Probably the greatest of the Greek myths has to be the story of Psyche and Eros. No matter how many times I recall this tale, I am always drawn into the details of the story, feeling deeply for every joy and sorrow of Psyche. I feel her loneliness as she watches her sisters find husbands, but no husband comes to her. I grieve with her as she parts with her family to be left as a sacrifice on the hill for some terrible monster prophesied by the oracle. I am overcome with giddy excitement when gentle Zephyr wraps her up in peaceful sleep and carries her to her new home, where her lover soon comes to be united to her in marital bliss under the cover of darkness. I embrace her joy at finding the husband for whom she longed, but I also sympathize with the fear she feels at not being able to see him in the light of day.
Overwhelmed by the jealous plotting of her sisters, she gives in to her fear and betrays her lover by exposing him to the light of her lamp. But upon beholding him with her eyes, she is consumed by adoring love for him and all fear vanishes. In her ecstasy, she spills a drop of oil from her lamp upon the sleeping god, waking him and exposing her treachery. “Love cannot live where there is no trust,” he said, and flew away from the wretched Psyche. And so Psyche, saddened by yet not dwelling upon her fall, resolves to pursue Eros in earnest. Having seen the god with her own eyes, her former fear is overwhelmed by passionate love and she determines to try to woo the god so that she can be reunited with Him.
After searching throughout the earth and beseeching the gods for help, Psyche decides to go directly to Venus, the jealous mother of Eros. Venus rebukes her for injuring her son but promises that she will train the wretched Psyche in the ways of love. At this point, Venus gives her a series of cruel, impossible tasks, hoping to wear out her beauty and make her less desirable. Because she is so in love with Eros, Psyche willingly subjects herself to the demands of this goddess with the hope that she will get a glimpse of her beloved by being close to His mother.
Lately, perhaps in an attempt to enchant my mundane day-to-day work and life duties, I’ve been reflecting on Psyche’s first task. Venus scatters heaping piles of the tiniest seeds and tells Psyche that she must sort them all by the end of the day. Think about how menial and pointless a task this is, how ridiculous it is that she, the wife of Eros, who has experienced marital bliss with him, has to submit to doing something so ridiculous and undignified. But Psyche is not too proud. She seeks only union with the god of love, and she will embrace whatever gives her a chance to look upon him again. And so she completes the task with the help of the ants, one of the lowliest of creatures, who have pity on her and work diligently to sort the seeds on her behalf. Eventually, after completing a few increasingly difficult tasks, Psyche proves her love for Eros, and he advocates for her to become a goddess so that they can be united forever.
Reflecting on this scene in the context of modern everydayness, it occurs to me how profound is the doctrine of the Little Way. A large part of life consists in doing these menial, never-ending, impossible tasks similar to Psyche’s sorting of the seeds. If you work an office type job, a lot of it is an endless process of sorting files and organizing information. If you’re a teacher, a large part of your time might consist of keeping records of attendance and typing grades in a grade book. If you’re a stay at home mom, those housekeeping things such as doing dishes and folding laundry must be repeated again and again every day without end. Sometimes, we are blessed with the ability to rest in some small fruit of this labor. But most of the time, these tasks are frustrating and feel pointless. They’re the kinda things we find it easy to put off and to complain about.
But what if these menial tasks were not just things we grumbled about and rushed to get over with? What if we could transform these things to be means to our happiness? What if these mundane tasks could be offered as gifts to our Beloved, and bring about our union with Him? If the Little Way of love is real, then our everyday duties can be transformed into offerings of love that please our Beloved. All we have to do if offer up those annoying, repetitive, never-ending tasks out of love for Him.
The Little Way seems too simple, especially to the puffed up ego that would like to be convinced it can do everything all by itself. But if we truly longed for God the way Psyche longed for Eros, wouldn’t we embrace anything that we could do for our Beloved? So, if He says that this Little Way is pleasing to Him, we should run to embrace it. And if we did that, I mean, if we made a mental act of choosing to offer every little deed as a gift to the Lord, wouldn’t those mundane tasks gain a whole new dimension and even delight?
The problem is that we aren’t always blessed with that enchantment and delight, and we may never have it the way we want. And so all of this inevitably feels like a stretch. The Little Way sounds like a nice idea or something we tell ourselves to help us feel better about our mediocre life experiences. But I think if we want to enrich our experiences, if we want to be in love with Christ the way that that Psyche was in love with Eros, we do have to force it. We have to go through the awkward stage of forcing ourselves to give everything to Him. Love is a choice, right? So, if I choose to offer up my mindless, tedious, never-ending tasks out of love for Christ, even when I do not feel it, I am loving Him. And so my endless sorting does not have to be pointless or in vain. Instead, it can win union with the God of Love. Indeed, He promises to make us heirs to eternity and to bring us into union with Him. All we must do is prove our love with the Little Way of wooing God.
I recall this simple, little prayer that I learned from Sister Margaret in fifth grade summer bible school:
“Each thought, each word, each act of mine / Shall be a prayer of love divine. / And everything that I shall do, / Shall be, O Lord, in love for you.”
2 thoughts on “On Psyche’s Impossible Tasks and the Little Way of Wooing God”
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Thank you for the retelling of this myth. I had read and loved Till We Have Faces (C.S.Lewis) without having first read this myth from which it surely sprang…Now I feel like I have a better appreciation of the story. And so sweet the thoughts you bring, how we can love our Lord through the mundane. I think too we need to be reminded we are not earning His love through what we do but expressing our love in exchange for His unchanging everlasting Love toward us…Thank you for writing.