When I was a little girl, I wanted to be just like my Dad when I grew up. He had earned a Master’s degree in Astro-Physics, then went to Law School. He could sail across St. Margaret’s Bay, bike 50 K, swim so far out into the frigid North Atlantic that none of us could see him from the beach, and always come back. He would dress in suits and ties, and shoes that I had helped him shine, going off every morning to the impressive office tower downtown and do work that people respected so much they called him Mr. Arnold. I wanted to be just like that. As I’ve grown up, I found out that even with hard work and determination I needed one other thing to make it happen – a wife.
Everyone needs a wife. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to expect it, as the wisdom teachers in Proverbs do? Their task is to advise young men starting out in life and they offer guidance on being honest, practicing self-discipline, not being too impressed with wealth, sharing what you can. But clearly one of the most important pieces of counsel the sages have to give is that in order to make it successfully through life, you need a good wife. Someone to do all those never-ending, repetitive jobs that do not get you a fancy title or an office downtown: the cooking, cleaning, nursing, baby-sitting, Christmas card writing, birthday remembering, home-making stuff. The volunteering in the classroom, errand-running, car-pooling, chaperoning, fund-raising, neighbourhood watching stuff. The jobs for which my mother was called, not Mrs. Arnold, but Kathryn. Those ofus privileged with education and resources can be out there in the world, doing fascinating and fulfilling work, but as the authors of these sayings knew all those centuries ago, and it still seems to be true today, no one can do it all. Somebody needs to knit up that raveled sleeve of care when we get ragged. That’s why, for thousands of years, there have been wives, right? Well, what does it mean to be a wife? And who should do it?
This picture of the virtuous wife includes a lot. She has her husband’s trust, and rightly so, because she does him good, and not harm. She feeds the members of her household – growing food, cooking and serving and presumably cleaning up afterwards. She keeps herself strong, so that she has the energy to care for them. She gets up early in the morning, and her lamp burns late into the night. She extends the boundaries of her household, opening her hand to the poor and needy. She is also a steward of the beauty of life, clothing herself and her family, not just adequately, but richly, in crimson, fine linen, and purple. She is a teacher, sharing the wisdom she has earned from experience. When her husband takes his place in the city, it is her support that undergirds that place. And all this is not done grudgingly, it is not an odious burden that she suffers with resentment; she is confident, laughing at the time to come; she is happy, in her ability to care for her family and see them flourish, and she praises God for the blessing she has received in being able to do so much.
That, then, is the work. It is good work. The work of someone who values, and creates life, by giving of herself. The work of love. Who else do we know who values and creates life in joyful self-giving? Who invented the work of love? So if this is God’s work, then perhaps this is all of our work.
The first life you have to learn to value and nurture is your own. Sometimes, you will need to be your own wife. Like the husband in Proverbs, you will need to learn to trust yourself, because you do yourself good, and not harm. This is harder than it sounds. Begin by identifying what is self-destructive in your life, and know that you are worth more than that. Then think about how you nurture yourself, how you feed your body and soul, how you invite beauty into your life, and how you celebrate your accomplishments. As we learn to value ourselves, we learn a tiny bit about how God values, how God treasures, each one of us.
Then, if we are very lucky, we get a chance to be a wife to someone else. It doesn’t have to be an actual spouse – we can practice this work in many ways. Rejoicing with friends in their moments of triumph, tending them in times of sickness or depression. Extending the circle of friendship, the household, to include someone new. Sharing what we have with the poor. Offering your insights as a teacher and mentor. Bringing a little beauty into someone’s life, with a kind word, a song you love, a meal, a phone call. Above all, let this be joyful work.
And if you are very blessed indeed, you will find that which is far more precious than jewels, and someone will be a wife to you. This, too, does not happen only within the context of a marriage – it happens whenever we receive loving, creative nurture from someone else. Think about how much you, and I, all of us, have been supported for the work we do. Think of the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers,and friends who lift us up, feed us, clothe us, stay up late with us and get up early the next morning to do it all over again.
There is a famous children’s book about caring, which, in a way, I can’t really stand. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Treeis about a very one-sided relationship between a boy and a tree. It starts out with a young, strong, thriving tree and a little boy. At first the boy plays in and around the tree, and both are happy. As the boy grows up, however, his desires change, and he demands things from the tree: money, food, a house, a boat, all of which the tree gives. Finally the boy, now an old man, bitter and tired, comes and sits on the stump that remains, and the tree is happy.
We could think of the story as an image of how God cares for us, and perhaps we do look very much like that little boy to God – self-absorbed and demanding, using and abusing until there is nothing left. Maybe we are meant to be reassured about the infinite nature of divine mercy – the tree, after all that it gives and endures, still welcomes the old man in the end. This story seems to me to be founded on a passive-aggressive image of God as offering a forgiveness we do not deserve, and making sure we know it.
But there is another image of God in our tradition, that we find here in Proverbs: God as faithful wife and loving mother, who cares for her family with joy, who is not used up in some masochistic calculus but thrives on the well-being of those she nurtures. This is the image of God, laughing, wise, generous, creative, and caring, that we all carry within us. That little boy could have learned to be a wife to that tree. We all could.
This mothering, this loving care, this work of a wife, is God’s work, in and for us. It is in the experience of having a wife, receiving love and care from others, that we learn how God cares for us. And it is in being a wife, to yourself and others, that you share God’s love with the world. God doesn’t do it because it’s God’s least favourite job but it has to be done, all the while carping and complaining, slamming the cupboard doors, then storming off to God’s room and nursing a solitary glass of wine. God is not withholding the best of God’s self for some other, better person that might come along. God knows each of us, inside and out, and finds us worthy of that most precious treasure, God’s own self.