A Martha World
For a variety of reasons, I have been remiss in posting more excerpts from Romano Guardini’s The Lord. The following is one I have been thinking about for several days. It is a reflection on the story of Mary and Martha, and Jesus’ comment that Mary has chosen the “better part:”
Christianity has always placed the life struggling for inner truth and ultimate love above that intent on exterior action, even the most courageous and excellent. It has always valued silence more highly than words, purity of intent more than success, the magnanimity of love more than the effect of labor. Naturally, both must exist; where there is but one, the tension between inner and outer existence is destroyed, and life must deteriorate. If the leaves are taken from the tree, its roots do not save it from suffocation. Both are part of life, but the inner part is the decisive one.
This is not always self-understood. Again and again the man of acton feels Martha’s complaint on his lips: Isn’t the inner life really pious indolence, religious luxury? Doesn’t need press in on us from all sides? Mustn’t the battle be continued until it is won? Doesn’t God’s kingdom need above all selfless labor? Certainly, and the contemplative life does not always preclude the question. Often enough the danger Martha senses has become reality. Much pride, laziness, self-indulgence have masqueraded as ‘Marianic’; much unnaturalness thus attempted to justify itself. And still Jesus word about the better portion holds.
I suspect that many of us will be uncomfortable with Guardini’s defense of this traditional interpretation. It seems an invitation to quietism and religious individualism, although I don’t think that is a fair reading of his intent. With its strong work ethic, the United States has always been somewhat suspicious of contemplation. We often value religion primarily for its practical usefulness. How often do we encounter parents who return to the practice of their faith because they want to instill their children with “values?” I actually suspect that many of these parents are motivated by something deeper than this, but they lack the language to express it.
Frankly, I would settle for a life with contemplation and action in equal measure and never mind the Lord’s words about the “better part.” It’s a sign of how much I live in a Martha world that it took me more than a week after I read this to find the time to post it. Work has been unrelenting of late. We are all trying to be of good cheer, but there is an unspoken fear: if I fail to prove my worth, the axe could fall my way. I have often been coming home too exhausted to do much more than tuck my kids, complete whatever task I’ve scheduled for the evening, enjoy a brief conversation with my wife and then drop into bed.
It would be nice to say that Lent offers an alternative to this, but I’m not sure it always does. One feels obligated to attend some of the parish activities since so much work has gone into them. The difficult truth is that it sometimes Lent becomes less an opportunity for spiritual reflection and growth and more another set of events to schedule. Every year I make the suggestion that we should celebrate Lent by cancelling all parish programming and opening the church for 24 hours a day for people to drop in for silent prayer. No one has yet taken me up on the idea.
We are starved for contemplation the way that our ancestors were starved for food. We complain that we cannot feel the presence of God, but our lives are so filled with noise that he could be sitting next to us and shouting and we wouldn’t be able to hear Him.