Last month I was at a meeting of Poor Clare nuns from the Eastern and Midwestern states. These meetings are opportunities for me to see friends and meet new people coming into the Order. Meetings with large groups of people, especially with those I do not know well, are not easy for me. I am used to a life of quiet prayer and am by nature an introvert. However, if I manage to have one conversation with a sister when we share joys and problems of our lives and discuss the present challenges that we face, I find the meeting a very good experience.
In the Gospel account of Mary, Martha and Jesus we see an example of that personal sharing that means so much in our lives. I understand better why Jesus wanted Martha to give up her busy activities and join Mary and him in their time together.
Over the years, people have seen many different messages in the Martha and Mary story. Some have seen it as a warning against letting busyness overtake our lives. Others interpret it as a contrast between active ministry and the contemplative life. All of these different interpretations have validity. However, when I studied the Martha and Mary Scripture, I found myself pondering the personal friendships of Jesus and how they relate to my own life.
The passage describes Jesus going to visit Martha and Mary in their home as though they were close friends. This Gospel story doesn’t tell us how they met each other. Perhaps they heard Jesus preaching and were very drawn to his message. And Jesus, as evident in this story, trusted the sisters and became friends with them — so much so that he sought them out to visit with them.
When Jesus arrives, Martha does the hospitable things of getting her guest something to eat and drink in order to make him feel welcome. But the story takes an interesting turn. Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her get things together for him. Jesus replies, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. . . ."
I know this concern of Martha in my own life. I can hear myself asking friends, "Do you want this or that?" until finally they say, "Just sit down and listen to me, and tell me your thoughts."
Jesus' remark is often seen as a rebuke to Martha. However, we can also read it as Jesus' desire to have Martha put aside the formalities of hospitality and come and listen to what He has to say. I hear an urgency in Jesus words and wonder what Jesus wanted to talk to them about. It leaves me wishing that I could have been part of the conversation with Jesus, Martha and Mary.
That is often the way when we visit friends; we want them to be with us immediately. We want to share news and look forward to their attentive presence. Their friendship is a special gift in our lives.
As I ponder this Scripture, I wonder, "Have I trusted Jesus when I pray? Have I shared my deepest life experiences with Him? And like Martha and Mary, have I stopped to listen when I feel the presence of the Lord in my life?"
Like Martha, I want Jesus to make my life easier by changing someone else's behavior not mine. At other times, when I am willing to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen, I become aware of changes I need to make in my own attitude and behavior. Often I need to change my hopes and desires in order to welcome God's kingdom.
Our Poor Clare community life is at one of those periodic points of change. We are aging and find that we cannot do as many activities as we did when we were younger. This year we decided to no longer make Christmas cards. In the past I have always chosen the designs and organized the printing, advertising, packaging and mailing of the cards. I rebelled against these changes; it is taking some time for me to adjust and move forward with other plans.
I wanted Jesus to make us young and strong again and able to do numerous projects.
When I found myself praying, "Jesus, tell the other sisters to try harder," I felt like Martha. I did not want to see us let go of some of our activities.
Then one of our sisters had a stroke, and I found myself sitting at the Lord's feet where I cried for my sister and our future. Slowly, I began to quiet down enough to listen. As I became quiet and attentive, I was able to trust God. A calm presence settled within me.
Since we have given up some of our previous activities, we have time to be with our sister as she slowly recovers. And by caring for our sister, we understand more intimately people's need when they call us for prayers. As we went through our own pain, we heard more clearly the pain of others, and, I believe, were able to reach out to them with even deeper heart-felt empathy. When we assured them that we would pray with them and for them, we were drawing them into the circle of all those who sit at Jesus’ feet and seek help.
In hindsight, I can see Jesus is leading us in very subtle and simple ways. We knew we could not continue the work we were doing. We trust what we hear when we ask the Lord for his direction in our changing lives.
We are all invited into friendship with Jesus in the same way as Martha and Mary. We are invited to lay aside our busy activities and attend to Jesus' presence; he wants our attention. Let us take the time, like Martha and Mary, to listen for God’s guidance and welcome God's presence in our lives.
[Laura Hammel is a member of the Sisters of St. Clare, a Poor Clare community in Saginaw, Michigan. Her projects, in addition to her prayer ministry, have included developing and maintaining a website, making blessing oil, and creating various greeting cards for sale.]