By Fr. Humberto Palomino, PES
Our Gospel today brings us the familiar story of Martha and Mary. These women are both intimate friends of Jesus. They both seem to want to serve the Lord, who is present in their home. But Jesus shows a clear preference for one way of service over the other. His preference is for the one “who sat beside the Lord at His feet listening to Him.” [Lk 10: 39] It is a preference for being with Jesus, as opposed to doing something for Him. It is a preference for contemplation over action.
Two Sides of the Christian Life
Martha and Mary represent two sides of the Christian life. We need both contemplation and action…both time spent doing apostolate in the world and time spent in contemplation of the things of heaven. We need both doing and being. But we shouldn’t pretend that these two ways of serving the Lord are equal in His eyes.
The Church teaches us: “It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it.” [Sacrosanctum Concilium] We see that both contemplation and action are necessary, and yet the Church makes clear that “the human is directed and subordinate to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek.” The life of contemplation is a “higher” life because it is more focused on our final end, which is the one thing necessary.
This truth is especially important for us today. Our human nature makes us prone to seek sensory things. And in today’s culture, we are more bombarded than ever with information and sensory images that can make it difficult to seek what is invisible and divine. In each day, there are countless opportunities to do good things. We are surrounded by almost unlimited need. And with good intentions (like Martha), we are in danger of giving in to over-activity. We convince ourselves that it is okay, and even a good thing, to set aside the things of the spirit in order to do the important work of serving souls. But in doing this, we are in danger of falling into an attitude that is opposed to the desires of our Lord.
The True Measure of Success
The enemy of our souls is no dummy! He tempts us with good things…our calendars get filled with very real and important things and people. But these good activities can gradually draw us away from the source and reason for what we do. They draw us away from the life-giving water that Jesus has for us. [See Jn 7: 37-39] All the good things on our calendars can gradually lead to a sense of self-sufficiency, that empties our works of their power.
Efficiency becomes our measure of success. We measure things according to what is external (how much I got done today or whether people think I’m doing a good job) rather that what is most important…the internal. When we go down this path, we stop discerning God’s will, because we are so busy pushing full-steam ahead. We might be seeking to do good things, but perhaps with subtly selfish motives that come from our pride. We want to feel like we have accomplished something meaningful. If things don’t go the way we planned, we get impatient or discouraged, because fundamentally we are seeking our will and not the will of God.
The good things we do are fruitful only if they are rooted in a contemplative life. This means making time each day for prolonged silent prayer, where we can renew our focus on the one thing necessary. It does not mean we will not be busy! There have been contemplatives in the world who have been very active. But it does mean that we will not be guilty of the correction that Martha received. We will not be “anxious and worried about many things,” [Lk 10: 41] but because we have given priority to being with the Lord, we will be focused on the one thing necessary. Only then will our work produce the fruit God desires.