Nothing on our spiritual journey is ever final; it is an ongoing process moving us deeper and deeper. It is a continuous change and movement from what is good (that place where most of us live, desiring to love and serve God) to what is better (an open and intense desire to hear God) to what is best (when all of our prayer becomes service and all of our service becomes prayer). Most of us stay in the good and never attain the better or the best because the inner work of change is so difficult, our fears are so great, and there are so few to love us and guide us there.
In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus comes to visit His dear friends, Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, He finds the women busily making dinner preparations. Mary immediately leaves the work to go and sit at Jesus’ feet. Martha, in exasperation, says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to come help me!” Jesus’ answer to her was, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” It is helpful to see that there was nothing wrong with Martha’s work; it was good. The tragedy was that her focus was so limited. If she had been lovingly attentive to the awesome reality of the presence of God with her in her work, she would have been able to serve those around her in love and peace without resentment.
The gift that Mary, the contemplative person, offers to Martha, the active person, is the call to slow down and experience the beauty that is present in each moment. It is as if she were saying, “Please, Martha, stop long enough to listen, to pray, to make a little space in your life for God. Go sit by the window for a minute; go take a quiet walk; go anywhere you can and sit quietly and listen.” Mary had chosen the better part, but it still wasn’t the best. She had not yet learned to take her loving attention into the work that needed to be done. If Mary had taken the love she was receiving from Jesus and graciously offered it to Martha through service, she would have stilled the conflict Martha was feeling and brought peace to the situation.
Mary and Martha represent the conflict we all live with. When we are out of balance in either of these two ways of living, our relationships and our spiritual lives suffer. The Mary in us has to be redeemed through our willingness to become servants in places where we may be very uncomfortable: the world of our reality. If we don’t take our spirituality into the real work we are called to, nothing will ever get done. The question for the Martha in us is, “Can I do this work without feeling put upon or resentful but in love and gratitude?” That happens when we finally realize that our transformation requires that we bring loving attention and a sense of the abiding Presence into our work.
It takes the work and energy of a redeemed Martha to do God’s work in the world, and it takes compassion flowing through the redeemed Mary to draw people into the community of love. Our prayer is coming to receive this love, and our action is going out to offer it to the hungry hearts of others. When this happens, all of our service becomes prayer and all of our prayer becomes service, and we are never out of communion with Love. This is the movement toward wholeness—toward the best.
Excerpted from The Hidden Life Awakened