The Better Part
by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Martha is busy serving the Lord while her sister, Mary, delights in the presence of Jesus. Martha came to Jesus and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Martha’s lament seems perfectly reasonable, but she does not receive the expected response. “The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Thus begins the great tradition in the church favoring the contemplative life over the active life, a preference that at first glance does not seem quite fair.
The contemplative life most certainly is not restricted to religious orders but for purposes here, the example of contemplative religious orders provides a useful contrast. Contemplative orders (such as the Poor Clares and the Linden Dominicans in our diocese) after all, depend upon the wider church for their support. Bishops and pastors are very active in managing their respective dioceses and parishes. They collect the hard-earned contributions from the faithful who, in the main, not only support their families by their work, but the church – and the church’s apostolates – as well. In the grand scheme, it seems the active life should have pride and place – the “better part” – over contemplatives because the contemplative life, in large part, is supported by the hard work of benefactors.
It is helpful, however, to consider the nature of the “better part” of contemplation. Perhaps we are suspicious of the superiority of contemplation because we are all too familiar with its counterfeits: the vice of sloth and its close relative, boredom.
Boredom leads to the abuse of leisure time. Indeed boredom underlies a good deal of contemporary frantic activity. A bored child – or an adult – fixated on nonstop television may seem to be in a kind of contemplation. Tweeting and texting and surfing the Net are often means to dislodge boredom from our lives. Even the work we do is, in some instances, needless escapism from minds dulled by boredom. (There may be some virtue in “keeping busy” as a foil to boredom, just as recreation may be desirable, but these time-fillers fall short of contemplation.) True contemplation is not boring nor is it abusive of the gift of leisure.
Boredom can devolve into sloth. Sloth is the vice that wastes time that should be spent productively. And sloth can easily lead to grave sin. In the Old Testament, David, after taking the throne, rested on the laurels from his impressive exploits. The sacred write in wonderful understatement describes King David’s sloth:
“Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem” (2 Sm 11:1). In short order, David became a phony “contemplative”: “Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the kings’ house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance” (2 Sm 11:2).
David’s sin of sloth led to the sin of adultery: “David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her” (2 Sm 11:3). The rest of this Old Testament account describes a shocking descent into evil, the murder of the woman’s lawful husband to cover David’s crime and the killing of David’s conscience until the prophet Nathan confronts him with his famous “Thou art the man!” indictment. Sloth is a vice that has many companion vices.
Contemplation, however, is never slothful.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, a brief phrase identifies the essence of contemplation: Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet listing to him speak.” The purpose of contemplation is to listen attentively to the Lord. This is not the stuff of boredom; nor is it the stuff of sloth. In a real sense, contemplation is hard work where the mind and heart are totally engaged in listening to and conversing with Christ. In addition, contemplation might be perfectly compatible with the active life. Mothers know that one’s deepest prayer might occur while rocking the baby or stirring the pudding, or pulling weeds (or fingering a rosary) – any physical activity that leaves the mind completely free. And that includes cooking. One wonders if Martha would have suffered the same gentle rebuke if she invited Mary and Jesus to join her in peeling potatoes as they conversed.
Still, for the most part contemplation needs the gift of leisure time. But leisure time is not free. It must be purchased by the work of our hands or the work of others (six days of the week, according to the Bible). Hence, contemplation is no way denigrates the active life that provides for the possibility of holy leisure time (“the Sabbath”). But contemplation is the proper use of leisure time. As the “better part” of our lives, true contemplation uplifts, directs and purifies all human endeavors.
Most of our willful distractions are vain attempts to fill emptiness in our lives that can only be filled with prayerful contemplation and conversation with God. It is a sign of our fallen nature that we need a commandment to make room for contemplation: “Keep holy the Sabbath.” But the mature Christian no longer needs a decree to enter into conversion with God. A mature Christian habitually orders his life for the “better part” of listening to the Lord in private prayer and, above all, in the sacred liturgy.
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