I’ve noticed a somewhat disturbing trend in my own life. In the far too infrequent times when I’m able to get together with family or friends, there’s always the obligatory question of “how have you been?” or “what have you been up to?
And while obligatory pleasantries perhaps merit only obligatory responses, too often I find myself resorting to saying “I’ve just been really busy.” I’ve said it so much that it’s almost a mantra, and, sadly enough, I’ve noticed that most people who know me expect that answer, because not only am I always busy, but of all the things I choose to highlight in my life, my busy-ness seems to be the most prominent.
Of course, our culture is one defined by busy-ness. Not only are our work schedules, life schedules and even church schedules often jam packed with programs, activities, etc., but we even utilize supposedly time-saving devices so as to free up more time so we can cram more things in. We have come to define ourselves by our doing, and in my own moments of sheer honesty I notice that it is sometimes difficult to not be doing, often even to the point of discomfort.
What busy-ness doesn’t leave time for is contemplation, which is a shame, as we are creatures intended for contemplation. Our minds are created to peer deeply into great mysteries, but much of the time we use them exclusively for the concrete, as if the intellect exists only to work or to be distracted or to be entertained. Instead of the the lofty heights that an interiorized solitude can attain, our intellects are mostly chained to the earth, stuck on the mundane or the banal.
In St. Luke’s Gospel is the familiar story of Martha and Mary, two sisters who were disciples of Jesus. As Jesus and his followers are passing through town, these two devout women welcomed Jesus into their home. While in today’s world such a visit might be a reason to clean the house and order in some BBQ, in the ancient Near Eastern hospitality tradition such a visit was a much more involved event. To welcome someone into one’s home entitled that one took the guest’s concern and well-being upon oneself. It also created bonds of obligation between the two.
Thus, there would have been many preparations to make, which is exactly what we see happening as Jesus arrives:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Perhaps this is just me, but I have always sympathized with Martha here. We have probably all been in situations where we feel like the burden of the work or other obligations falls more heavily upon us than upon others, who are blissfully unaware of how much we are suffering because they are not working as hard as we think they should. In fact, it is easy to start to feel somewhat self-righteous; after all, I’m not only doing what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m going above and beyond because so-and-so isn’t carrying their own weight!
And of course it’s easy to sympathize with Martha here; after all, the things that she was doing were things that needed to be done. The preparations did, after all, have to be made, which logically entails that someone has to do them. It is thus easy to feel like Jesus kind-of-sort-of slights Martha here, since Mary really doesn’t seem to be pulling her own weight. I mean, hasn’t every sibling felt this way?
Throughout Christian interpretive history many commentators have looked at this passage along these lines, drawing more starkly the contrast between the outward, busy life and the interior life of solitude, which often runs along the lines of a vocation tho the secular life and that of the religious or monastic life, respectively.
However, it isn’t necessary to see Jesus’ slight rebuke to Martha as excluding the validity of her service. Ephrem the Syrian notes that
Martha’s love was more fervent than Mary’s, for befoe she [Mary] had arrived there [sitting at Jesus’ feet] she [Martha] was ready to serve him. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” When he came to raise Lazarus to life, she ran and came out first. (Commentary on Tatina’s Diatessaron, 8.15)
This is probably an overly charitable reading, but is is undeniable that Martha loved Jesus and truly wished to serve him. But since none of us are only one motivation, Martha’s fervor to serve was also mixed with the altogether natural frustration that comes with perceiving that other’s are not doing what they ought.
If this is the case, what are we to make of how we approach Jesus? Is it an either/or approach, in that only those in solitude from the world with the ability to devote themselves to isolated contemplation are able to have the “what is better” that Mary chose? Does a vocation in the world and all its responsibilities preclude one from this sort of intimacy in contemplation?
It is interesting to note that Jesus doesn’t actually rebuke Martha for what she is doing. After all, those things she was doing were actually needing to be done. Elsewhere Jesus says that
As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. (John 9:4)
Martha’s problem here isn’t in what she is doing. It is rather that she allows her doing to precede her being. She becomes so focused on the doing that needs to be done for Jesus that she ends up pre-empting the most important thing: that Jesus is here. In his outstanding book The Power of Silence, Robert Cardinal Sarah notes that
we should always make sure to be Mary before becoming Martha. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming literally bogged down in activism and agitation, the unpleasant consequences of which emerge in the Gospel account: panic, fear of working without help, an inattentive interior attitude, annoyance like Martha’s towards her sister, the feeling that God is leaving us alone without intervening effectively. (p. 28)
The fruit of this is a rather ugly manifestation of envy for Mary’s vocation. Again, Martha deeply loved Jesus and wanted to serve him as best she could; vocationally, she naturally felt it her duty to prepare her home as best as she could to welcome him as she knew he deserved. But when she sees Mary attending to her own vocation at Jesus’ feet, she is no longer satisfied with her own. Perhaps she wished to be able to be at Jesus’ feet as well, but felt the obligations of the preparations would not allow.
Seeing Mary able to pursue such a vocation- without helping Martha, of course!- may have stung and begin to well up within that sense of self righteous martyrdom. Instead of joyfully accepting her own vocation and pursing it to the full as her way to love Jesus as she was called, she not only failed to live into her vocation, but also tried to bring into question Mary’s. The protests of her activity were serving as a mask for a lack of interior rest.
What Cardinal Sarah is getting at here is that one doesn’t have to be a monastic to choose the better part as Mary did. However, one must become a monastic in one’s interior life. Otherwise the doing will infallibly get in the way of the being, which ultimately inverts the order. Martha had the ability to choose the better part just as Mary did, although for her that would have looked different vocationally. That being said, even in Jesus’ rebuke is a tender calling to Martha:
Christ tenderly invites her to stop so at return to her heart, the place of true welcome and the dwelling of God’s silent tenderness, from which she had been led away by the activity to which she was devoting herself so noisily. All activity must be preceded by an intense life of prayer, contemplation, seeking and listening to God’s will. (p. 28)
Both Mary and Martha wanted to see Jesus, but Mary was the one who actually got around to it. Martha allowed the distraction of her busy-ness and the envy of and frustration with her sister to crowd Jesus out of her house, when her intention all along was to welcome Jesus in. The work is important, of course, and must be done; but even more necessary is the One for whom the work is done. St. John Paull II writes that
Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of ‘doing for the sake of doing.’ We must resist the temptation by trying ‘to be’ before trying ‘to do.’ This is the innermost, unchangeable desire of a monk. But it happens also to be the deepest aspiration of every person who seeks the Eternal One. For man can encounter God only in silence and solitude, both interior and exterior. (p. 28)
This tendency to “do for the sake of doing” is all too often manifest in our churches and the strategies we employ within them. We have become experts at crafting ministries and programs of all manners and sorts, so much so that the church is always open and something is always going on as there is “something for everyone.” And while there is nothing necessarily objectionable about any of this, do our churches ever have the time or the space for prayer and solitude and contemplation? Aren’t we always full of noise and activity in the name of doing something for Jesus or reaching the community? But how often are we actually coming face to face with Jesus ourselves, both in our private interior lives and in our communal worship?
Pope Francis astutely observes:
“in our Christian life too prayer and action are always profoundly united. Prayer that does not lead to concrete action toward a brother who is poor, sick, in need of help … is a sterile and incomplete prayer. But, in the same way, when in ecclesial service we are only concerned with what we are doing, we give greater weight to things, functions and structures, forgetting the centrality of Christ; we do not set aside time for dialogue with Him in prayer, we run the risk of serving ourselves and not God, present in our brother in need.” (Pope Francis, Sunday Meditation, July 21)
The early Christian writer John Cassian recognized that while the works we do are important, they are also fleeting:
To cling always to God and to the things of God- this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. And diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade and certainly dangerous… Martha did a very holy service. Mary, however, was intent on the spiritual teaching of Jesus, and she stayed by his feet, which she kissed and anointed with the oil of her good faith…In saying “Mary chose the good portion,” he was saying nothing about Martha, and in no way was he giving the appearance of criticizing her. Still, by praising Mary he was saying that the other was a step below her. Again, by saying “it will not be taken away from her,” he was showing that Martha’s role could be taken away from her, since the service of the body can only last as long as the human being is there, whereas the zeal of Mary can never end. (Conference, 1.8)
Martha’s works were good, but they are not the end-all of our being or existence. To know God and to love him is, and in this manner Mary chose the good portion. All the good things that we can do are good, but they will ultimately fade and pass away. And in the end, our works are not even our own, but are only good insofar as they are animated by our union with God. To meet face-to-face with Jesus in the interior of one’s being, however, is a foretaste of our eternal life, the essence of our very reason for being.
In my own life I have found this unfortunate inversion to too often characterize my day-to-day life. There are always things to be done, obligations to attend to, projects to take on, and they all clamor endlessly for my attention. It is absolutely effortless to lose myself in my doing, to go days without meeting with Jesus or even giving him much thought, even though much of what I do is ostensibly “for” him. My particular vocation doesn’t involve the sort of solitude I often crave, but in the honest parts of my soul I realize how hollow an excuse that is for allowing my doing to get in the way of being who God ultimately wants me to be. It is sad to say, but I too often trade the savor of what is eternal for the paltry demands of my every day life, refusing to intentionally carve out the space to find rest in solitude and silence and perhaps meet Jesus face-to-face.
It’s easy to make Jesus a part of my life. But he demands to be the center.
We are all called to different vocations, and some involve more doing than others. But as Jesus makes clear, we have to be Mary before we can become Martha. Our doing is meaningless and empty if it is not preceded by meeting Jesus and being at rest in him deep in the interior solitude of our being.