Several years ago, I preached a homily on the importance of taking our self-image from who we are rather than from what we do. The Gospel passage for that Sunday was the famous incident where Mary sits at Jesus' feet, seemingly doing nothing, while Martha is consumed with the practical business of doing things. Jesus, as we know, tells us that Mary "has chosen the better part."
This has long been a favoured passage for anyone trying to make the point that being is more important than doing, that our value lies in who we are and not in what we do, and that spiritual maturity lies in appropriating this important truth.
Not being satisfied simply with referring to the Gospel, I quoted passages, as well, from Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier to support this insight. How could one be on safer ground?
No ground is safe. After the liturgy a man came up and made this comment: "I don't want to argue with you that being is more important than doing, but have you ever noticed that the people who say that are invariably persons of great achievement.
"Isn't all of that a little easier to say if you are Mother Teresa and have just won a Nobel Peace Prize, are the most famous woman on earth, and get to fly all over the world and be admired by people? Or, if you are Henri Nouwen and have just published your 38th book and virtually every spiritual group in the world is trying to get you to come and speak to them, isn't it a bit glib to say that achieving something isn't important?
"It's easy to say those things when you have already accomplished some things and everyone knows and admires you. But what about us nobodies who have never achieved anything of notice, how do we feel good about ourselves?"
This is not facetious comment. The objection this man raises helps highlight a too-common fault in our preaching and teachings, namely, we have been too simplistic in saying that achievement is not important without differentiating between the first half of life and the second half of it.
Ultimately, what we have taught is true. At the end of the day we must take our identity, self-worth and meaning from who we are, independent of what we do or have accomplished. But that is at the end of the day. At the beginning of the day, in fact for the first half of our lives, it is not so clear-cut.
There are some different spiritual rules for the first half of life than for the second.
Before we reach the age of 50, a certain amount of doing and achievement is important. How can you give yourself away in self-donation if you do not have a healthy sense of self? And how do you get a healthy sense of self? Very few of us have been so perfectly loved and blessed that we feel worthwhile, lovable, confident and beyond our own need for affirmation even when we are unable to do things that bring us respect and admiration.
Moreover, as the parable of the buried talents makes clear, anyone who does not use his or her God-given talents to the full should be prepared for some unhappiness.
Thus, there is a season for doing, for using one's talents, for taking some sense of worth from what one does. There is a time when doing and achieving things can in fact be very positive spiritually and when telling somebody that doing is not important can be harmful.
An insecure, 20-year-old is not yet ready to be Mother Teresa; nor, at this point, is God necessarily asking her to be Mother Teresa. The spiritual rules are slightly different for the young and insecure than they are for those of us who are in our middle or later years.
When a young flower is still moving towards full bloom one must be very careful with the pruning shears – and with what one preaches.
But the reverse is just as true. After 50, during the second half of life, the major spiritual task is that of letting go, of moving towards taking one's sense of self-worth from what one is rather than from what one does. Achievement then is often more of a spiritual hindrance than an aid.
It is at this time in our lives that we must recognize that the Gospel passages about letting go are speaking about us, post-bloom. After 50, the spiritual and psychological pruning shears have to come out and much of what we took meaning from before has to be cut away.
But timing is key. A tree can be pruned too early or too late. Before 50, some of our self-image will necessarily come from what we do, and this can be spiritually healthy. Post-50, the rules change and so too should our message of challenge.