This Saturday, we celebrate the feast of St. Martha. Since I am named after both Martha and her sister Mary, many priests, upon learning my name, teasingly ask me if I have a split personality. They are, of course, referring implicitly to the different responses of my patrons to Our Lord — Martha serving Him frantically, while Mary prayerfully sits at His feet. However, once I received a much more favorable response from a priest: “Oh, you have both of them. It’s like Mary!” This priest recognized that the action of Martha and the contemplation of her sister are not opposed to each other; in fact, they are present in perfect balance in the sinless Virgin Mary.
That all sounds lovely, but what impact can it actually have on our lives? Is a balance of contemplation and action even possible in our busy world today? There is so much to do to serve the Lord and the Church that people even sometimes say, “Well, my work is my prayer.”
While it is of course important that we serve the Lord and His people, it is not enough for us simply to “do things” for Him. It can be so easy for us to get caught up in our various ministries that we forget why we are serving. And yet, perhaps some of us, rather than simply forgetting, were never really clear on that reason in the first place.
Recently, I learned that many people in leadership roles in their parishes are surprised to hear that they can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I was shocked to discover that even those whose job it is to work as leaders in our churches often do not have a concept of the very reason our Church exists — the Person of Jesus Christ! How sad to think that they do not know, have not encountered His personal, intimate love for them! And when the infinite love with which He loves us personally is not the center of our lives, frantic action “for Him” or “for the Church” easily takes center stage and blinds us to His mission that He has entrusted to us.
The Archdiocese of Detroit is known throughout the country as being a leader in the new evangelization. But how can we evangelize if we are not ourselves first evangelized? And this is not a one-step process. A teacher I had in the novitiate informed us that her mother used to tell her repeatedly growing up to “evangelize yourself.” The encounter with the Lord that is evangelization must occur continuously in our lives. Hence, the absolute necessity of contemplation.
“You can’t give what you don’t have” is a phrase we often repeat at the convent. It is not just that we must learn about the Faith during our initial formation in order to be able later to teach it to others. Rather, if we are not constantly receiving from the Lord in prayer, the well will run dry, and we will have nothing left to give. While it is important that the spirit of prayer enter into our work as well, we know that we must have time set aside for the Lord alone to sustain us; we cannot serve His Church without this continuous intimate union with Him in prayer.
Martha was not wrong to serve the Lord, but when she allowed her work to keep her from recognizing “the one thing necessary,” she was filled only with anxiety and worry. If we are truly to serve the Lord and His people, we must give contemplation the primary place in our lives, allowing our action for Him to flow from that life of prayer. Otherwise, we, rather than Christ, will eventually end up being the center of our work that we claim is for the Kingdom. May we, following the example of the Virgin Mary and all the saints, never allow our work to take the place of Our Lord in our lives.
Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.