated by how well jobs were done. The time of the factory owners, industrial time, was steady, uniform, clock-oriented, evaluated by how quickly jobs were done. But as task-oriented as a farmer’s work was, the farmer’s wife work was even more so, particularly when it involved taking care of infants.”

The care nursing or diapering infants, for those of you who have children or are still in the fog of sleeplessness from having children, it’s rarely an exercise in efficiency. Nor is the reading of bedtime stories, the baking of pies, the cooking of a homemade meal that’s shared around a family table. The work of the home, like that farmer and his wife in the picture, is most certainly measured by the quality of the work. There is no other measure for it. Speed doesn’t have value, it just doesn’t matter. But those are really the only measures and the metrics that we have around work. So where the primary task for the industrialist or for the office worker is to produce, the primary task of a mother or a father is to love, and you can’t do that more or less quickly.

Agnes Howard wrote an essay for “First Things” back in 2006 called “In Moral Labor.” And what she was arguing for was this work that is done in pregnancy, the actual physical, gestational work that women do, and she reflects on it which I just thought was so delightful. She describes pregnancy this way,

“What medicine reveals about the mechanics of gestation rather than stressing a woman’s passivity, instead allows us to see pregnancy as a moral act. ‘Feeling fine, just tired,’ a mother-to-be might politely answer when asked how she is doing. Just tired, bone tired, spent as though having preformed a strenuous task. A mother is doing something strenuous. Not making a baby directly like hammering out a shape in a forge, but growing tissue, crafting a placenta, carrying weight.”

And she goes on through this essay to give language, and really a rich theological framework, for the work that a mother does in pregnancy. She uses the categories of hospitality, self-denial, and stewardship. So she says basically, there is no marketplace classification for this type of work. And she writes this,

“The self-denial of these nine months invites comparisons to lent. Uniting discipline and charity, a mother who swears off liquor, tobacco, and sweets aims not at personal health as in a diet, but at the child’s well-being. Pregnancy is a time to borrow John Winthrop’s definition of Christian charity, to abridge ourselves of superfluities, to survive for another’s necessities.”

So those are just some reflection on “The Angelus” about the values, the language, and the rhythms of the work of the home to open up the door. In my own life, what all of these threads have pushed towards, have forced me to contend with the reality of constraints. What I have realized in the years that I had two very small babies very close together and I was feeling this tug to do other things, what I realized I was wrestling with was limitation. The reality of limitation and nothing else. At base what I was wrestling with was constraint, the physical, immediate needs of the things I needed to do in a day, the sleep that I needed to get was finite. It was more finite than I wanted it to be and it forced me to figure out what I thought about that.

When I came to faith, which was late in college, and then I soon after came to do the Falls Church Fellows program, so much of what finally brought me to faith was this freedom to insist that the gospel to be true. I felt like, “If this is true, than show me. If you want me to contend with these constraints, than show me how it’s supposed to work.”

4193464046_6c09d65c4fThere is a project called the Uniform Project that I stumbled across in 2009. It was a woman who was in advertising in New York who was interested in sustainable fashion. She didn’t like the idea that to be on trend and to be fashionable you always had to be buying stuff. So she took up this project or this challenge where she wanted to make a garment that she could wear every single day for 365 days but create a unique new look every day without buying a whole bunch of new stuff (so by recycling or reusing or repurposing some sort of accessory). She named it the Uniform Project because she had gone to a prep school in India and observed what we all would observe of prep school kids which is that they all wear the same uniform but it all gets a little tweaked. For instance, there’s leg warmers, there’s bangle bangle bracelets, there’s a shirt un-tucked, there’s pigtails. Inevitably, people find a way to have their personality push through, despite the constraints of these uniforms.

What was so helpful to me, and this was really just the beginning of a thread, was this idea that our constraints are not impediments. They are not fetters in the way we want to rail against them and push against them and pound our fists at heaven and say, “If you only gave me the three hours more sleep and I would set the world on fire!” As it is, without the sleep, you kind of do want to torch it sometimes but in a different sort of way. What it helped me see was that maybe, just maybe, constraints are the means of creativity and clarity. Maybe this is the point.

As I started pulling on this thread, I realized that this principle is true all over the place. It’s in ecology and agriculture. You don’t plant eighteen crops at once, you designate a crop for a certain piece of land and even then, you’re rotating it every once and a while. It’s true in marketing. Think of logos like “Just Do It” or “The Choice of the Next Generation.” You know Nike could say a bunch of stuff, “We’ll make you faster, we’ll make you stronger, we have the coolest, most corrupted endorsement people.” They could say all sorts of things but they are disciplined in what they choose to say. You see it in business. A guy that’s on our board, Curtis Eggemeyer, owns an envirochemical technology company and their main product is called LemiShine. This is a dishwasher additive for hard water. And you think, “Well, I am grateful that exists in the world. I never would have come up with it.” But they have to be incredibly disciplined within their market to say that this is what they do. We do hard water. We don’t do everything else. We could do eighteen different things but we are just going to do thing one thing, because we believe that if we do this one thing really well, if we let ourselves be constrained, it’ll open up other opportunities.

And where this was most helpful is that I read an article by a friend Mako Fujimura. He was commissioned to paint four large-scale reflections for the 400th anniversary of the King James’ Bible. You can only imagine, as an artist, someone says, “We would like you to reflect on the whole of Scripture in history…go.” It’s an enormous job. And he does his art in the Japanese nihonga style where you make your own paper, according to ancient, ancient, practices and he paints with pigments. So rather than oils or paints he’s rather finding mineral pigments through nature and grinding them down into inks which then he is using. His large-scale paintings are enormous and stunning and beautiful. He says,

“For the past several seasons of Lent, I have been meditating upon this account of three siblings: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany. In particular, John 11:35 has become a central passage for me to consider in self-reflection. Because an artist learns very early that creativity requires boundaries and limits to thrive. When I began on my recent journey to illuminate the four holy gospels for Crossway Publishing’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of the KJV Bible, I needed to find a thematic boundary. I was so overwhelmed with the grand scale of the project, that I chose the shortest passage in the Bible, Jesus wept. That decision has led to many discoveries along the way.”

But when you see this painting, it is called Charis-Kairos, “The Tears of Christ” and it is just breathtaking. And you think here is a man who is just disciplined, he knows if you give me all of Scripture, all of the gospel, what I need to do is hem myself in immediately and lock in on the shortest verse in the Bible so I can have something to say, something to focus on. So the idea that limitation gives rise to more opportunity in our calling, more possibility, is counterintuitive, I’ve found, in much the same way that Christ teaches the weak will be strong, the last will be first. It’s an upside down idea in a way that is only possible way to be consistent with what the gospel is all about. I’m not going to get into it today. I just wanted to plant the seed.

Constraints happen most often in the context of home and marriage—intimate relationships where you have to actually bump up against yourself and other people. It’s always possible to deceive yourself but its harder at home. Constraints help us know God more fully. They push us and force us to push into, “Is what we believe true? Does it work? Can it help me?” in the reality of limitations. It helps us know ourselves more honestly. There’s lots of ways you can know yourself better, but what constraints do is they force you to know yourself honestly. You have to actually say, “I’m not as good at that as I wish I could be. I want to be these six things but I can really only do two of them.” It’s that honesty that only constraints pull us into. We can’t entertain and listen to more ideas if you really only have twenty-four hours in a day.

Practically, constraints help us know better what to pick. They are the things that if we pay attention to them, if we will contend with them, they tell us a lot about our calling. When I had kids, it was really the first time (and it really wasn’t even my first child, but it was the second and the third) where I started realizing all of these possibilities fall away. It helped me winnow down and realize that that’s not the stuff that I think about when I’m falling asleep at night. It just isn’t. But there are things that I do think about when I’m falling asleep at night. There are things that I do have energy for even though I have no business having energy for them. There are things I care about even though it makes no sense to care about them. There are those things and it’s only through the constraint that it can force your attention to actually say, that’s not going away. What does that mean? This won’t turn off. I’d actually love for this to just dim down a bit for a couple of years, but it won’t. It’s persistent.

And yet there’s other things that do fall away. So it helps us know better what to pick. It helps us practically know how to live our lives, structure our lives, make choices, establish habits, that we can actually then live within and discern from. As Bill Haley says, people come with a question about vocation and they encounter the love of God.

There was a moment, and I think it was during Advent, when I thought, it’s the Incarnation. God himself, who could have transcended time and space, who actually does have all options at his disposal, chose constraints. God chose to work through the reality of limitations to come to a particular place to a particular mother and father in a particular time at a particular moment. And he is asking us to take up our calling, to model Christ and to say that if he himself can work through the constraints, in the Incarnation, surely he can work through whatever I offer him.

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  • Jim Hislop

    I came to the Washington Institute web site to find an email address for Kate so I could ask her about the use of language with regard to “Vocation as Ministry” that was inclusive of those who may not necessarily get paid for what they do, but see it as their life work, at least at this point in their life. What a pleasant surprise to find this blog which is the talk Kate gave sitting on the hearth of a beautiful home at the Come & See Conference. I’ve talked about it several times to my family and friends and now I can share it with them. I found it interesting at the wrap-up of the conference that there were more positive comments made about this talk than any other. Thank you Kate for being such a clear communicator of profound but simple truths, at least when you say them.

  • Margie

    Kate, so lovely, so good, so right. I’m inspired to keep on with whatever it is that God calls me to do and at the pace and within the constraints he has placed on me. Thank you.