A few years ago, my best friend in the whole world got engaged and started planning her wedding. Although she and many of her family members had moved away from Michigan, she still considered this area her home. And St. John Fisher, where I used to work and where our now 20-year friendship began, she considered her home parish, so, naturally, that is where she wanted to celebrate her wedding – which was wonderful…and it truly was.
Now, since I am her best friend, and unlike herself, was still living here in Michigan, my home, at this time of preparation before the big day, was transformed into wedding central. I hosted six people in my home the weekend of the wedding, including the bride – on top of my own family of five.
And I’m not kidding when I say I prepared the house as if Jesus himself were coming to visit. I scrubbed and cleaned like there was no tomorrow. I even took down the curtains to be washed. Now, I don’t know how often you wash YOUR curtains, but it only happens in my house if Jesus is coming to visit.
Now, as it so happened, during this hectic week of preparing my house for this big event, the scripture of about Mary & Martha was read at Mass, and I think it would be fair to say I was in a “questionable” spiritual place because I remember clear as can be, when I heard Jesus’ reply “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her” that my first instinct – in my oh so pious state – was to imagine slugging Jesus right in the nose.
I know, I know – irreverent but true!
Now my husband Kip warned me that I can’t be sexist here, because he pulls his weight around the house. So, before I go any further, know all the gender roles here are interchangeable.
There is a little video out there on Youtube about a newlywed couple. In it, the wife walks in from a long day at work and is kvetching to her new husband – who is relaxing with the dog and the remote – “Why is it my job to prepare the meal?” and goes on about all the other things she needs to accomplish that evening, and the husband replies “Don’t worry honey, it’s all going to be okay.” He has discovered a solution for both of them and he begins explaining to his new wife that since they began living together – the coffee table has become “enchanted.”
In whispered tones, as if he is imparting to her a deep, mysterious secret, he explains to her how it works.
He can leave anything on this “enchanted” coffee table at night, dirty tissues, pizza boxes, banana peels and “whoosh” everything is magically gone and the table is clean in the morning. His new wife just looks at him, astonished, and walks out the door shaking her head, like “wow, I married myself a real nut job.”
THIS is the video that came to mind when I heard Jesus saying “Mary has chosen the better part”…and then I proceeded to rage fold laundry for a few days, in much the same state of mind of the older son who toiled in the fields, feeling unappreciated, as I pondered Jesus’ reply with the same feeling I get when my husband tells me to “calm down.”
A very substantial and serious part of me wanted to say (no doubt in unison with Martha) “Oh yeah?!? Oh yeah Jesus?!? Are you nice and comfortable in this clean house? Are you enjoying this lovingly prepared meal? Do you think this is a magic table?
John Shea says that in spiritual teaching (even from wisdom traditions other than our own) sisters symbolize side-by-side realities that are meant to be together. So, even though Christians are fond of pitting Mary and Martha against each other, the real task is to discover their proper relationship.
Mary represents our contemplative side. She is the dedicated disciple, making time to listen and absorb the teachings of Jesus. Martha represents our outer activity that has disengaged from its inner grounding and has become scattered in multiple tasks, and feels a little resentful about it, like most practical people would.
So, perhaps Jesus is trying to tell us that sitting at the feet of the Lord, spending time in prayer, is one half of the equation that is inseparable from the hard, arduous work of doing justice, forgiving those who hurt us, and being hospitable to those who come to us for food and welcome. Shea says “It is not a matter of which one is more important; it is a matter of how they complement each other. The teaching of the text is about discovering their essential connectedness.”
Martha sees her problem as having too much to do and too little time to do it and this makes her frantic. But Jesus listens and sees that the real problem is her inner state of worry and distraction. This inner state undercuts her actions and makes them less effective. Martha has engaged in all this activity without being rooted in what Jesus calls the “one thing necessary” (or “the better part” in some translations). The “one necessary thing” is our connection to God, who is the ground and energy of effective action…the love that is the bedrock of all meaningful service.
Without this connection, this grounded-ness, we may have clean curtains but we are consumed with worry or indignance which taints our actions with resentment and then the love that is meant to be communicated with all our hard work is hidden and not received by those who we are trying so hard to care for.
The week of the wedding my spiritual director asked “Do you think Martha could ever bring herself to order a deli tray?” to make room for a little time to sit in God’s loving gaze and hear deep in her heart “Everything I have is yours…because you are mine…you belong to me…and I love you.”
May God have mercy on us and guide us in this sisterly relationship within each of us so that we may be effective contemplatives in action, doing the truth in love.