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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'sdefense 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 oftenvalue religion primarily for itspractical usefulness. How often do weencounter parents who return to the practice of their faith because they want to instill their children with "values?" I actually suspect that manyof 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 readthis 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 takenme up on the idea.We are starved for contemplation the way that our ancestorswere starved for food. We complain that we cannot feel the presence ofGod, but our lives are so filled withnoise that he could be sitting next to us and shouting and we wouldn't be able to hear Him.



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Nice post, Peter. You sound sleep deprived. Take the Dateline DWD test. Guardini notes the dangers of the Mary life while still giving it the edge. This story is oftentimes misunderstood just as the Prodigal child is. (Now s/he gets all the attention while I was always faithful) I believe Jesus is warning about frenetic work without prayer rather than opting for the contemplative. Even Merton got dissatisfied as the years went by. Jesus, decidely was not a contemplative. Nor a mystic for that matter. Even Theresa of Avila who seems to be cited most as a mystic was quite active. We can and should pray everywhere. Pray constantly as Paul advises. Forgetting God is the problem not entering a basilica. "The kingdom of God is within you."But there is not enough community prayer. So perhaps getting a group together for an hour a week, more or less during Lent might be the suggestion.

Excellent reflection by Guardini, and also by you, Peter.I'm a person of action. Were I to join a contemplative order, I would be bouncing off the walls within a day.Yet ... one of the disciplines the church gently insists I do is liturgical prayer twice a day. Ironically, even though this prayer is public by its nature, I'm in the same boat is a goodly percentage of folks who tackle liturgy of the hours, in that I almost always pray it alone. (I would add "... and silently", but I confess that I chant the psalms and canticles aloud - I'm sure my wife and kids are rolling their eyes). These truly are "hinge moments" for my day. It's a chance to let the words of God roll over me and seep in through whatever cracks I've left exposed in my outer shell. And it really does make all the difference for me.

Thanks for the post Peter. I think it is problematic for unnecessaryand falsedualisms to exist, especially as it concerns contemplation and action. One of the challenges the church is going to have to face is improving (or even creating, as Nicholas Lash points out in Theology for Pilgrims) adult education for Catholics, so there can be a movement towards balancing the two.

Thanks for your post, Peter. It was a good reflection for Lent. I would like to add two of my own personal reflections. First, I had always interpreted the work that Martha was doing in the passage to be that of busied preparation of dinner and home for their guest. I think about my own experiences of hosting guests, and often being more preoccupied with how everything looks and the impression that people will take away from the food, accommodations, etc., than with spending valuable time speaking, listening, and developing relationships. The latter are about welcome, invitation, and love; the former can be largely about unnecessary preoccupations and pride. I think that if Marthas work is imagined in this way, Jesus praise of Marys willingness to sit and listen makes more sense. Second: listening, learning, and prayer are not passive activities. In my experience, a person who is fully engaged in conversation or earnestly attempting to speak to God is in fact very active. The line between action and contemplation is much more blurry than that.

Thanks for this post, Peter. In the Gospel Jesus doesn't tell Martha, "Mary has chosen the best part." Jesus says, "Mary has chosen the better part." Jesus was not criticizing Martha. It is not about Mary OR Martha. In the Gospel of John, we learn that these sisters summon Jesus to Bethany because their brother Lazarus is sick. However, Jesus takes his time going to Bethany and Lazarus dies. It is Martha who takes Jesus to task and scolds him, "Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died." It is also to Martha that Jesus reveals his true self, "Your brother will rise again...I am the resurrection and I am the life."Then amazingly Martha tells Jesus, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." Martha has gone beyond her former anxieties and has embraced the better part. She was teachable and able to respond to Jesus with a desire to deepen her faith. Martha has become a strong woman who cares about the world, loves being alive and has a desire to be with Jesus.

"Men and women of faith who pray--that is, who come to a certain assigned place, at definite times, and are not abashed to go down on their knees-will not tarry for the cup of coffee or the newsbreak or the end of the movie when the moment arrives. The habit, then, hasbecome their life. What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named; they are the Lord's. Life's fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularityand repetition are also teachers. Divine attentiveness cannot be kept casually, or visited only in season, like Venice or Switzerland. Or, perhaps it can, but then how attentive is it? And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us."You, too, can be carved anew by the details of your devotions."~ Mary Oliver

Michael, thank you for that quote by Mary Oliver. I feel bolstered in my habit.

"Frankly, I would settle for a life with contemplation and action in equal measure and never mind the Lords words about the better part.Never mind the Lord's words -? Curious notion.

Silent prayer ..... AND possibly the only sufficient meal some might have in the day?"Unless you hear the mouth eating, you cannot hear the heart crying." Rwandan proverb.

Jim P, I am glad that Mary Oliver's words have bolstered your habit. She along with Kay Ryan and Christian Wiman are some of my favorite poets. This is off topic but one of my favorite Oliver poems is Wild Geese: Wild GeeseYou do not have to be good.You do not have to walk on your kneesfor a hundred miles through the desert repenting.You only have to let the soft animal of your bodylove what it loves.Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.Meanwhile the world goes on.Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rainare moving across the landscapes,over the prairies and the deep trees,the mountains and the rivers.Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,are heading home again.Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,the world offers itself to your imagination,calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your placein the family of things.

Gabriel, if you're going to be deliberately insensate to irony, I'm just not sure what more I can do with you.

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