A Jesuit Brother’s Loving journey into Catholic Spirituality.(3) Navigating the Martha and Mary Spectrum
.In the last entry, I spoke of a shift in my disposition inspired by my time in Tertianship (the last stage of Jesuit formation before final vows).
What I felt more deeply during that time was that learning to carry Christ’s love in my heart is a lifelong journey. I’m still integrating how to live this love in the ordinary events of my day. Lately I’ve noticed that this love is something that draws me out of myself. It’s calling me to be actively engaged with the Church and in the world. I’ve been waiting a long time for this inspiration to take hold of my life. It’s exciting!
The problem is that my newfound inspiration clashes with some of my deep-seated personal habits. I’m not naturally the type of person to ‘go forth and engage’ with the world. My natural disposition is to take a supportive, prayerful, observant role. On the Martha-Mary Spectrum…I’m a Mary… Let me explain.
The story of Mary and Mary comes from Luke chapter 10 (v 38-42). Two sisters receive Jesus, his disciples and others as guests in their home. Martha is a dutiful hostess who gets to work in a heartbeat and attends to her guests. Mary is expected to follow her older sister’s lead, but something unexpected happens: Jesus enters the room. She is immediately mesmerized by his presence.
The moment he begins to speak, Mary is captivated. She joins the men and listens attentively to his teaching Martha labours, Mary sits listening at Jesus’s feet. Martha expresses her frustration about her sister’s lack of faithfulness for her responsibilities to Jesus. And then we get that famous and enigmatic line from Jesus, “Martha, 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.”
Mary’s role in this narrative gives me a lot of consolation. In a world that champions hard work above all else, it’s refreshing that Jesus acknowledges and celebrates Mary’s contemplative disposition. She reminds us of the importance of being still and opening our hearts to God. Her simple act of devotion also warms my heart. It reminds me that simply being authentically present before the mystery is all God really wants from us.
On the other hand, I know many people hear this Gospel passage and think to themselves: ‘I don’t know what Jesus is going on about. We need more people to be Martha like in this world’. It’s hard to argue with that. Especially in the context of this story. Without the presence of Martha, Jesus and his friends could not be hosted. Martha’s work is crucial to the scene.
Through this Gospel story, we are reminded to celebrate both. Society already knows how important Martha’s role is. Jesus affirms Mary’s choice, no matter how unconventional that choice may be. He is not concerned about whatever social norm she is breaking. He only sees a woman deeply grateful for Jesus, who is eager to sit at his feet and learn from him.
She is a great role model for me. I can’t claim to be perfect in my own contemplative practices, but my tendency is still to sit and listen to God rather than to go out and act on what I’ve heard. This is a tension that appears to be very present in the history of Catholic spirituality.
As I’ve learned in my readings, many saints have proclaimed that Mary’s way is the ideal to strive for. Even in our times, many would argue that to be better Catholics, we need to channel our Inner Mary. But we can’t ignore that, there are other saints like St Francis, St Ignatius, and St Teresa of Avila among others who have used different language.
They spoke about the unitive approach where both dispositions could be held.
I can hear some of you say, ‘well there you have it. Tension resolved. Move on with your life already.’ Oh, I wish it could be that easy my friends!
In essence, I do subscribe to that unitive way. Nowadays, I could even speak of a greater confidence in the steps I take with God by my side. If there’s tension left over from processing this famous dichotomy, it’s that I don’t always know how I’m supposed to be more focused on ‘doing’. I’m prone to overthink how to integrate both in my life. Such a process can be overwhelming.
To resolve that tension, I need to remember the Gospel contemplation prayer I had with the Holy Family during the Spiritual Exercises. Praying with the Matthew and Luke account of the birth of Our Savior, I was caught off guard at the frustration I felt that there was nothing I could contribute to this story.
It’s at that point that St Joseph, in a Mr Rogers kind of way, approached me and said ‘Thank God you’re here. What a wonderful presence you bring to this journey.’ I was moved by those words, but I also argued that others could probably be more of service than I. I eventually said ‘I’m sorry I can’t contribute the way others might be able to’. Even in my prayer, I carried a sense of shame within me at that moment.
Joseph would have none of it. Neither would Mary. His gentle and affirming voice, and her loving smile told me all I needed to hear: that my presence, although a quiet one, was greatly appreciated. They insisted: ‘What you can ‘do’ is be yourself with us. We wouldn’t dare ask for more than that. You simply being here means the world to us.’
This was a perfect message to meditate upon during the Christmas season. I still have much work to do to integrate that message more fully in my life, but I’ve learned that I’m not alone. Most people of faith resist God’s deep love for us in one way or another, and most of us need to have our hearts softened.
I pray that all of you, may develop an ability to hear the loving voice of the divine in your life. May the God of love and hope help you find your way to a more unitive approach to spirituality. May this spirituality help you embrace both the labors we are called to do, and the moments of silence and tenderness we can experience before God.