Martha or Mary?

(Today I offer you my first guest post. I am grateful and quite humbled to be hosting Catholic Sensibility this week.)

Last week someone mentioned to me that they dreaded this weekend because they could not bear to hear another “stupid Martha and Mary” homily. While I don’t feel quite that strongly, I can understand where they were coming from. Some of us are weary of lining up on either side of the Martha/Mary divide.

st-martha-and-st-maryAs a woman with an active life in the Church, I am often asked the question, “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” As a woman with strong feelings about the either/or and both/and of faith, I think that it is a challenge to hear another Martha or Mary question.  Must I be kneeling at the feet of Christ alone, or simply running myself ragged in the kitchen?

Forgive my tone, but it is frustrating to hear the pigeon-holing, even if it is offered with the utmost kindness and curiosity.

A little over 1o years ago I created an online screen name for a dating site. At 45 I was pretty certain that this was the way to go. Trying to be clever, I came up with “Busy Girl On The Go.” Frankly, I was a bit too amused with myself with that one. *shudders* Oh well, it seemed apt enough; I was nearly always traveling for work in those days, frenetic as all get out, going here and there with my body. My heart it seems, was as scattered to the four winds as well.  I felt very productive and accomplished, but sometimes resentful. Very Martha!

Oddly enough, my single state also brought me no shortage of time alone as well. Many a weekend found me holed up in my house, reading, working in my garden, and then reading some more. I would go to the gym or to exercise class, sometimes I would take very long walks. It was all very restful and contemplative, very quiet and peaceful, very connected to faith. Very Mary!

Martha and Mary were like two poles in those days, with me leaping from one back to the other. I suppose that if asked the dreaded question at that time, I would have favored Martha on the surface, but longing to be more Mary.

Today I am married and what a completely different existence I live! (No, we did not meet online with my cute moniker as the allure.) Things are busy now, but in other ways, minus the travel. My alone time is greatly reduced, but much richer than it was. Very Martha and Mary all at once, the great both/and.

God calls us to many things. We each have different gifts and it is easy to line up according to those gifts, designating ourselves as Martha or Mary, and moving on. The homily that I just heard on this text has given me reason to think more about this story and about who we are. Must we take a side? And if so, how can we not want to see poor Martha in another light.  How easy it is to get lost in being “busy” which translates into being productive. Is there a more American virtue than productivity? We love that one, and how we disdain the lazy!

Somehow “busy” can become not the new black, but the new holy. Some of us are busy doing good works, not stopping to reflect. This is not done with a poor intention for the most part. We just have to watch our ego however, which might feel a bit too good about all the items checked off our list in the name of God. Contemplative time, the great “do nothingness” of it all, can seem suspect. Are we really listening to God? Or are we being lazy, hoping that Martha will get on the stick and cook us some dinner?

And I know that for me, there is a manic element to this. What I might try to see as my contemplative time is really another bout of ennui or some kind of acedia. Not that this is all bad either; sometimes the field must be left fallow. Perhaps it is that very thought that is at the heart of the Mary part for me.

This may be when Jesus addresses us all, as he does with his disciples in Mark 6:31, when he said:

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”

Note that Jesus does not say to stop doing things altogether; he says to “rest a while.”  Jesus never told Martha to stop cooking either, did he?

How can we know the fruit of work without the fruit of being in contact with God? The mystics among us can perhaps do or be both at once it appears. I do think that for most of us, for men and women, for Marthas and Marys of both genders, we are called to balance. And all the work in the world cannot be balanced without that deep and intimate contact with God.

To find that connect, perhaps we need to find ourselves sitting at the feet of Jesus, truly listening. Mary understood that, and I would like to believe that following that encounter, Martha did, too.

Today, like every other day, will find me negotiating the sometimes serpentine pathways between my Martha and my Mary, but both women are present, right there with the Spirit. All that any of us can do is to be tuned into whatever prompts we get from God, knowing when to work or sit, trying to cooperate. How easy that is to say. How hard that is to do.

I think of Todd on his retreat, wishing him all the Mary time in the world, finding refreshment and peace, sitting at the feet of God.

About Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

Pilgrim, writer, speaker, retreat director, social media minister, church secretary - it's hard to believe I was once a corporate executive, but I was. Married to an incredible man, have a spectacular stepdaughter, dog and cat.
This entry was posted in Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, Guest Writers and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Martha or Mary?

  1. Michelle says:

    “How can we know the fruit of work without the fruit of being in contact with God?” Indeed!!

  2. Dale Hartnett says:

    Note that the ancient phrase is “ora et labor” not “aut ora aut labor.”

  3. annette says:

    I am not sure if you are familiar with Joanna Weaver’s “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World” but I ran two book groups on it that spanned 6 weeks each. Talk about being tired of hearing about it anymore!!! OY! It got old. So with you on the pigeon-holing!

    What my pastor talked about today was hospitality and how it presents itself. Martha and Mary were both taking measures to be hospitable. I always hear a chuckle in Jesus’s voice when he says, “Martha, Martha…” this is Martha’s personality. I have family members and friends like that. I can sulk when I am in the wrong mood and want to play and not work. I actually like this passage not because it tells me that sitting at the feet of Jesus is the place to be (very affirming to a Type B- personality! ha!) but because it feels so familial. A view into an intimate relationship. I feel the friendship and love and I see the eye-rolling, if you will, that takes place in any family or close friend circle. I think it is lovely and accessible. Thanks Fran!

  4. LIam says:

    Also instructive is the pericope from John’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus. Martha goes to Jesus, and makes one of the greatest statements of faith in him that exists in the Gospels (“But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” – so much is contained in those three little word – “But even now” – followed by ““I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” and “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”)

    Jesus has to summon Mary through Martha to come to witness the raising of Lazarus.

  5. Jim McCrea says:

    Fran: welcome! Glad to see you here.

  6. Don says:

    Hi Fran,

    Could you tell me who the painter is of the Mary/Martha icon? It’s beautiful and I was wondering if it was modern or classic?


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