Ever noticed someone in your team not pulling their weight, whilst you are working hard to get the job done properly? I remember one day when my side of the family were visiting us. I was expecting my wife to do all the practical things that needed doing whilst I just sat chatting. I even asked her to get the coffee for us. No wonder she got a bit shirty with me. I suppose I was just being a brother and son rather than doing the practical jobs of a husband and joint host. I’d got the balance wrong. This reminds me of the story of Mary and Martha.
The story of Mary and Martha
The biblical story of Mary and Martha comes to mind. Two sisters have Jesus Christ as a visitor to their home. With which of these two ladies do you sympathise? Martha who was concerned to prepare a meal and make their guest comfortable or Mary who wanted to sit at the spiritual teacher’s feet listening to him. No wonder Martha complained to him about Mary leaving her to do the work by herself.
Mary and Martha in us
If we don’t do the laundry or other jobs around the house then we just get smelly clothes, cobwebs, long grass and weeds. It’s all very well for people to say you need to stop and take a break or else your batteries will become drained. At the end of the day, the dishes still need to be done and the car maintained. They won’t do themselves.
Regarding Mary and Martha, people have often felt that Jesus was favouring one and being unfair to the other who was doing all the work. Many of us faced with the demands of family and work just have to get on with it. Yet Martha seems to have been brought down a peg for doing just that. What could he have meant when he said that Mary had chosen better? How can it be right to neglect what needs doing?
“Perhaps Martha isn’t being brought down or put in her place, so much as being given the opportunity to sit down and get some space.” (Sarah Buteux, Swedenborgian minister)
I would suggest that there is a Mary and Martha in each one of us. Having a Martha active in your psyche is positive when you lead an active useful life. But negative when prioritising the outward side of life and as a consequence being upset by worldly cares – getting hot and bothered when over-concerned with doing things well or not missing out on some detail.
Mary and Martha and a vision
Emanuel Swedenborg reported having a vision of a large room. with furniture there and a long hallway leading from it. Through this he said he saw a woman, small in stature and ugly, who was going out. When he asked what the vision meant he claims he was told (presumably by angels) that it was about those individuals who when alive in the world had over-zealously devoted themselves to household chores. Apparently after death they occupy dwellings like this in the spirit realm and remain engrossed in their domestic concerns neglecting ‘like Martha’, the spiritual dimension.
When you are taken up with what you are doing, how often do you find yourself trying so hard to please and giving everything you have, to see that the work gets done? But then finding at the end of the day that the joy you should have felt, the peace you should have earned, and the rest you so deserved, is just out of reach. Rather than fulfilment, you feel only stress and frustration. Perhaps that is the time to remember the Mary and Martha story.
Mary and Martha and the need for being still
For many people into day’s Western culture, it is common to become so absorbed in the work of the world, that one’s inner contemplative self is lost. I would say that to connect with this deeper awareness we need times of letting go of all “doing,” — just allowing ourselves to “be.” In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes of an incessant mental noise in our ordinary consciousness which prevents awareness of an inner realm of stillness.
Many people recognise the need to create time for a meaningful connection with the deeper side of being, reflecting on the values and things we hold sacred, and being mindful of the situations we are encountering. In this way the pace of life can reduce.
Mary and Martha and spiritual practices
There are all sorts of ways of creating time for being in touch with the deeper side. The regular habit of taking the dog for a walk along a country path is conducive to this. It’s hard to be distracted by worldly cares when one is playing the piano or singing a song. Some people reserve a few minutes quiet time for reflection perhaps over a morning coffee before the working day starts or sitting on a bench in the park or whilst waiting for the train to commute to the office.
The skill of stilling the mind can be acquired through regular meditation. One type of meditation is focusing on one neutral thing and neglecting to attend to all other sensations and thoughts that enter consciousness. This is said to clear the mind and opens it to a higher state. Another type of meditation is allowing one’s awareness to be led by a series of visualised images often of a sacred nature.
In these ways we disengage from the worldly worries that are associated with what we do to earn a living, maintain a home, support a family etc.
Religious perspective on Mary and Martha
Every religion teaches the need to slow down in order to connect with the self, with others and with a higher force. The Bible says
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)
In the Mary and Martha narrative, Mary was seeing things from a higher perspective than that of the world. Does she not represent a point of view that accepts there is a divine hand supporting all our good actions and intentions? An awareness, I would suggest, that experiences hope and encouragement no matter what challenges and adversity one has to face. To my mind this is a state of spiritual being that never shirks the work to be done. It reminds me that the world around me, with its requirements, is not a burden I have to bear but a gift to help me grow inwardly.
I believe that the story of Mary and Martha prompts us to create moments when we can reflect on our spiritual understanding of the ‘Divine within’ rather than being caught up by the demands of the world. In so doing we are said to find the tranquillity of ‘peace that passes all understanding’
Copyright 2016 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author Heart, Head & Hands