We have for our Gospel text the very brief and simple story of Martha and Mary. Martha is busy serving the meal and getting things ready for her important guest while Mary sits at the Lord’s feet listening to him. When Martha complains that Mary is not helping to get the meal ready Jesus tells her that she shouldn’t fret so much and he informs her that Mary has chosen the better part.
What Jesus is saying is that spending time listening to him is more important than anything else. These lines are often used when describing the Contemplative Life. To the outsider, nuns or monks don’t seem to do very much; they seem to live a simple but leisured life. While they might do some work such as gardening or writing or looking after the house, they actually spend much more time in quiet prayer than the rest of us.
Most of us are not called to live such a life. We tend to prefer to earn a living and bring up our own families. Often, we have little time to be alone with the Lord. We mostly don’t have several hours a day that we can set aside for silent prayer. We simply can’t find the time to spend several hours in Church each day; we are much too busy with our daily work and the pressures of family life. The shopping has to be done and the children need to be got ready for school; and the house needs cleaning and the washing and cooking have to be done. Once our household chores are out of the way there isn’t much time for anything else.
We might even find ourselves envious of monks and nuns who are living in monasteries where there seems to be plenty of time for reading, study and prayer. We might think that these religious people have it much easier than the rest of us particularly as they are relieved of financial responsibilities and the cares of the world.
Actually though, to live the life of a monk or a nun is not at all easy. It is, first and foremost, a very specific calling. It is necessary to have a religious vocation and it is a way of life to which God calls only a few people. Most of us wouldn’t be very happy living in a monastery, most of us wouldn’t really want to make the sacrifices of celibacy, living life as a single person and foregoing the raising of children of our own.
While the story of Martha and Mary can certainly be applied to those called to the Contemplative Life we shouldn’t thing that it is restricted to just that. Actually, according to me, it is a teaching that applies just as much to the rest of us. What Jesus is telling us is that we have to make space in our lives for prayer and contemplation. He is telling us that being busy about the things of this world isn’t enough. There needs to be space in our lives for God too. There needs to be time for prayer and the spiritual side of things.
We are not merely physical beings who are preoccupied with the world and all that needs to be done. We are actually spiritual beings living in a physical world and indeed when our life here on earth comes to an end we will be called by God to live with him in an entirely spiritual way for ever in heaven. With this in mind we would be foolish to ignore the spiritual aspect of our lives; indeed, the spiritual side of our nature is something that we ought to deepen whenever possible.
Developing our spiritual nature is something that each of us ought to commit ourselves to. Actually, I think that a lot of us haven’t moved on very much since we acquired the faith in our childhood. We are probably praying in exactly the same way as we did when we were at school. We are probably thinking of God in the same way as we did when we were children.
If you think about it the prayers of a five-year old are not the same as the prayers of a fifteen-year old. And the prayers of a fifteen-year old are not the same as those of a person in their thirties or forties. And the prayers of a person in middle age should be different to those of an elderly person. As we change and come to maturity then so should the quality and nature of our prayer-life.
A five-year old has simple needs but a fifteen-year old is more complex and is emotionally much more developed. There is more for them to pray about. Yes, they might need to ask God for different things but they should also be deepening that internal dialogue that we ought to have with God. They should be asking God for help with their feelings and with their relationships and with the choices that face them. They need God’s help to cope with the pressures of living in a family and with the responsibilities that they are gradually acquiring. They need to talk to God about the opportunities that are increasingly being presented to them and the difficulties they might be facing in living in the world of today. In particular, they will want to confide in God their hopes and fears as they may their way in life.
The forty-year old will have other things to pray about. They will be concerned about how to make progress in the world of employment and how to rear children in a fast-paced modern world. They will want God to help them with their relationships and with the moral choices that they are presented with each day. They will want to unburden themselves and entrust their cares to the Lord asking his help to cope with financial pressures and all the other things that preoccupy them. There may also be issues concerning health or the problems of a troublesome child or relative. All these things will form part of their prayer life. And as we get older again there will be plenty more that we need to bring to the Lord in prayer, there will be other concerns that preoccupy us and above all we will be preparing to meet God face to face at the moment of our death.
We can see from this that prayer is a complex business but also that it is something that we cannot do without. We realise that it is something that changes and deepens as we pass through the course of our lives. We come to new understandings and we realise that prayer takes time and needs to include listening as well as talking. We discover that prayer is the proper expression of our relationship with God and that just as with all our other relationships it thrives on trust and openness and love and concern.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket