Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Luke 10: 40-41
Martin Helldorfer in his book The Work Trap defines leisure as “a spacious way of living in time.” I suspect that if many of us were honest about our daily lives, we would admit that a sense of spaciousness is precisely what is missing. In our experience work and leisure are opposites. We awaken into an awareness of all that must be done today, and we somewhat compulsively focus on our tasks in the hopes that we might finish them in time to have a few moments to ourselves, or with others for that matter.
Recently I had elective surgery to replace a badly arthritic knee. In the course of the physical therapy, I became aware that whenever the therapist was about to bend my leg so as to stretch the forming scar tissue, I would stop breathing in anticipation of the pain. The therapist would inevitably need to remind me to relax the leg and to breathe. Through this recurring experience I realized that often in the course of my day I am, literally, holding my breath. So intent do I become not only in anticipating pain but in accomplishing a task at hand that I fail to breathe as I do so. It is not only fear of pain but the strain that is part of much of my work that leads me to attempt to control reality by avoiding and dissociating from the truth of my own humanity and bodily life.
Today’s passage from Luke is a very central one in our spiritual tradition. As Theodore James Ryken imagined the life of the brotherhood he was establishing, he hoped it would be a way for his brothers to become integrated human beings, who would come in time to live “the non-dichotomized life of Martha and Mary.” Perhaps his image was much like what came to be practiced, that is that the times of the day would be divided between “religious or spiritual activities” and work. Such a separation, however, is something like taking some time to breathe in prayer and religious exercises and then not breathing when driven by the work or task at hand. It is remembering God in moments of spaciousness and leisure (prayer), and then forgetting God when there was work to be done (by us).
To understand contemplation and action in this way runs the risk of having our prayer as affected by our work stance as our work being influenced by our prayer. Far too often, we go to the chapel for our spiritual exercises and we open the breviary or prayer book and go through the words on the page as quickly, and often as loudly, as possible. We become restless with quiet or with spaciousness in the reading. The dichotomy of our life begins to dissolve but it dissolves in favor of the life of total work. Even prayer is another “thing” we must do.
As familiar as today’s gospel passage is, I found myself focusing today on a different line than usual. I realized that Martha not only complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t working. She also expresses the fear that Jesus doesn’t care that she is doing all the work. In her work, she has lost touch with Jesus’ care of her. Her own concerns and fears about her performance and her resentment at Mary’s lack of help have left her feeling abandoned in her efforts, and probably, at that moment, in her life as a whole. She does not experience love because, somehow, love has ceased to be the motivation for her work. I imagine that, burdened as she feels with the serving, she has begun to hold her breath, to cease breathing in and out the love that sustains her. In light of this, we can ask ourselves, “Are we working at this moment out of and in service to love?” Is it love or is it fear and compulsion that animate our efforts?
In the world of total work, the experience of time is always cramped. There is always more to do than can be done. We are like Martha who loses connection with her own deeper self, with the actual situation in its complexity, and so with God’s care and call. We find ourselves doing not simply what we are asked to do and so what is ours to do, but we are also doing what we are not called and so are not able to do. Much of the stress and strain of work lies in not doing simply and singly what we can in the moment, but trying to do what we can’t. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing reminds us that there is one impulse of grace for every atom of time. In this moment, we are always able to do what God asks of us. It is living in faith that can trust this truth, without anxiety or fear because we cannot do what we are not called to do.
The non-dichotomized life of Martha and Mary is a call to live every moment, at rest or at work, in the trust that all that is asked of us in life is to do what we can in the moment. So much of my own anxiety is the result of deadlines. Sometimes I am overwhelmed when I think about all there is to do within a certain time frame. Strangely enough, as soon as I actually begin the effort, my anxiety dissipates. As soon as I write the first line on the page, my relationship to my work and to time changes. I realize that all I can do is what I am doing. And in this realization, I can breathe and await the inspiration and call to take the next step.
As Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” When we trust that we are doing what we can in the moment, we live our relationship to time spaciously. We act simply and humbly and we await, in a liminal space, the impulse of grace for the next atom of time. In this spaciousness, we know of the Lord’s care for us and presence in our life and in our work. In this way we both serve the world and at the same time remain at the feet of Jesus.
I say truly: So long as you perform your works for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, or for God’s sake, or for the sake of your eternal blessedness, and you work them from without, you are going completely astray. You may well be tolerated, but it is not the best. Because truly, when people think that they are acquiring more of God in inwardness, in devotion, in sweetness and in various approaches than they do by the fireside or in the stable, you are acting just as if you took God and muffled God’s head up in a cloak and pushed God under a bench. Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden. But whoever seeks for God without ways will find God as God is in God’s self, and the person will live with the Son, and the Son is life itself. If anyone went on for a thousand years asking of life: “Why are you living?” life, if it could answer, would only say: “I live so that I may live.” That is because life lives out of its own ground and springs from its own source, and so it lives without asking why it is itself living. If anyone asked a truthful person who works out of his or her own ground: “Why are you performing your works?” and if that person were to give a straight answer, that person would only say, “I work so that I may work.”
Meister Eckhart, Sermon 5b, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A.