For a moment — okay, many moments recently, perhaps — I had begun acting more like Martha, Mary’s sister, from Luke 10:38-42.
Never before had I identified so much with the sister who was busy playing hostess. I was usually the little sister, more interested in listening at the Master’s feet, mesmerized by his every word.
I can easily recall those summer nights with my dad on stools in front of our house, contemplating the world together through the patterns of stars in the black sky, or the pear-shaped tree across the way that reminded us of Big Bird from “Sesame Street.”
I was the one more drawn to conversation than preparing food trays for guests, and yet I couldn’t deny it now. I had become, recently, much more like Martha.
The revelation happened while in the middle of a study I was helping lead on Elizabeth M. Kelly’s book, “Jesus Approaches,” which offers spiritual insights on women in the New Testament; a study rich, and richly revealing.
Kelly explains in Chapter 7 that work is part of the way in which we image God, and participate in his divine life. Even “the most tedious or tiny works such as changing a diaper or bedpan, washing the clothes, or making the meal” qualify, she says. Given these insights, “Clearly, Jesus was not opposed to (Martha’s) good works,” she points out.
Rather, Kelly says he was challenging her worry and distraction. “At least for a moment, she lost sight of eternity. She took her gaze off Christ and serving him through this charism of hospitality…”
Again, Kelly emphasizes, “distraction and worry…stole her focus,” not the good works themselves, adding, “Distraction and worry stand in direct opposition to the message of the Gospel.”
Kelly suggests we all fall into this trap at times, and this example is a summons of sorts “to guard against anything that takes us away from an eternal view: comparisons, judgment, distraction with passing things, worry that is ‘out of order,’ particularly the fear of what others think.”
I was guilty of such diversion. For days, I’d been distracted and worried, even becoming susceptible to worrying about what others think, despite having learned many times in my life that the only One who matters in this regard is Jesus himself.
Kelly suggests that in some ways, our world has purposefully wooed us into this state of being. “Worry and womanhood seem to go hand in hand, thanks to all the responsibilities that we have taken on and that have been entrusted to us.”
And so many of the problems we’re experiencing right now point to a widespread deficit of time at the Master’s feet. “We’ve lost our natural ability to serve in a recollected way and perhaps to recognize the proper time to sit at the feet of all wisdom and listen…”
I recognized my fault even as I read these words, but along with that, the divine provisions that had been set before me in advance. For I had arranged a visit at a nearby monastery to complete some work, and, as the distraction and worry seemed to be exacerbating, the timing of this reprieve could not have been better.
God knew. He knew of my distraction and worry. He knew of my need to “come apart,” as the sisters of Carmel say, and sit at his feet for a while; to return to my more normal status as Mary, the one happy to leave the cares of the world behind to recollect, rest, and to hear the only voice that really matters.
And it wasn’t just for me. “When solitude loses its pride of place in human experience, all human experience suffers,” Kelly notes, reminding me that the peace I find at Carmel is meant to be brought back to the world and offered to family and friends waiting back home.
In other words, it’s not selfish to find a way to recollect, whether spending time at a monastery or a corner of the public library (when that option becomes available), or before the Blessed Sacrament. Whatever “Carmel” we can find, it’s worth seeking it. Not just every once in a while, but every day, in some amount.
Kelly says it’s not always easy, that “the battle to keep eternity in its proper place against the demands of a distracted world” is “real and formidable.” But we need to try; to accept Jesus’ invitation to what she calls a necessary and “radical reordering.”
If we don’t, we will be susceptible to losing sight of eternity — something we simply cannot afford.
At Carmel, I was able to place my gaze back in the proper place, thanks be to God. Now that I’m back, I must seek a little Carmel every day, somehow, some way.
Q4U: Where is your ‘Carmel?’