Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ - Luke 10, 38-42The passage of Mary and Martha always bothered me. Anyone who’s ever hosted guests knows there’s a lot of work to do, making up beds, preparing food and tons of cleaning up afterwards. I remember one time when my son was very little we had friends and family over to watch football, and someone turned to me and said “why don’t you sit down?” And I wondered: why don’t I sit down? Why don’t I just relax like everyone else? I moved over to the sofa and just as I was sitting down I heard my son cry from the other room, and remembered “that’s why I don’t sit down!” Reading the passage as the mother of a small child who worked full time in the church, I often felt like Martha- wishing for a little help with the endless work. I thought this parable reflected the blindness of the patriarchy to the realities of women’s work.
But the thing is, the work really never ends, does it? There is always something that could be cleaned, or put away, or prepared for the future- especially if there are toddlers in the house! And in this story a famous teacher has come to visit, and most likely will not be that way again. If ever there was a time to leave dishes to soak, perhaps that was it.
In the Christian Tradition, Jesus is not only a great teacher, but the divine incarnate. So another way to look at this passage is -- when the divine is visible to us, when the divine is speaking to us, the better part is to lay down whatever we are doing and listen.
We Unitarian Universalists are very diverse in what we believe about God. You notice the children’s story, The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor, didn’t mention God at all. But it did mention a deep kind of listening, a listening that expects something to speak into it. To me that kind of listening is sacred, regardless of what we believe about the nature of what exactly speaks back, whether it is the divine, whether it is the earth, or whether it is the deepest, truest part of the Self. I tend to be of the theology that whatever is sacred is around us all the time. I believe the divine is not something that comes and goes, the divine is part of everything that is. You could call this the Spirit of Life, because it is part of everything that lives.
When I began my first ever silent retreat last winter, my Spiritual Director gave me these words by Ann Lewin:
"You do not have toThis became an important touch stone for me over the course of the 8 days. I’m used to doing things with purpose and intention. I’m used to looking and listening and doing with a goal. But when we truly listen, we can’t assume we know what we are about to hear. Have you ever had a partner or a good friend finish your sentence assuming they knew what you were trying to say, when that’s not really what you were saying at all? Whether you are listening to a great teacher, or to a bird, or to a bush, if we assume we know what we will hear, that’s what we will probably hear. If we want to hear something new, we have to set aside our preconceived notions, our expectations, and just listen. If we expect to see what we’ve always seen then we will most likely see what we have always seen.
Look for anything, just
You do not have to
Listen for specific
You do not have to
Accomplish anything, just
And in the
Looking, and the
Listening, and the
Being, find Me.
As Franciscan writer and teacher Richard Rohr says “We have to learn to see what is there. That’s hard for us to understand. We’re used to focusing on attainment and achievement, a sort of spiritual capitalism… That expectation keeps us from the truly transformative experience called grace.” [Everything Belongs p. 28]
Rohr points out the similarities between Jesus’s teachings, and the teachings of Zen Buddhism. “Jesus Calls us to exactly what the Zen master calls his students to… calling monks who had been [in the monastery] for years to what they called “beginner’s mind” We must never presume that we see. We must always be ready to see anew. [p. 231]
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
“Earth's crammed with heaven,In two different moments we can look at the exact same thing, and some moments it seems like a miracle, and some moments it seems ordinary as dirt.
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” [From Aurora Leigh]
I used to assume the poet was judging the people in this poem who “sat round and plucked blackberries.” But I think that’s most of us most of the time. As the girl in our story said “I thought there must be something wrong with me because I only heard wind and quail and coyotes and doves—just things that anyone could hear.”
I get that. I used to think that if I could practice hard enough, if I could learn to look at the world the right way then once I could see it I would always see it. They say this is true for the awakened masters. Many say this is what Jesus meant when he said “The kingdom of God is at hand.” But like the heroine of our story, I find that it’s often hard to hear the spirit of life, the still small voice, even when you are looking. No matter how much I practice, I never know when I will glimpse the sacred nature of the world, and when it will seem ordinary. That’s why it’s so important to cherish those moments when the hills sing back, those moments when you really see that every common bush is afire with the divine.
There are plenty of days to pluck blackberries, days when it’s hard to see that Earth is Crammed with heaven – and fortunately plucking blackberries is a fun and joyful event if you are careful of prickers. What is more delicious than a ripe blackberry? Spiritual Director Gerald May writes: “The problem is not that Martha is working, but that she is obsessed with working. Indeed it is Mary who has the contemplative heart; she has chosen the one thing necessary which is to attend to God. It just happens that in this particular moment she does it by sitting still; in another time, perhaps even in the next moment, she could do the same thing while helping with the work. The story might have been told better that way. It might have been better still if Jesus had been helping with the work. But Martha’s problem was that her preoccupation had kidnapped her awareness away from the divine presence.” [The Awakened Heart p. 210-11]
I don’t believe the bush is more or less sacred on any given day, but I know that what I experience changes. And the way I now hear the Mary and Martha story, is that when the world speaks to you, when you see the sacred in the ordinary bush, when the world seems numinous, the better part is to sit and listen.
If we believe that there is a deep, sacred dimension to life, and if we believe that is important, this parable suggests that sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and listen. Like the old man in the story said “Most people never hear those things at all… they just don’t take the time you need for something that important.”
The world still needs dishes washed, and beds made, payroll run, and snow shoveled. But sometimes stopping and listening to the teachers around us is the better part. We may go on many walks listening to the hills before they begin to sing back, but still we walk, or pause, or just open our minds so we can “always stop and listen at the right time.” When the hills sing to us, let us listen long and deep.