What’s on your list of things to do? Mine includes chores like mow the lawn; power wash the fence and garage; clear the piles of paper from my study. What does your list include? Here are some things that were on Leonardo da Vinci’s list of things to do in 1510: calculate the measurement of the city of Milan and its suburbs; ask about the measurement of the sun; get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal, and mill in the Lombard manner.
How do you move from clearing away piles of paper to repairing a lock, canal, and mill in the Lombard manner? How do you get from being so focused on the ordinary tasks and challenges of daily living that you lose focus on your great purpose in life?
Few of us are here to do great things. It’s more likely that your great purpose in life is to do the smallest of things with great love. In his book The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence wrote, “We ought not be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work but the love with which it is performed.” So maybe the question is: How do you move from being distracted by the minutiae of your task list to choosing the particular small things that you can do with the greatest love of God?
Sometimes the move begins accidentally, when the load you try to carry starts to slip out of your control, as it did for the poor soul in Robert Frost’s poem “The Armful,” and you have to rebalance it.
For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns—
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road,
And try to stack them in a better load.
Or you might do it more intentionally, as in the classic example of trying to fill a jar with sand, pebbles, small rocks, and large stones. Put the sand in first, the small tasks, then the pebbles and small rocks, and there’s not enough room left for the large stones, the high-priority things. But put the large stones in first, then the small rocks, pebbles, and sand, and there’s room for everything.
And sometimes you need to make some radical decisions – de-cisions, literally to cut down or cut away – cutting some things out entirely, like Steve Jobs did when he saved Apple. The company was on the verge of bankruptcy when Jobs was brought back in to save it. Jobs eliminated seventy percent of Apple’s product line. “It’s way too much stuff,” he said. “Apple has drifted away from doing the basics really well.” He focused the company on just thirty percent of its gems. Then he explained why he had chosen to slash the product offerings. It all started with a profound question: “Who is Apple and where do we fit in this world?”
It’s a profound question for any of us. Who are you and where do you fit in this world? You already know where you fit. You fit exactly where you are now. “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth,” Paul told the Thessalonians, “and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
God has placed you where you are so that you would search for God and find God. Don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for in life somewhere else, in some other circumstances. God and the abundant life you seek are to be found exactly where you are, exactly where God has placed you. It’s a matter of seeing what’s right in front of you. Remember what Dorothy learned by the time she was ready to return home from the Land of Oz: “. . . if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”
The question is not about where you fit. The question is why you are where you are. Thomas Merton said, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” No, the question is not, Where do you fit? The question is, What are you living for, and what’s keeping you from it? Listen to your heart, know what your treasure in life is, and make room for it, like the merchant who found a pearl of great value and sold all he had to obtain it (Matt. 13:45-46).
Martha and Mary came face to face with Jesus, the embodiment of the most important thing in life, the full, abundant life for which we are created. They sat face to face with the person who, according to John’s gospel, came that they might have more and better life than they ever dreamed of (John 10:10 The Message). But Martha, “worried and distracted by many things,” could think about only the chores she had to do, while Mary sat and listened with rapt attention to what the Fullness of Life said to her. Mary found what she had been searching for in life, the “pearl of great value,” while Martha missed it even when it came under her roof.
When the Fullness of Life speaks to you, do you sit and listen to it with as much attention as you give to your to-do list, to your daily emails and texts, to Facebook, to the evening news, or to the other worries and distractions that fill your head and heart? What does your heart tell you you are living for?
Here’s some advice from Parker Palmer: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
Make time each day – I do it best first thing in the morning – to restart with a tabula rasa, literally a smooth or erased tablet, your mind in its original pristine, empty state before receiving outside impressions or being acted on by outside forces. Still your mind in meditation. Keep a holy Sabbath, not a day to fill with other things to do but a day to stop and do nothing but celebrate with gratitude what is and listen to your heart, where God still speaks.
“To pay attention, that is our endless and proper work,” poet Mary Oliver wrote. And she asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” What is it your one wild and precious life plans to do with you?