The One Thing Necessary


Judith E. Smith

It began very slowly and quietly, in subtle and almost unrecognizable ways. An experience here and there touched a deep chord in me and made me aware of new longings. The experiences varied—reading the daily office while visiting a Benedictine monastery, hearing a speaker talk about her practice of contemplative prayer, praying the Psalms with friends and then sharing the silence, reading an author who seemed to articulate just what was happening within me. Finally, I began to realize that the common thread underlying all of these experiences was a growing awareness of my hunger for God—a deep hunger that is painful and wonderful at the same time. The psalmist expresses the intensity of the feelings: “My whole being desires you; like a dry, worn out, and waterless land, my soul is thirsty for you.” And just a few lines further: “I will raise my hands to you in prayer. My soul will feast and be satisfied” (Psalm 63:1, 4-5, TEV).

It took me a long time to identify and name the hunger. I knew that those experiences were rich and nourishing, but I could not articulate the reason why. And then, about a year and a half ago, I spent a few days with a small group of people seeking to identify the essentials of monastic experience. The group was made up of monks (that word originally included both men and women, as our group did) and people like me who live and work not in monasteries but in ordinary homes and offices. The conversations we had during that consultation helped me articulate in new ways my longing for God. They also helped me realize that something within the monastic experience responded to and satisfied that longing. My hunger was fed and I was able to listen to God with a deeper inner stillness. When I left that gathering one thing was clear. I wanted to find in my own daily life ways of feeding my hunger. I knew I was not going to move immediately to the monastery, but I had to explore this new awareness and discover what the implications were for my ordinary life.

In the weeks that followed, several themes from those conversations came to mind again and again. The monks had frequently talked about “the one thing necessary,” a phrase Jesus used in Luke’s story about Mary and Martha. In Mary’s attentiveness to Jesus she had chosen “the one thing necessary.” What would it mean for me to have a single focus in my life? How could I, in my busy, over-full life, be attentive to God as “the one thing necessary”? That was hardly compatible with a society whose highest good is “having it all!” The more I thought about it, the more I realized how completely and subtly I had been captured by the “having-it-all” mentality. My version might not be oriented primarily around material goods as some of the Madison Avenue images are, but in reality it was no different. I was going to have a successful professional ministry, be a perfect mother and a loving wife, and be a thoughtful and caring friend to everyone. In my spare time I would be well read and committed to social justice activities. I would give one hundred percent of myself to each aspect of my life. Over the years, as my desire to listen and be responsive to God had grown, I had simply added it to the list. It was one more part of “having it all.”


But now that perspective made no sense. If attentiveness to God was “the one thing necessary” and not just one among many, then something had to change for me. The change had to do with “balance,” another recurring theme in our conversations. Whenever I heard that word, my stomach would tighten. The recognition that my own life was seriously out of balance was not new. Periodically I would acknowledge that and would attempt to restore balance by striving harder in whatever area seemed neglected. For example, if I was pouring the majority of my time and energy in to my job (which I was) and if, as a result, my family was receiving little from me (which they were), then I would pour more energy into my family. I would not, of course, give any less to my job because I did not want my performance in that area to deteriorate. I also knew that the imbalance was not a seesaw with first one end up and then the other. Instead, it was permanently tipped in the direction of my work. Most of my energy was being spent on achieving professional success. I had neglected my friends and was behaving in thoughtless and destructive ways with my family.

I had always pictured myself as a person who could balance all of the components of my life, those elements of “having it all.” I wanted to be known as one who juggled with great skill my family life, my relationships with friends, and my demanding career, to the amazement of those around me. Isn’t that what balance is all about? If one can do everything perfectly, then one has everything in balance.

When I drew apart into the monastic setting, I knew that my attempts to achieve balance were not working, and in the weeks that followed I began to understand why. I was still trying to do it all. My center was not attentiveness to God. What would it mean for me, with all of the competing demands of my life, to focus on “the one thing necessary”? The imbalance in my life was taking a terrible toll on me and on those I love most, but I did not know how to change it. I knew that I longed for God with all my heart. What would it mean to truly seek God as the center of my day-to­-day existence?  I began first to explore ways in which I could lessen my pattern of being all-consumed by my job. Were there ways in which I could increase my efficiency and lower the level of stress resulting from my job in order to have more time for the “out-of-balance” parts of my life? Asking the question that way was a subtle shift for me. Rather than simply increasing everything else to achieve balance, I would try to decrease the time and energy spent on my job.

An Important Shift

It was an important shift, and I worked at it for several months, seeking resources that could help me. But finally it was clear that for me this was not the answer. The hunger and longing in me had only grown deeper, and therefore the frustration and stress resulting from the imbalance had become greater rather than less. I found myself day dreaming about leaving my job and taking a year off to read and pray and explore the contemplative side of my life. A pastor friend of mine was in the midst of a sabbatical year, and I found myself thinking about her and the time of renewal that she was experiencing. Could I do that? My answer was immediate: “NO! You cannot do that. It would not be responsible. What about your family? They depend on your income. Surely you would not ask them to sacrifice so that you could take a year off. God could not be calling you to that. And what about all those people with whom you work? How could you possibly go off and leave them when they are counting on you? The work you do is important. It is God’s work and God has called you to it. You cannot go off and leave it to spend a year doing nothing.”

Sometimes those voices were softer and more subtle and they mixed with the voices that said, “YES! It would be good for you to take a year off. God could be calling you to that.” The “yes voices” were powerful also. They reminded me that my son, Tobie, needed more of me and had verbalized repeatedly the toll that my stress was taking on him. They reminded me that my relationships with my friends were of great value and deserved more attention than I had given them. My husband, Howard, was consistently patient and helpful but often expressed his concern about my growing fatigue. All these voices said that reading and prayer were important and that it would be good for me to take some time for renewal—time to seek God in more focused ways.

But there was one question about which I remained confused: What was it that God was calling me to do? How could I hear God’s voice in the midst of so many competing voices? When it came right down to it, I was willing to do anything—well, almost anything—I believed God was asking of me. All I wanted was to be sure that God was really asking it. But just when God seemed to be calling me to let go of the stress and take some time off, I would begin to think that I was being self-indulgent and that God was asking me to continue no matter how difficult the struggle. How could I know God’s voice? That question became the focus of my struggle. What was God asking of me? The idea of a year off was so attractive and compelling that I described it to a friend as a basket full of ripe fruit. I would sit and look at it and ask, “Could that be for me? Could I really have that? Could God possibly be offering that to me?” And then reality would set in. Could we manage without my salary? It was very risky. My income had been the primary—and sometimes the sole—support of the family for some time. Howard was involved in a new business venture about which we were both enthusiastic, but the income from it was not yet stable. Would it be fair to my family to take such a risk? Howard and I talked about it again and again and finally he said to me, “Judy, if this is what God is calling you to do, then why would we worry about the money?”

And then came the questions about my job. How could God be calling me to leave my job when there seemed to be so many pressing issues needing my attention? With each step that my ministry had taken I had tried to listen to God’s call—from my initial call to ordained ministry right down to this job. I believed that God had called me to this place—how could God now be calling me away from it? And what would I do after the year was over? In order to take a year off, l would have to resign my job without knowing what I would do at the end of this year. How could God be calling me to do this?

For months I struggled. What voices should I listen to? The “responsibility voices” were much more familiar to me. All of my life I had been responding to those voices—voices that had convinced me that surely God would always want me to be responsible. Never had I indulged myself in the way I was considering. A whole year to pray and read and play with my family—to take walks and spend time in silence and listen to God in deeper ways. And then just when I would begin to say “yes” to those longings, the “responsibility voices” would begin again.

Discerning God’s Call

Finally one morning as I was praying, attempting to discern God’s call to me, I found myself overwhelmed by frustration and anger at God. Why was it not clear? I was doing my best to hear God’s call to me and still it was not clear. Should I let go of it all and take the beautiful basket of fruit, or was God calling me to be responsible—to continue to give whatever I could to my work? As I lashed out at God in anger and frustration, I realized something I had not realized before. The issue of responsibility was not the real problem at all. I did not really believe that God was making me responsible for all of my co-workers and the future of our common work. And though it would mean some significant adjustments and taking some risks, I believed that our family could manage for a year without my income. If, as I believed, God had placed in me this hunger, then God could be calling me to this change in my life—to this possibility of seeking God in new and deeper ways. And if so, then God would provide the sustaining power for my co-workers and for us as a family.

How arrogant of me to claim responsibility for that! Suddenly it became clear to me. My real struggle was not the belief that I was responsible for everyone and everything. My real struggle was that I could not figure out any way to tell people what I was going to do that sounded noble and self-sacrificing! I did not know how to tell people that I was going to lie down in green pastures and have my soul restored, because it did not sound sacrificial enough. I did not know how to tell people that I was going to play with my family and take walks and read, because it did not sound productive enough. And I did not know how to tell people that I was going to try to make attentiveness to God the center of my life, because it did not sound like “real ministry.” How could I possibly expect people to believe that this was God’s call to me?

Those were the issues—the ones I could not get past. For years I had self-righteously proclaimed that Christians are not to be captives of cultural distortions which compromise their faithfulness to the gospel. Now I had become just as captive to distortions within the church which might prevent my own faithfulness.

When I finally recognized all of that, the decision was much easier to make. It seemed clear to me that God was calling me not only to make attentiveness to God the center of my life but also to confront my distorted need for the approval of others. I had been holding back out of fear that others would see me as abandoning the servant role inherent in my call to ministry. What I was about to do did not seem sacrificial at all, and I resisted appearing to be self-indulgent. But God was calling me to let go of my pride and my need to have others affirm my commitment and my sacrifice.

And so I have made the decision and I have found in that decision a freedom I had not known before. I have let go of my job, my self-identification with that job, my secure income, and my well-planned future. Those are just some of the things that helped me feel in control—things that I thought gave me freedom.

Deeper Freedom

One of the myths of our culture is that control of ourselves and others is what gives us freedom. If we are in control, then obviously we can make decisions, and that leaves us free. But that is a myth. The paradox is that, as we give up control to God, we actually live in a deeper freedom. The freedom of God may call us to turn all of our most precious definitions of faithfulness on their heads. It may be that the most difficult call for us to respond to is not a call that demands of us great sacrifices but a call that offers to us great gifts. Just as he did time and time again in the parables, Jesus continues to announce to us a new reality and, just as the Pharisees did, we may sometimes allow our religious commitments to interfere with our hearing and seeing that reality.

And so my year has begun and with it my search for a more contemplative way of living, a deeper attentiveness to God. I am seeking an environment that will support my desire to be formed and shaped in the image of Christ. I want to understand those hints I found in the monastic experience and incorporate them into my life.

One thing I have discovered is that the environment must be one in which it is all right not to be productive. I have spent all my life placing a high value on productivity. I want to let go of that and place a higher value on silence and listening and prayer—things that do not appear to be productive.

I also believe that this environment must be hospitable to all who enter it. I want my presence to help create that hospitality. I have usually been able to find the energy to be hospitable to visitors. And when I did not have the energy, I found ways to limit the number of visitors who came. But I have not always been very hospitable to my family, the people I love most and live with every day. My fragmented, out-of-balance self lived more out of hostility than hospitality. I believe that a new attentiveness to the Spirit of God can transform me into a more hospitable and loving person, and I long for that transformation.

I want my obedience to God to be the single focus that orders all my thoughts and actions.

I am seeking that balance in my life which I know can grow only out of a single-minded attentiveness to God. In my schedule I am seeking a balance of work and rest, speech and silence, company and solitude, prayer and action. I feel a bit like a toddler gaining the equilibrium to take those first few steps. Perhaps before long I will have enough balance to begin to walk. I want my obedience to God to be the single focus that orders all my thoughts and actions. It no longer matters quite as much whether it makes sense to the world. I am learning to care more about whether I am willing to respond faithfully to God’s call.

Recognizing God’s Voice

In the third chapter of First Samuel, a story is told about young Samuel and Eli. Out of gratitude to God for giving her a son after long years of waiting, Hannah gave Samuel back to God by taking him to be raised by Eli and to serve God. One night Samuel was lying on his bed, and the Lord called him and said, “Samuel! Samuel!” Samuel assumed it was Eli and ran to him in response. But Eli told the boy that he had not called him and directed him to return to his bed. Again Samuel heard the voice calling, and again he responded to Eli. A second time Eli told him that he had not called. And so Samuel lay down again. The call came to him a third time, and a third time he ran to Eli. This time Eli understood what was happening. He said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. And if the voice calls again say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” And Samuel did as Eli told him.

That is the beginning of the journey—learning to recognize God’s voice. It is not easy for me because there are so many voices and my hearing seems so poor. It is reassuring to know that even Samuel had difficulty distinguishing the voice of God. Because the competing voices are so many and so strong, God’s voice will always be difficult to distinguish unless I know it very well. There are voices that I know well and recognize easily. I know Howard’s voice. In fact, he does not even need to say anything. I can recognize his cough in a crowded room. I recognize it because I know him so well and I have lived with him so long and I love him so much. The same, I believe, is true of God’s voice. I will be able to recognize it only if I know God very well, if I live with God for a long time, and if my love for God is single-minded.

I have only begun to take some very small steps on that journey, but the longing within me is deep and my hope is strong. The God who calls me to begin this journey of transformation is the God who has the power to work that transformation in me.

By Judith E. Smith. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 1988, Vol. 3, No. 3. Copyright © 1988 The Upper Room.