The feast of St Martha (July 29) is a good day to begin a holiday. I always imagine that Jesus said those words very gently and indulgently to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet only one is necessary.” I imagine him saying them to me now, as I pause for a break. Until you stop, you can’t even hear them.
The real message of the Martha and Mary story is not some simplistic polar opposition between activity and contemplation. Rather, it alerts us to a more subtle temptation, that of seeking to serve Jesus by the exercise of my own activity and plans, by a functionality which misses the point entirely because it is absorbed in its own busy agenda. Instead of drawing strength from the presence of Jesus, it seeks to impress him with my efforts and to value his presence in terms of their success and approbation. As with Martha, Jesus will let me get to the point where I realise that I cannot do it all alone before pointing out that I don’t need to. Until that point, my determination to do it alone renders me incapable of listening.
The beautiful call to share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ is given to a human person wounded by sin. To respond to the call requires constant conversion of heart and true Christian maturity and freedom. This can only be discovered at the feet of Jesus, by giving oneself up to what he wants. My busyness can be the fruit of this – it is supposed to be for the diocesan priest – but it cannot substitute or pre-empt it. I have been reading Cardinal Sarah’s wonderful book, God or Nothing, which is like a clarion call for authentic renewal in the Church. He mentions how, when he was an archbishop in his native Guinea, coping with the demands of office there in the face of a brutal Marxist regime which had persecuted the Church, he instituted a discipline where every two months he would find a remote hideaway and fast from food and water for three days. He says simply: “The Eucharist was my only food and my sole companion. This life of solitude and prayer helped me to recharge and return to battle.”
It is not the exercise of a particular activity which welcomes Jesus among us. The disciple is called first to sit at Jesus’s feet and to listen, to be like Mary and to surrender to the presence of Jesus. The disciple must learn obedience, a listening so real and profound that it becomes the basis for my thinking and my action.
The image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, apparently doing nothing, according to the human logic of Martha, becomes more vital than ever in a digital world in which people seem incapable of being still or present for a moment without recourse to some gadget. In this encounter, Mary is discovering not just who Jesus is, but who she is. She has chosen “the better part”, not in a moral sense, but in a literal sense. She has chosen the more fruitful, life-giving portion of what is on offer. Martha’s busyness is a way of avoiding having to stop and listen, and look within, a very subtle way of controlling her time with Jesus so that she will dictate its terms. Today she might be the person checks their emails every other minute, or who films the Blessed Sacrament procession in order to put it online to show everyone what a lovely procession they went to, or who stands at a holy shrine and takes a selfie. These are all failures to be present to reality, to dare to let it act on me. Instead, they are Martha-like attempts to avoid an encounter with stillness, with passivity which becomes receptivity.
Cardinal Sarah says he learnt just this lesson, the need to be “alone with the Alone”, from the Holy Ghost Fathers, the missionaries who came to his village. “The most important moments in life are the hours of prayer and adoration,” he says. “They give birth to a human being, fashion our true identity. They root our existence in mystery.”
Adoration, rooting our existence in mystery: this is what it means to sit at the Lord’s feet, where our authentic humanity is to be recovered and where we are to learn the source of true renewal. “Prayer is always the first thing. Without the vitality of prayer, the priest’s motor and that of the Church idles as a result.” So I will take Cardinal Sarah, or at least his God or Nothing, away with me for a rest.