As an adolescent, the tale of Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42) always puzzled me. We are called to be doers (and not just hearers) of the Word (Js 2:22). We are also called to love our neighbors as our self (Lk 10:25-37). Yet Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better part. That is simply being in the presence of God. I was always a tad suspicious of Mary’s motives that day. How much of Mary’s sit and listen was the call of faith versus the call of letting someone else do the job?
As an adult, I came to understand that Martha and Mary are characters perched at opposite ends of the listen/do human behavior spectrum. Also, the appropriate set point on that spectrum is apparently different for the variety of souls God has created. Some are more contemplative. Others are more faith in action. The episode itself serves as an invitation to reflect upon where we are upon the spectrum. Adjustments (if or when needed) can then follow.
Shorn of sibling rivalry, I imagine Mary saying, “Enough Martha! Sit and be still for a few minutes. Listen.” Then, after a period of listening to Jesus, Martha reaches out to Mary to give her a hand up. Martha says, “Mary, it is time to go do. Let’s work together.” The big idea is that there first is a time to listen for God’s guidance, then a time to act within God’s guidance.
Perhaps because my balance point is more towards the faith in action side of the spectrum, I always felt Martha got a raw deal in the Biblical tale. One day, however, I entered the cafeteria of a Catholic hospital. My friend had spent the night in the ER. By morning, she had been admitted. I was dead tired both from the lack of sleep and the stress of that evening in the ER. Coffee was needed. Beside the entryway was a prayer card for St. Martha. She is the patron saint of cooks. My prayer was simple. “Thank You God. Thank you St. Martha for your example and for your prayers on behalf of those in need.”
My prayerful reflections for this column had begun with a verse from a sympathy card. It read, “As some people journey through life, they leave footprints wherever they go — footprints of kindness and love, courage and compassion, humor and inspiration, joy and faith” (Hallmark, Mahogany cards). What do footprints of kindness and compassion look like?
One’s footsteps carry one to the task yet may also serve as a guidepost for those who follow. As any forensics student will tell you, discernment of where another’s footprints lead first requires a patient analysis of the walker and the context. I imagine there is a wide variety to the size and shape of the footprints of courage and compassion.
One student example was the time someone was spinning on the floor during passing time. I ended it by commenting that I could cross my legs and walk on my knees. To the students’ “Prove it!” chants, I replied I would show them after they all passed their biology tests to the 80 percent level. It took them a month to assist all to get there. Amazing to watch them all look out for one another.
Footprints can have long shadows. They can even reach back to touch your own life. I remember a difficult time for me. I turned to the store checker’s cheery, “Hello Dr. Flavin.” He said, “I’m glad you left that ‘Teen Creed’ at Connolly. It is still there in your old classroom.” My room had given that plaque to me at Confirmation. The words guided one to think about who one wished to be. That afternoon, my heart moved from feeling alone to being surrounded by God’s love and peace.
Back to Martha and Mary, the endpoint of the tale is exceedingly important. Namely, the hospitality they showed to all. Martha and Mary probably did not stop to discuss the importance of xenophilia in their world. They simply followed their heart to help provide an environment where all were able to experience being still within the presence of God. Each of those participants that day were touched by Jesus’ words. Each participant returned home a person ready to respond in compassion and kindness.
I once heard the phrase, “Holy Fools,” to describe the saints. The juxtaposition of worldly view (fools) with God’s view (serving faithfully) is a reminder to each of us that each of our steps is a decision point. We make a choice of where we will walk and if or how we will make a difference in our world. At any time, we can change or even reverse course. Building upon another’s start, or carving out our own path, the choice is ours. Remain focused upon listening for God’s guidance and choose always to walk forth in kindness.
Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.