The story of Mary and Martha, recorded in the tenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42), is among the most memorable in the Gospels. Likely, this is because so many of us feel a tension within us that mirrors the dispositions of these two women. This is probably true, all the more, for those of us who are trying to answer the call to holiness while living as lay persons in the modern world. So, spending some time reflecting on that biblical passage reveals some important lessons for meditation, and some practical tips for daily life.
In the biblical episode, we hear first of Mary, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” Then, we hear of Martha, who was “burdened with much serving.” In her burdened state, Martha approached Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care…?” How many times have I felt burdened by serving in my vocation or in apostolic ministry? Have I ever cried out, like Martha, thinking that the Lord doesn’t care?
Each of us could replace Martha’s name with our own when Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” As I sit down to write this, I have recently experienced or am currently experiencing quite a few heavy trials related to immediate and extended family, health, home and vehicle maintenance, and child rearing. I am sure that anyone reading this has at least as many daily crosses to bear.
While we acknowledge the reality of the situations that make us anxious, Jesus’ response recalls two other passages from the New Testament. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself” (Mt. 6:34). And, in his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul exhorted Christians: “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).
St. Paul’s teaching lists “prayer and supplication” as the first antidote for anxiety. Since that phrase is a bit vague, it is necessary to train our brains to pray and ask the Lord to handle our anxieties. One method that has become very popular recently is Dom Dolindo Ruotolo’s Surrender Prayer: “O Jesus, I surrender myself to you. Take care of everything.” Another that has been particularly helpful in my own life is the Memorarae. These coupled together help to reduce my anxiety as I remember that Jesus and His blessed mother are the great agents of grace and peace for individuals and for the world.
Gratitude is Paul’s second antidote for anxiety. Thomas Merton said, “To be grateful is to recognize God in everything.” If I believe in an omniscient, omnipotent God, then I know that He is aware of me in my present state; and I know that He can provide peace in those circumstances. Knowing that reality in my soul, the deepest core of my being, should allow me to express gratitude for God’s gifts, even the challenges. Even if the Lord answers “No,” I can still be grateful because I know that He will provide something better for my fulfillment.
After Jesus’ diagnosis of Martha’s anxiety, He provided her with the prescription for healing and health. He reminded her of the one necessary thing, which was the “better part” that Mary had chosen. He also promised that the “better part” would not be taken from her. When we read and pray this passage, we intuitively know the one necessary thing: it is to be in deep relationship, communion, with Our Blessed Lord. We know that is “the better part” that can never be taken from us by external forces. We understand that we can only lose “the better part” by our internal disposition.
So, in the midst of our busy lives as spouses, parents, employees, basketball coaches, and neighbors, how can we focus on the better part, the one necessary thing, in the midst of all those other necessary and good things?
In answer to that question, I suggest three things. First, I suggest a daily regimen of Sacred Scripture. Whether it is practicing lectio divina with the Mass readings of the day, reading a single book of the Bible at a time, the Bible in a Year podcast, or praying the Liturgy of the Hours, we need Scripture. Specifically, this is because holy writ is God’s word spoken to us, and it is meant to be “living and effective” in our lives (Heb. 4:12). As the angel spoke to St. Augustine: “Take and read!”
My second suggestion is for each of us to find moments of repose throughout the day. Ideally, each of us can have a regular holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. But, on days when that isn’t possible, we need other moments of repose. Such moments might include car rides without radio (or podcasts), a twenty-minute walk around the neighborhood, or short memorized prayers said throughout the day (what St. Francis de Sales called “ejaculatory prayers”). Many people love the Jesus Prayer: “[Breathing in] Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, [breathing out] have mercy on me, a sinner.” Another helpful prayer is provided in Dr. Greg Bottaro’s book, The Mindful Catholic: “Ever-present God, here with me now, help me to be here with you.” Short passages of Scripture can be helpful, too. Examples that people find helpful are Exodus 14:14 (“The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”), Psalm 46:10 (“Be still, and know that I am God.”), and the passage from Philippians quoted above.
Finally, I suggest a daily Ignatian examen prayer. To underscore the point above about gratitude, the examen begins by helping a person become aware of the things for which he can be grateful. Beyond that, the examen provides a great way for a person to catalogue her day considering God’s movements of grace. Via those movements, the examen helps each of us to find “the better part” that stays with us through all of life’s vicissitudes.
While I am not perfect at implementing any of these suggestions into my own life, I find hope in St. Martha’s example. After all, she is a saint, so she must have found “the better part” that Jesus intended for her. I know that these practical ways will help to unburden me, remind me that the Lord does care, and reduce or remove anxiety. All of that will help me to hold tightly to “the better part” that Jesus wants for me.
St. Martha, pray for us who are anxious and burdened with many things!