Friday, July 29, 2011

In defense of St. Martha, On the sanctification of work

Work is necessary, and it must be sanctified

July 29th, Feast of St. Martha
And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:41-42)
To be clear: We do not intend to "defend St. Martha" against the Lord, but rather to defend her from the popular (and sentimental) caricatures with which the modern world has obscured the true meaning of Christ's words. Today, it has become popular to speak of the importance of following Mary’s example in this dispute between the two sisters from Bethany. Certainly, Mary did chose the best part – which is the life of prayer. Still, we must recall that most of us (i.e. most of those reading this blog and also all the contributors) are called to the active life in the world – we are called to the life of work, which is symbolized by St. Martha.

Commenting on this passage, St. Augustine speaks well: “Martha was getting annoyed, Mary was feasting; the former coping with many things, the latter concentrating on one. Both occupations were good.” (Sermon, 103) Martha’s error was in criticizing the contemplative life of prayer (which Mary symbolized) – while she worked, Martha did well; when she stopped working and began to complain, she fell.
“Both occupations were good.” – In order that we might better understand how to follow what was good in Martha, fulfilling the duties of our state in life (whether in the workplace or in the home), we will turn to the spirituality of Opus Dei. This movement focuses on a spirituality for lay people in the world – in this respect St. Josemaría Escrivá greatly anticipated and promoted the theology of the Second Vatican Council which stressed the “universal call to holiness.”
Balancing Martha and Mary
Martha is a sign of the active life, the life in the world, the life concerned with many things – hers is the ordinary life of daily affairs, the life to which the majority of Christians are called.
Mary is a sign of the contemplative life, the life removed from the world, the life of the consecrated religious, the life of the evangelical counsels – hers is the extraordinary life, the most perfect life, the life to which only a very few Christians are called.
It will do NO GOOD to oppose these two lives. Moreover, exalting the one (i.e. consecrated life) does not entail lowering or despising the other (i.e. active life). Just as recognizing the practical necessity of work does not require that we neglect prayer. Indeed, we must find a harmony between Martha and Mary.
For the religious, consecrated to the life of prayer, we point out the celebrated words of St. Teresa of Avila: “God is found among the pots and pans!” – Even the monks and nuns must work, and they will find God in doing their work with true charity.
For persons living in the world – for diocesan priests and, especially, for lay persons – we emphasize that prayer is the most important “work” we accomplish in our day. A good day is a day in which we have prayed well, a day without prayer is a bad day indeed.
“Close union between action and contemplation can be achieved in very different ways, depending on the specific vocation each person is given by God. Far from being an obstacle, work should be a means and an occasion for a close relationship with our Lord, which is the most important thing in our life.” (from the Navarre Bible)
It is a great error to think that we ought to imitate Mary only; rather, those of us who are not vowed religious are called principally to imitate what was good in Martha. For many of us, what is needed for our spiritual growth is to consecrate our work. How many graces are lost, simply because we do not heed the words of St. Paul: Whatsoever you do, do it from the heart, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that you shall receive of the Lord the reward of inheritance. Serve ye the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)
The sanctification of work
[from a homily by St. Escrivá, 8 Oct 1967. Conversations with Msgr. Escrivá, 114]
“You must realise now, more clearly than ever, that God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, secular and civil activities of human life. He waits for us everyday, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.
“I often said to the university students and workers who were with me in the 'thirties that they had to know how to materialize their spiritual lives. I wanted to warn them of the temptation, so common then and now, to lead a kind of double life: on the one hand, an inner life, a life related to God; and on the other, as something separate and distinct, their professional, social and family lives, made up of small earthly realities.
“No, my children! We cannot lead a double life. We cannot be like schizophrenics, if we want to be Christians. There is only one life, made of flesh and spirit. And it is that life which has to become, in both body and soul, holy and filled with God: we discover the invisible God in the most visible and material things.
“There is no other way, my daughters and sons: either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or we shall never find him. That is why I tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the apparently trivial events of life their noble, original meaning. It needs to place them at the service of the Kingdom of God; it needs to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ.”

St. Martha, Pray for us!


Anonymous said...

Before I read this post, I had already posted something similar on FB. (I'm not say you took it from me!) I also used it as the homily for today's Mass.

St. Martha's life in the Golden Legend is instructive as well; Jacobus praises her because she "thought that all the world was not sufficient to serve such a guest."


Anonymous said...

Reverend Father,

How do we know that the majority of Christians are called to follow Martha?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anonymous (12:19pm),
1st - please use at least a pseudonym as we request.

2nd - the majority of Christians are living in the world -- I mean, most Christians are either lay persons or diocesan priests.
Now the laity are called to "secularity", i.e. working in the world, in the active life, which is the life of St. Martha.
Likewise, even diocesan priests are so-called "secular priests" and therefore follow St. Martha.

I hope that this clarifies a bit. Peace to you! +

Anonymous said...

I just noticed the cat in the picture. A real beauty!


Anonymous said...

Mary Magdalen is indeed the sister of Martha otherwise the Mary who chose the better part is not honored on the


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