Mary or Martha?

The visit of Jesus to the home of his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary is a challenging and thought provoking incident in the gospel for us. You often hear people ask “are you a Martha or a Mary?” Some say, ”It is all very well Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and Jesus saying she has chosen the better part but that doesn’t put the food on the table.” What Mary was doing was listening to Jesus. Her whole attention was on him. You could say that hers was an attitude of contemplation.

One of my favourite writers is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He died in 1968. One of his earliest book was “New Seeds of Contemplation” which I first read when I was twelve. He writes contemplation is an awaking to a whole new level of reality, which cannot be clearly explained. “It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolised.” There is an obvious tension between action and contemplation in our lives. We need both.

But Jesus said to Martha, that Mary has chosen the better part. It is easy to imagine that action, work, is being down graded by that remark of Jesus. Yet he is reminding us to make contemplation an essential part of our everyday life. To be contemplative is to discover the true God at the very centre of our being and that we are nothing apart from God. With this discovery a new life dawns. We are liberated from selfishness. “The ego-self (which in reality is a false self) is discarded like “an old snake skin” (to use Merton’s words) and we come to recognise our true self which all the while has been hidden in God.” (William H. Shannon).

When we were re-designing the sanctuary in my last parish we commissioned the artist to sculpt Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus on the front of the Ambo (from where we proclaim the Word of God at Mass). Mary was in an attitude of listening. She was being in the presence of Jesus. She was in an attitude of contemplation. Without giving time to being present to God, then we are in danger of living on the surface of life.

Many of us are living active and busy lives but without a time of contemplation and prayer then our life becomes unbalanced. We have a saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Perhaps we need to change this to say “All work and no prayer (contemplation) make Jack or Jill not only a dull person but not truly alive.”

Canon Father Anthony Charlton
Canon Father Anthony CharltonParish Priest