If you hang around Catholic mommy blogs and spend time and women’s retreats, you’ll notice a familiar tone towards the wife extoled at the end of Proverbs. It’s the same tone you’ll hear if, after five kids and fifteen years of marriage, your skin still tells the world you’re twenty-five years old. Your voice takes on the same tone when you apologize for a messy house, only to discover your guest hasn’t dusted since 1995. The tone reveals jealousy and most Catholic women are definitely guilty of tearing down the Proverbs wife to build ourselves up.
Whether we’re reducing her to symbol and thereby making her success as an all-around domestic goddess safe and unchallenging; or cutting and pasting to fit her into the box that most resembles us, we rarely meet her face to face.
The truth is, domesticity is out of favor among Catholic women. We gather to compare messy homes and dissatisfied husbands. We laugh as we talk about how “I run out the door and drive away as soon as he gets home.” We share wine memes and drop our kids off “somewhere, anywhere” for a few hours so that we can “practice self-care” yet again. So when we meet the wife in Proverbs, who “does not eat the bread of idleness” we often see her as a list of all the ways we’re failing our families.
Much as we may want to pretend otherwise, our cultural obsession with self-care is making us less generous and caring, not more. It’s taking us further from the Icon of Wisdom set out in Scripture and embodied in the book of Proverbs.
Holy Wisdom in Proverbs
That isn’t to say the Proverbs wife is just Solomon’s dream girl set down in Scripture for all eternity. Like everything in the Bible, she is herself and more.
The wife in Proverbs is both a prescription for holiness and an introduction to Wisdom herself. The book of Proverbs is full of Wisdom, the grand lady who welcomes us into her home:
Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns;
She has prepared her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table.
She has sent out her maidservants; she calls from the heights out over the city:
“Let whoever is naive turn in here; to any who lack sense I say,
Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!
Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.”(Proverbs 9:1-6)
In Proverbs 9, we see Wisdom as she is seen from outside – hospitable, warm, welcoming, and kind. She is Domesticity and Welcome as much as Wisdom. In Proverbs 31 though, she takes us into her home to share with us her quotidian mysteries.
Too often, women treat our home lives as ‘less than’ but in Proverbs, Holy Wisdom shares her gifts through the domestic sphere. “To him without sense, she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”
The domestic sphere is a touchy point with a lot of us. It’s essential to daily life, so essential, in fact, that “it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public,” (*Norris, Kathleen, The Quotidian Mysteries. 1998.) We’re taught to devalue “the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily.”
The Devaluation of the Daily
Too often, I think, contemporary Catholics focus on the fact that we mothers feel like we’re failing our families, that we’re “not doing enough.
When we feel like this, it’s comforting to negate or diminish the whole-hearted self-giving of others. “She had servants to do most of it. . . .She didn’t have to deal with long commutes and demanding social media accounts.*
They conveniently forget that the Old Testament wife had hundreds of large and small tasks on her plate that modern housewives have never considered. Instead, they approach her with a disconcerting familiarity, tinged with contempt, which allows them to place her most basic tasks in the care of servants, giving her the opportunity to focus on other, less domestic tasks.
However, the Proverbs 31 woman is deeply absorbed in daily things. She immerses herself in the “quotidian mysteries:” fields, lamp-oil, food, wine, clothing, and hospitality. What is it about Wisdom’s concern for daily tasks that inspires her children to rise up and call her blessed?
Perhaps it’s because it is the daily tasks themselves that drive away Acedia – the restless boredom and spiritual torpor that leads to incessant longing to improve without the energy or willingness to act on that desire.
Bringing joy to daily life, instead of seeing herself as a martyr to the needs of her family. “She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue”.
Instead of performing “dry, stale, lifeless” activities, again and again, the woman of Proverbs allows the tasks themselves to become “occasions for renewal”.
When we allow ourselves to look on the Proverbs 31 woman as merely an administrator of her home, instead of a woman intimately acquainted with each task, she loses all merit. She can become merely a means to absorb praise for ourselves – after all, I would do the same with her resources.
Inspiration Not Introspection
If we’re going to allow the Proverbs 31 woman to inspire us, we have to look at her, and not just at the mirror in front of us.
For by me your days will be multiplied and the years of your life increased.
If you are wise, wisdom is to your advantage; if you are arrogant, you alone shall bear it. (Proverbs 9:11-12)
Her list of virtues does not include hours, days, or weeks of self-care. They don’t include hiking trips with friends or time spent journaling in the bath. “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household.” Which isn’t to say that taking time for self-care is wrong, but placing it above care of others creates an unhealthy imbalance. When we begin to ignore the daily tasks in pursuit of “time for me”, we fall into the grip of Acedia.
Our culture’s ideal self … rises above the humble, every day, ordinary tasks”* that define Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. “The comfortable lies we tell ourselves regarding these ‘little things’ – that they don’t matter, and that daily personal and household chores are of no significance to us spiritually – are exposed as falsehoods” in the face of Proverbs 31. Her attention to others declares her a “woman who fears the Lord”.
Our culture’s Acedia is shown in its dismissal of daily things, it’s an unwillingness to give up self-care for the care of others, and its casual rejection of Wisdom who builds her house prepares her table, mixes her wine, and invites us to sit down and learn from her.
What I do must be done
each day, in every season,
Repetitive, unending acts within the home have value. Like liturgy, they raise us up out of ourselves and allow us to make love tangible. However mundane they may seem, “their intimate nature makes them serious and important.”*
The Proverbs 31 woman is a reminder to us all, both men and women, that our faith is not merely intellectual, but inescapably incarnational. It is in the “realm of the daily and the mundane that we must find our way to God.”*
The good wife of Proverbs gives us her advice, “Listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.”