As a child, I would often go for long walks in the woods behind my house to be alone with God. There in those solitary woods, the presence of God was as natural to me as the air. The trees, the animals, and the lakes were a reflection of a reality much greater than this world. What fascinated me was not the forest per se, but the creator of such magnificent scenes. Though I did not utter many prayers in those woods, I went there to simply be with God, which, I would learn much later, is the real essence of prayer.
After dinner, when I was no longer able to roam about outside, I felt compelled to try and articulate what I encountered in those solitary moments with nature. Curiously, the attempt to write about my own experience was almost as exciting and beautiful as the experience itself. Writing, for me, was a process of discovery. Even though I had felt something, heard something or seen something, it wasn’t until I wrote about it that I came to a clearer understanding of how near God was to me.
Both writing and prayer have consumed a significant amount of time and energy in my life. When prayer is consoling me and writing is nourishing me I feel alive and eager to share my joy with everyone around me. Yet when prayer is dry and I am suffering from writer’s block I often feel frustrated and want to isolate myself from the rest of the world. At various periods in my life I have vowed to quit one of these activities, so as to focus exclusively on the other, only to find myself a few days later plunging more deeply into both of them than I had before.
On the surface, writing and prayer can appear to be two different activities. However, I am discovering a surprising symmetry between them. Writing, I have come to realize, is my Martha, while prayer is my Mary. In the Gospel of Luke there is a famous episode where Jesus enters the home of Martha and Mary. Mary sits at his feet and listens to him while Martha is busy serving and taking care of the practical needs of her guest. Frustrated by her sister’s apparent laziness, Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to support her. Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
We can often view the activity of our life, whether it is our job, family, or social responsibilities, as a distraction from the “better part” that Mary chose. What we often fail to recognize is that our activity often prepares the way, both for ourselves and others, for this silent receptivity that Mary exemplifies. Without Martha’s activity Mary wouldn’t be free to sit at Jesus’ feet. Mary herself was not free from daily responsibilities. It was only by fulfilling them that she was able to receive Jesus with such reverent attention.
I am beginning to understand my relationship with writing and prayer in a similar fashion. I have often wondered what purpose my writing serves as a Franciscan priest and have been tempted to quit writing because of my inability to see how it relates to my vocation. I have entertained the notion that writing is a distraction, preventing me from deeper intimacy with God, and that if I just quit writing I would be holier because I could devote more time to prayer, meditation and preaching. Within the past few months I have discovered that writing is not only an expression of my love for Jesus, but that without it, I could not sit quietly at his feet and listen. In other words, without Martha I cannot be Mary.
There is a misconception among certain people that those who live in monasteries, convents or friaries sit around and just pray all day. My own sister often tells her friends, “I’m not really sure what my brother does all day!” Despite the fact that religious have times reserved for prayer, meditation and spiritual exercises, when we are not engaged in those pursuits we live a normal human life, a life filled with activity. Even though God loves us and cares for us, he does not cook our food, clean our homes, or answer our doorbell.
It would be a mistake to assume that this activity is a distraction in my relationship with God. On the contrary, it is the activity of the day that opens my heart and creates in me a longing for God. As I sit in prayer in the morning with the duties and the responsibilities of the day staring in front of me, I become aware of my need for God’s grace before I approach these tasks. When nighttime arrives, with the activity of the day behind me, my heart and mind are more disposed towards quiet contemplation, as I ponder the many ways I encountered God that day.
Perhaps Martha’s fault was not her activity, but her inability to see how her activity was meant to be a bridge to something greater. The activity of our life, whether it is writing, or anything else, is never an end in itself. What Mary has to teach us, and what I am learning through writing, is that our work here in this life is never complete. If it were, we would never experience the deep peace that comes from simply resting at the feet of Jesus.
+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR