Friday, July 29, 2011

The better part

NOTE: Today's Gospel (Luke 10:38-40) is particularly meaningful to those with a monastic vocation, but it has relevance for all Christians. Listening to it today at Mass, I was reminded of the following reflection I wrote back in August 2005 after my very first visit to Saint Meinrad. While I was here for a few days of retreat at that time, I met with one of the monks here for spiritual direction, and he had specifically recommended this Gospel passage as one to meditate on as I continued my discernment. As I wrote this, I think (with the Holy Spirit's guidance, of course), I was trying to teach myself something.

Our love for God can be more readily stirred if we simply content ourselves to rest in him, in silence and peace. Our own tired attempts at prayer can often end in frustration, and while our Lord certainly appreciates sincere effort in calling out to him, prayer without a heart truly centered on God is simply recitation.

After all, do we really know what to pray for? Only God can see our true needs from the perspective of eternity. Perhaps the better part is being content with listening to what God has to say to us rather than telling him what we think we need.

Jesus imparts this message in the gospel story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42). As Jesus visited her home, Martha busied herself waiting on him and her other guests. Her sister Mary, the gospel tells us, “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” Martha was upset by this, not because Jesus didn’t appreciate what she was doing, but because she felt all the work was left to her, and she resented Mary for it. “Tell her to help me,” Martha says to Jesus.

Instead, as he so often does, Jesus gently turns our weak and limited thinking inside out. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things," he says. "There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Jesus was not criticizing Martha's effort, but drawing her attention to the motivating focus which is essential for any effort. She was focused on what she was doing rather than on the reason why she was doing it--to serve the Lord.

Mary, on the other hand, was completely focused on Jesus, sitting at his feet, listening to him. Her gaze was on Christ, so she was choosing the better part. She was content with simply listening to what the Lord had to say.

In the context of Luke's entire gospel narrative, it must be remembered that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, where suffering and death awaited him. Surely his heart was burdened by this, but also grieved because he knew that many in the world would continue to disregard the salvation he would soon be offering through his death and resurrection. God Incarnate was sitting among the guests at Martha’s house, and so his perspective was eternal. The reason he was there was to restore fallen humanity, yet it had to pain him deeply to know in advance that his gift of love would later be refused by so many, up to this very day.

Considering this viewpoint, which seems more suitable--being fussed over by Martha, or gaining Mary’s full, undivided, and loving attention and devotion? Mary, of course, had chosen the better part.

So it must be with the disciples of this generation. Yes, we have work to do. But we must not forget why we do it – to build up the Kingdom of God for his greater glory. And yet the Kingdom does not depend solely on each one of us. God knows who we are, what we are capable of doing or not doing. He has already won the victory. It is our “task” to simply enter into this truth, to be enlightened and encouraged by his spirit of love.

This spirit is best communicated to us when we engage in silent praise of our Creator and Redeemer--focusing solely on him, letting God's intimate will enfold our hearts.

This is principally accomplished in three ways. First, through Scripture, which invites us to listen with our hearts to God through his living Word. This same Word has a unique message for each one of us -- instructing, admonishing, and comforting us individually through the universal account of salvation history.

Then there is prayer, which is fueled more readily by sincere and ardent longing for God--to seek, know, and do his will above all else. There are distractions to contend with at times, but often our biggest distraction is the one who is praying! We must truly place ourselves in God's presence, listen to his voice, unite our heart with his will, and refrain for a time from busying about. It means emptying ourselves completely so his illuminating light can pour into our souls.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the Holy Eucharist, the Bread of Life, which encompasses all, continually renewing and transforming us, providing the nourishment necessary to hear his voice and follow his will.

In essence, all three of these elements are presented in Luke's account of Martha and Mary. The Eternal Word, Jesus Christ, was speaking to those present. Mary was listening intently, gazing on Christ, praying in purest form in simple adoration. And all of this was taking place at a meal with Christ as the guest of honor, which speaks in some way of the Eucharist that he would later offer in fuller fashion.

So, let us take every opportunity to make ourselves available to Christ, listening intently to what he says in the depths of our hearts while we focus solely on him, transfixed by the splendor that is our God. Then, in Eucharistic fashion, we can go forth from the table, having been instructed and nourished to go about the work God has entrusted to us, with Christ as our inspiration and strength.

Just as we partake of several meals a day to nourish our bodies, so we must regularly replenish our souls by partaking of God's Word, the gift of prayer, and the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

This is the better part, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him in silent praise--in all our ways and through all our days.

Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest
in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.

Psalm 131

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