July 22, 2007


There is need of only one thing. – Luke 10: 42

It is tempting to contrast Mary & Martha in this story & turn this scenario into an either/or directive from our Lord. In point of fact it is never just busyness & getting things done on the one hand & contemplative prayer on the other. Historically, the spiritual masters of the Church have made it clear that BOTH elements are needed for a balanced spiritual life.

Faith without works is empty rhetoric, while works alone without faith is at best self-deception & at worst more destructive than constructive. The trick is to know what the proper relationship between the two is.

Martha’s real problem is not that she has a lot to do & no one to help her, but her inner state of worry & distraction. This inner state undercuts her actions & makes them less effective. But this inner state is not caused by the multitude of tasks, as Martha thinks. Fewer tasks will not make her less frustrated. The problem lies elsewhere, namely, her activity is not grounded in God.

We Americans should be able to identify with Martha easily since we are so “action” oriented. We have a compulsion to get things done. Now, most would agree that the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta is very task oriented. But what many do not appreciate is that Mother insisted that her nuns spend a minimum of 2 hours per day on their knees before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer. She knew that humanistic impulse alone was not sufficient to sustain them in the dirty, exhausting & often thankless work they would have to do.

Even the radical Jesuit firebrand Daniel Berrigan of the 1970’s & 80’s late in life came to the realization that contemplative prayer was vital if social reform were to ever stand a chance of succeeding. Superficial religion often gravitates to the spectacular. The truly extraordinary feat is being in the outer company of people with the inner company of God.

Christian tradition often uses the phrase “recollection” or “contemplation in action,” but this unfortunately suggests a dual consciousness: doing outer tasks while our thoughts are on God. This is not a recommended practice for drivers. What is called for is a critical understanding of divine reality: God is not one more object of human contemplation.

So we do not have to think interiorly about God while doing exterior things. What we need is an inner disposition toward the divine to discern the lure of God in every situation & cooperate with it. God is both inside & outside, a power that sustains everything & a summons that calls us to cooperate in building a just world. I think this is what St. Paul meant by saying “Pray without ceasing.” It doesn’t mean we are constantly focused on some kind of mental prayer, but that our whole life is oriented toward & sensitive to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit in all that we say & do. In short, we are in a ‘listening mode’ for God – the one thing needful in all our frantic activity. AMEN!