Martha and Mary, finally reconciled

Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ

My hurried steps, my urge to “get it done quickly,” my impatience standing in line betrays the anxiety I have in taking the citywide Covid tests (NAT). Compulsively  checking for breaking news on my cellphone is another sign that this wave of Covid, the threat of lockdown and the sudden change of the rhythm of life has thrown me “off balance”. These are indeed stressful times.

I believe that stress is also one of the main issues in the story of Martha and Mary in this Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 10:38-42), more than the contraposition between prayer and action. Martha did the right thing: someone needed to work in order to properly welcome Jesus into her home. Mary was not helpful and men are usually useless in these circumstances. Hence, Martha felt the burden weighing solely on her shoulders.

Martha’s temperament might have played a role in causing discontent. She seems like a person who has a strong sense of responsibility and fairness (everyone should do some of the work!), one who likes everything in order and under control. Yet, not even her temperament is the main point of the story.

There are signs that something was not right “inside” her. She seems anxious, overwhelmed, resentful, isolated and unable to control her feelings. All these are symptoms of stress. Stress is indeed something which can affect each one of us, no matter our temperament. When we are stressed out, we cannot truly concentrate on the task at hand, let alone enjoy doing it. We become so absorbed with our negative feelings that we cannot properly assess the situation and easily exaggerate only one aspect. Body and mind are increasingly detached so that we may not feel these uncomfortable sensations. We feel lonely as if no one notices our pain. We are all very familiar with these symptoms.

Jesus did not actually scold Martha. On the contrary, He acted with mercy and in a therapeutic way to heal her unwellness. First of all, he called her name twice, so that she might recollect her scattered self and feel more grounded in the present moment. Then, Jesus spoke clearly but gently to Martha of her present state: (“You are anxious and worried about many things”) so that she might clearly see it. Finally, Jesus showed Martha that there was something in Mary which would help Martha too, if she wanted to find again peace and wellness (“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…”).

What was this “better part” chosen by Mary? Jesus did not explicitly describe it. Yet, the stillness of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, her listening attitude, her focusing on the person of Jesus, all these indicate a person fully grounded in the present moment, her body and soul in harmony, her inner self open to Jesus’ loving presence. It is prayer in the real sense, not as a task to be accomplished or a duty to be performed, but as a “living relationship” (活生生的關係). It is what we call “contemplation”. “Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love” (CCC 2724).

Jesus’ true invitation to Martha is to maintain Mary’s contemplative state even while working and busy with the many issues at hand.

In Asia, we are often exposed to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Doing things with mindfulness means to perform each action, even the ordinary ones, like brushing the teeth or cooking, with the clear awareness of what is happening in the here-and-now, inside and outside ourselves, and peacefully accepting it for what it is. In Buddhism, this is achieved mostly through the practice of meditation and mindful breathing.

In our Catholic tradition, this mindfulness — and the peace which is derived from it, springs from the awareness of being always in the loving presence of God because Christian prayer is always relational. Conscious breathing, the recitation of litanies, or the simple “raising of our mind and heart to God” (CCC 2556) can help us to be “contemplative in action” and not let strong emotions overwhelm us.

The Catechism for instance suggests that “The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always […]. This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus” (CCC 2668), even the chores we need to do at home or at work.

Mary taught me a lesson. When walking to the testing station, I now try to pace my steps more calmly. While waiting in line, I breathe slowly, feel the presence (and worries) of the other people queuing with me, the workers’ tiredness, and say a short prayer for all. When I have this awareness, I experience Jesus and His Mercy all around me and I am at peace. Within me, Martha and Mary can finally be reconciled once again.

(Image: Courtesy of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing)