The Better Part

(Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year C)

The Fathers of the Church (mainly bishops, but also some priests and laymen of the first six or seven Christian centuries) saw Martha and Mary as personifying the two ways of serving Jesus. Martha, busy about so many details, represents the active life. Mary, seated at Jesus' feet listening to his every word, is the contemplative life. Jesus' praise of her points to the superiority of contemplation over activity. "Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be deprived of her."

We see in the Church Fathers a longing, almost nostalgia, for the contemplative life. It wasn't just that they were overwhelmed by the incessant demands of pastoral life and, as we would say, wanted a break. It was deeper than that. They saw contemplation as the highest calling and even if they could not totally dedicate themselves to it, they set aside significant periods of each day for it. Some did actually return to strict contemplation or because of life circumstances (like exile or sickness) had it thrust back on them. But always, because of Jesus' praise of Mary, it was the ideal.

I have noticed that longing even today among some of my fellow diocesan priests. For example, Fr. Tim Clark a few years after his ordination, left parish ministry to join the Trappists. It was not because of any disappointment or bitterness. Rather he saw contemplation as a higher calling. Those who have visited him down in Lafayette (OR) have remarked on his deep joy.

But the contemplative life must be a genuine calling. Few receive it. I think of one of my brother priests who after much prayer decided to join a contemplative community. He lasted three days! God bless him, he is now serving very effectively as pastor of one of our parishes. I am not making fun of him; I might not even be able to last as long as he did in a strictly contemplative community.

When Fr. Jack Jennings and I were neighboring pastors in Whatcom County, he invited me to go with him on a thirty day silent retreat. It sounded wonderful to get away from the work and hassle of pastoring three rural parishes. Of course there would be no television, radio or newspapers, but I felt I could keep occupied with books and answering a pile of overdue correspondence. The first thing the retreat director told us was put aside the letters until after the retreat was finished. Mail is something of a chore so I figured I would just spend the time reading. Then he said books, even spiritual ones, would not be necessary. Oh, well, I thought, I will concentrate on Bible reading. You guessed it. Not even the Bible. They did give us short passages to meditate on, but emphasized personal conversation with Jesus, not Bible study.

I have to admit it was the longest thirty days of my entire life. I did discover what Pascal wrote about in his Pensees: much of our "busy-ness" is not because of necessity, but because of the desire for what he calls "diversion." It is hard to simply be alone with the Lord. Even though our hearts are made for God, prayer does not come natural. It is a work of God's grace (cf. Rm 8:26). We may sometimes experience great peace and consolation, but so often prayer is a dry, desert experience until we learn to seek God not for the satisfactions he gives us but for Him alone.

To pray, even if we are not called to the contemplative life, means placing ourselves in Jesus presence, as Mary did. Our active life sometimes borders on the frenetic and enervating. For that reason it is important to carve out a time, most likely at the beginning of the day, for listening to the Lord. We can sometimes think prayer is a complicated process. It is not. Pope John Paul cut thru a lot of verbiage and stated simply that prayer is "talking with God." But conversation involves time, effort and above all the discipline of listening.

Perhaps the most demanding activity for any of us is listening. We are anxious to make a good impression, get across our own point, but it is hard for us to listen. Yet we know that the person we treasure the most is the good listener. One of my brothers is a wonderful listener. He is truly interested in other people, their lives, what they have to say. At work and in the family, people will tell him all kinds of things about themselves, sometimes intimate details they have not shared with anyone else. The problem is that while my brother is a great listener, he cannot keep secrets. But amazingly people continue telling him their personal lives. So much do we treasure someone who listens with genuine concern! Not that my brother would ever deliberately break a confidence or damage someone. Nor does he ever tantalize with a secret. He really is one of the most unselfconscious listeners I have ever known. And listening is an art and a discipline few people truly have.

But we need to develop that habit with others and especially with God. Not for his sake, but for our own. In fact, listening is so essential that God will do extraordinary things to get our attention. C.S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, he speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world." I think of my dear friend Fr. Michael Holland in this regard. I have mentioned to you before that last November he was diagnosed with liver cancer and is now in the final stages of the disease, very near his death. Fr. Holland was always a dedicated and prayerful priest. I saw that especially in the year we were together at St. Mary's in Seattle. But since being struck with this terrible infirmity, things have been taken away from him: his energy, his ability to drive, to walk on his own, to control his own body. What he has left is his prayer and, as he told several of us, never has that been deeper. In the final analysis we come to God empty handed. Like Mary we sit at Jesus' feet to receive, to listen to him.

To listen to God, to listen to other people is the greatest calling any of us can have. Because of that, before concluding, I want to add an important caution. As I mentioned last Sunday, even something so beautiful as compassion can be twisted and used for a destructive purpose. The same can be said of a false view of listening. It can be seen as club to impose ones viewpoint on the other person. Sometimes people will accuse me or other priests of "not listening." I have heard it even after spending painstaking hours trying to understand and take into account someone’s needs and viewpoint. They will still say, "Father, you have not listened to us." I do admit I am sometimes pretty dense, but I sincerely believe the problem was not a failure to listen, but to agree, to go along with what they wanted.

This past week we saw a particularly egregious perversion of the word "listening." Someone who heads an organization called "Catholics for a Free Choice" had an op-ed column in our local paper. It blasted the U.S. Bishops for not heeding the voice of Catholic faithful on the issues of abortion and contraception. She was demanding a free choice on these moral questions. The irony is they already have one. They can join a more amenable church. Or they can stay in the Catholic Church even though they are miserable and will make others feel the same. That seems to be the choice they have made. The only reason I can see for them doing that is that they hope one day the bishops will "listen" to them and change the teaching. Then they will not feel so unhappy. Maybe.

One of the things that most bothers me in all this is the misuse of a word which is so important that it is almost sacred. Listening is at the heart of our faith, our relation with God and other people. To use that word as a club to get ones own way is such a perversion. But I want to emphasize that I have only said this by way of example and to be clear about the true meaning of listening. We should avoid a direct confrontation with those who distort its meaning. It is far better to follow the example of Mary. Even though her sister criticized her, she just kept focused on Jesus, hearing his words. Jesus himself is the one who can gently and lovingly correct. "Oh, Martha, you are worried and upset about so many things. Only one is necessary. Your sister Mary has chosen the better part. And it will not be taken from her."


From Archives (16th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Focus in Mission - Part Three
2010: The Difference Between Martha and Mary
2007: Being in the Lord's Presence
2004: Five-Legged Dogs
2001: Hospitality - First Principle of the Moral Law
1998: The Better Part

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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