When Jesus encounters Mary and Martha, the house is busy. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha is busy in the kitchen trying to get food prepared for the many guests who have come to hear the Teacher speak words they want and need to hear.
It is easy for us to label each other into Mary and Martha camps. “Oh, she is such a Martha! Always doing things and never still.” Or the other way round, we might say “Oh he or she is such a Mary! Always meditating and never helping to do the practical things we need done in this house!”
But usually, I find that when that labeling gets applied to people, it is they themselves who are applying it to themselves. And worse, they use the titles as a scold of themselves.
Simply sitting and being attentive to life is very hard to learn and even harder to maintain. Our society does not put up with people meditating or resting since by doing so, the system feels the stress of worry about whether enough is being done to bring in the money we want to maintain the lifestyle we think we should have. It happens in families, businesses and even churches. Nobody asks the subterranean question about whether what money we have is possibly too much and whether what standard of living we enjoy is reasonable or sustainable. We simply accept that the better the money, the better the life.
But I am not convinced. It feels creepy to me.
Just sitting and noticing life without grabbing at it is, says Jesus, the better way. And yet even Jesus probably enjoyed the warm bread from Martha’s ovens and the soft pillows on which he lay as he ate – pillows sown and bought by someone.
The art of living is noticing things. Slowing down to notice things not only enriches our life with the blessings of gratitude, slowing down also helps us to see what is creepy around us so that we can do something about it rather than simply self anesthetizing with more and more work. Noticing, and taking time to notice, is not Sabbath time (though it can be restful) but rather, is life-work, returning us to what we have called ourselves: “homo sapien sapien” or “man who is wise about being wise” or “man (person) who knows that he knows.”
I think that never has a scientific title been so misused and misapplied. We may be Homo Sapien ( human who knows) but knowing that we know means being so mindful as to be able and willing to watch our thoughts and watch our effects on the planet and the people around us. I strive for that, as many do. I work towards that with real practice, as many do. But knowing that we know is not very American and hard to do with life at such a clip as we find it.
So, in the end, I love the Martha in me because I love the hospitality I offer to the world around me. But I also love the Mary in me because I need to see what I need to see – even when seeing it hurts. Mary was working as hard as Martha. And in the end, Mary’s willingness to sit and see might have made her the better hostess – of her guests and of herself.