Walking in the footsteps of Martha and Mary

This story appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.

Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fourth round of bloggers: Christian E. Ruehling is a volunteer missioner for VIDES+USA currently serving in Geneva after five months with the Salesian Sisters in Dilla, Ethiopia, and Maria Beben is a staff writer for Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C. This is Maria's first blog; read more about her here.


I've been familiar with the story of Martha and Mary in the Gospels since I was a kid: Martha, dutiful and domestic, and Mary, the attentive listener. While Mary sits enraptured at the feet of Jesus and hangs on to his every word, Martha prepares the meal and serves everyone.

When I was younger, the story used to bother me. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the better place. That always made me wonder, "But what if Martha had sat down, too? Dinner wasn't going to make itself." Sure, there was probably a deeper meaning; I just wasn't seeing it.

It wasn't until recently that this story took on a different significance for me.

A few months after graduating from college in 2015, I started a year of service with Franciscan Mission Service (FMS), a Catholic nonprofit in Washington, D.C. While I was looking for service programs during college, I had had a hard time narrowing down which ones I wanted to apply for. I knew I didn't want to go overseas, but other than that, I was open. I was too open, which made it almost impossible to rule programs out. Tutor high school girls after school in Detroit? Sure. Produce broadcasts for a Catholic radio station in Alaska? That sounded good, too.

After months of searching, I came across FMS on Catholic Volunteer Network's website. Unlike a lot of the direct-service programs that had started to blend together, FMS had the unique offering of the Nonprofit Servant Leadership Program, the pairing of an office job with weekly direct service. As soon as I read the job description, I knew this was it. I could use my English degree as a staff writer but also engage in direct service in the community. The program also offered the communal living situation I was seeking.

The longer I've been with FMS, the more the story of Martha and Mary comes to mind. Both models of these holy women continually challenge me. Throughout my year of service, I've been presented with countless opportunities to serve and accompany in very different ways.

In the office, I am Martha. My main responsibilities as a staff writer for FMS are to manage our blog and social media. Every morning, I check my email, respond to pressing matters, and proceed with the day according to what is at the top of my weekly list of priorities. I correspond with blog contributors, edit blog posts, schedule posts for social media, and check in with the other members of my department. These daily behind-the-scenes tasks ensure the continuation and development of the organization.

However, this year of service offers me plenty of opportunities to be Mary, as well. For my service site, I chose to volunteer at the Little Sisters of the Poor's Jeanne Jugan Residence, a nursing home for those who cannot otherwise afford care. In the nursing home, my main ministry is to be present. Although I am often helping with an activity, my role is largely to sit and listen as the residents share their stories.

Through my interactions and relationships with my co-workers, my housemates and the residents at Little Sisters of the Poor, I've seen the impact of a person-to-person approach and the incredible encounters that can happen when we acknowledge each other with the dignity and respect each of us deserves.

Martha and Mary are exemplary role models for how we are called to love. In Martha, we have the example of love in action, loving by physically serving others. Mary, on the other hand, exemplifies a quieter kind of love, a love that serves through accompaniment.

Sometimes, we are called to take action. Like Martha, we can be called to serve in a physical capacity and take concrete steps toward helping others. This might be offering to help out a co-worker when he or she is overtasked in the office. It might be helping friends move out of their house on an early Saturday morning.

But we are also called to be like Mary. FMS stresses the importance of a ministry of presence, the ministry of meeting people where they are and walking with them for a while. A lot of times, this requires more listening than doing. This looks more like holding a friend while she cries at the end of a long day. But it's also something as simple as acknowledging the barista with eye contact and a friendly greeting before placing your order at Starbucks. It means holding the door open for the person behind you, even when you're in a hurry.

In listening to my co-workers, my housemates and the residents at Little Sisters of the Poor, I seek to be a source of emotional support that each of us so dearly needs.

This year, walking in the footsteps of Martha and Mary has changed me. Through both models of accompaniment, I've learned vital lessons in humility, patience, gentleness and compassion. I know that wherever the next part of my journey leads me, I'll take this newfound understanding of the Martha and Mary story with me.

[Maria Beben is a staff writer for Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C.]