The gospel from Luke that is used for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time in the Roman Catholic Church was often used to suggest that a life lived in religious community is somehow holier than other vocations like marriage. Mary sits at the feet of the Lord, listening to his wisdom. Some have interpreted that as a calling to spend time in prayer and contemplation, that this is “the better part” that Mary (and those like her) would not be deprived of. I’ve also heard people say that while they are busy with the things of the world, earning a living, raising a family, that some day they can be like Mary at the feet of Jesus when they retire. “I’ll be able to go to church every day for Mass and to pray, like I wish I could now.”
Or have you ever thrown dinner party where you’re so busy you miss the opportunity to be with the guests and enjoy their company? At the end of the evening you’re exhausted and regretting the overly ambitious dinner menu and lack of planing that would have involved others in the preparation that kept you in the kitchen instead of at the table engaged in the conversation taking place. I know I’ve been there, done that!
All three of these examples (vocation to religious community, waiting till retirement to pray, being the too busy host or hostess) point to a false dichotomy people sometimes think applies to being “spiritual” or “listening to the Lord.” They are a poor approach to the “spiritual life” of a disciple.
Too often people think being spiritual or even praying means you have to stop everything, go off somewhere quiet without distractions and sit still doing nothing else but praying. The Gospel of the Martha and Mary as well as the first reading of the Mass of the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (the story of Abraham providing hospitality to three visitors and being told he will have a son within a year) point to a more holistic view of being a spiritual person who attempts to listen to the Lord. A spiritual life is not separate from everyday life, but found in the midst of everyday family life, work place and moments of quiet. Listening to the Lord isn’t something segregated into an hour on Sunday morning or 10 minutes formal prayer each day.
What is common to both readings is that there are people who pay attention to the guest. Abraham and Mary both seize the moment and are attentive to the Divine that is right in front of them, in their daily life. Abraham greats an unexpected traveler that shows up at his door. Mary entertains a friend. They provide the necessities of hospitality with the help of others, but they don’t forget to pay attention to the guest. Sarah and Martha, the ones left to cook would have preferred some help, it’s true, but their response of busyness is necessary for the tension in the story that points the reader/listener to the overall interpretation. Choose to be attentive to what is right in front of you. Set priorities.
Jesus is saying something to each of us in our busy day if we’re attentive to the signs. He’s not just speaking in the special moments of communal worship and private prayer, but accompanying us in the ordinary events of each day, chatting us up, so to speak, as we go about our business. Think of about a child who has been acting up all day. But then he picks a bouquet of dandelions and gives them to mom as apology with an “I love you.” Mom can either think, weeds! Or she can hear Jesus saying, “I’m showing you my love, too, in this precious gift of a child, who loves you without condition, freely.” Think of a spouse who faithfully provides for family for 50 years. There’s Jesus saying, if the other spouse pays attention to the person in front of them instead of worrying about bills and what needs to be fixed on the house, “I’m here for you, too, faithfully giving you what you need to live.” Or, as I observe at almost every funeral we celebrate in our parish; The grieving family is served a lunch after the funeral Mass by the Altar Sodality ladies. Here, to the attentive, Jesus is saying to the grieving, “I am here for you, grieving with you, taking care of you” and the to the sodality members, “When I was grieving, you comforted me.”
The Word of God for this Sunday invites us to focus our mind’s ears and eyes to recognize where Christ is at in our every day life, not just in church on Sunday. Jesus is daily trying to tell us he loves us, that he wants us to know peace and not worry so much.
Perhaps the Rule of St. Benedict says it best – “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ” (Chapter 53). The guest can be a person or even an event, an ordinary chore or job, but especially the people we encounter each day. In the people that we interact with, if we seize the moment, if we are attentive to the people around us that we’re busy serving and taking care of, that is where we’ll hear Jesus telling us something important. It’s not about posture of the body, actually sitting at the feet of the Lord like Mary, but an attitude of the mind and soul. As our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox and Eastern Rites of the church’s liturgy proclaim before the reading of scripture, “Wisdom, be attentive!”