The Gospel reading at mass today, was the familiar story of Martha and Mary [Lk 10-:38-42]. Viewed superficially, the narrative relates the concern about sharing the load. Understandably, Martha is displeased that her sister is not contributing to that which needs to be done. The domestic scene will be familiar enough: a guest to be welcomed and nourished; the slow-footed sibling averse to the chores, but first to the fruits of the labours. One is confronted with seemingly polar opposites: Martha, frenetic in her activity; Mary still in her contemplation. But is this accurate?
In the person of Martha and Mary we encounter women of equal faith; after all, this is Martha who would later declare that Jesus's presence would have prevented her brother's death [Jn.11:21]. That being so, what is to be made of the dialogue between Jesus and Martha on this occasion? Is it scriptural support for the proposition that inactivity will always be the better part, or is it something more nuanced? If so, what relevance does it have to us today?
In our present age, activity appears to have become an end in itself. Irrespective of age, or, gender, there is a pervasive pressure to be 'doing'; such that, for many, the prospect of stillness is nothing more than a prelude to boredom. Endless activity: the constant checking of emails, or mobile phones, the texting, the chatting; each has contributed to an environment in which the loss of the electronic device (be it phone or tablet) is capable of generating emotional trauma.
We should not be surprised that this same culture has found its way into the Church and the lives of the faithful. Few will have been spared the intrusion of the mobile phone during liturgical celebrations. Most will have witnessed the determination of family members to take the 'selfie' in church; irrespective of the suitability of the time or place. It is also possible to discern an activity-focus amongst more visible participants. Witness the organist who - at the same Eucharistic celebration -reads the second reading, prayers of intercession and administers Holy Communion.
In each instance, the problem is one of "disposition". Like Martha, the difficulty comes not in the form of the activity, but rather the fact that such activity has reached the point where it defines and burdens in equal measure.
In "Heart of the Christian Life- Thoughts on Holy Mass" Pope Benedict remarked that without Sunday, we cannot live. He went on to pray that:
"[C]hristians of today, will rediscover an awareness of the crucial importance of the Sunday Celebration and will know how to draw participation in the Eucharist the necessary dynamism for a new commitment to proclaiming to the world Christ "our peace"...."
In his "Encounters with Silence" Karl Rahner expressed the same issue with a little more personal urgency. In words which may have resonated with Martha, he writes:
"I should like to bring the routine of my daily life before You, O Lord, to discuss the long days and tedious hours that are filled with everything else but You. Look at this routine, O God of Mildness. Look upon us men, who are practically nothing else but routine. In your loving mercy, look at my soul, a road crowded by a dense and endless column of bedraggled refugees, a bomb-pocked highway on which countless trivialities and much empty talk and pointless activity, idle curiosity and ludicrous pretentions of importance all roll forward in a never ending stream..."
"O God, it seems we can lose sight of You in anything we do. Not even prayer, or the Holy Sacrifice, or the quiet of the cloister, not even the great illusion with life itself can fully safeguard us from this danger..."
On closer analysis, perhaps the gospel narrative presents not a tension between stillness and action, but rather the dissatisfaction we experience when our activity becomes detached from what should be and remain our true purpose, namely: intimacy with Christ himself.
In Lumen Gentium the Council Fathers spoke with one voice on the universal call to holiness and the obligation of all of the faithful to build up the kingdom of God. At the same time, however, a number expressed significant concern for the formation of the laity that they might be equipped to discharge this responsibility by means of witness in their daily lives.
At a time when there is a great deal of discussion within the Church concerning the enlargement of the role of the laity, in order that "priests may be free to be priests", we would do well to call to mind this encounter between Jesus and Martha. Both the sincerity of Martha's request and the directness of Jesus' response ought to leave us in no doubt that what we need is Christ himself; for whom there is not and cannot be any substitute. When the demands of institutional efficiency, financial management, or, the administration of temporal goods prompt us to dissect the character of priesthood we might also reflect on the words of St Paul VI:
"When we consider the Eucharist we are immediately in the presence of a profound theological mystery. We can almost forget that the mystery invests our daily life, our practical everyday life, and that we are enmeshed in that mystical reality. That is when we suddenly become aware of it, we are filled with awe and love and fear."
It is only if we are able to hold fast to this mystery that we too will have chosen the 'better part'.
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.