On a Mission

Martha & Mary: Balancing Prayer & Work

There are many lessons to be gleaned from the gospel story of Martha and Mary, but the one most often presented is how Jesus preferred Mary’s prayerfulness over Martha’s activity. “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus said in the tenth chapter of Luke, which certainly establishes the pre-eminence of prayer and the interior life.

But there’s a lot more to this lesson.

For one thing, Martha and Mary were sisters, which might seem like a minor point, but it’s actually quite important. Being sisters, they were both the fruit of the same tree, as are prayer and active works. Jesus expects us to develop a combination of both, with prayer ranking ahead of works.

The reason prayer ranks first is because it’s the more powerful of the two. In the classic 19th century book, “The Soul of the Apostolate,” Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O., the Abbot of Notre Dame de Sept-Fons, writes that prayer will often do more to bring about a result “because he who prays is in touch with the First cause. He acts directly upon it.” We can reach just about anywhere in prayer, but this isn’t true with physical activity, where we remain limited by time and space.

“The active life is concerned with men, the contemplative life introduces us into the realm of the highest truth . . . . Being more sublime, it has a much more extensive horizon and field of action,” Chautard writes.

Mary’s prayer actually accomplishes more – and in many more places – than Martha’s activity could ever manage.

This was the thinking behind the comment by a bishop of Cochin, China, to the Governor of Saigon. “Ten Carmelite nuns praying will be of greater help to me than 20 missionaries preaching.”

The astonishing capability of prayer works the same no matter where we apply it, in a religious or a lay environment.

Chautard tells the story of St. Louis, King of France, who devoted many hours a day to prayer, which was the secret behind his adroit handling of affairs of state.

He tells another story of a frustrated statesman who wondered how his bishop could handle so many pressing duties in a single day and yet always seem so serene and joyful. The bishop responded: “My dear friend, to all your occupations, add half an hour of meditation every morning. Not only will you get through all your business, but you’ll find time for still more.”

Our church history contains a long list of other priests, religious and lay faithful who achieved extraordinary success in life by fueling their active life with a strong prayer life. St. John Bosco, Blessed Anne-Marie Taigi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, St. Bernard, the Cure of Ars, all produced an incredible amount of work in spite of ill-health and hours a day spent in prayer.

No matter what our occupation, the strength of our interior life will determine the success of our activities. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming mindless robots rushing through the routines of life. By engaging in excessive activity, we might be accomplishing more, but we’re also exposing ourselves to more problems. Aside from being nerve-wracking, over-activity scatters our energy and keeps our minds burdened with troubles. The more our occupations multiply, the more our energy is dissipated.

Anyone can fall into this trap. Chautard documents the retreat notes of Bishop Dupanloup of Orleans who wrote: “My activities are so crushing that they ruin my health, disturb my piety and yet teach me nothing new. I have got to control them. God has given me the grace to recognize that the big obstacle to my acquiring a peaceful and fruitful interior life is my natural activity, and my tendency to be carried away by my work. And I have recognized, besides, that this lack of interior life is the source of all my faults, all my troubles, my dryness, my fits of disgust and my bad health.”

The bishop decided to commence a new program to restore his spiritual and physical health.

First, “I will always take more time than is necessary to do everything. This is the way to avoid being in a hurry and getting excited.”

Second, “Since I have more things to do than time in which to do them, and this prospect . . . gets me all worked up, I will cease to think about all that I have to do and only consider the time I have at my disposal. I will make use of that time . . . beginning with the most important duties; and as regards those that may or may not get done, I shall not worry about them.”

Time spent in prayer is never wasted – unless we’re excessive and unreasonable about it. Becoming too Mary-ish is as much a fault as becoming too Martha-ish. St. Teresa of Avila did not mince words in her condemnation of those spiritual persons who selfishly clung to the sweet peace of the cloister while leaving the Lord’s work to others. She saw a “very subtle self-love mixed in here. This self-love does not allow one to understand what it is to want to please ourselves rather than God.”

Sooner or later we must become willing to step out of those narrow realms of the beginner where the pursuit of religion concerns only our own personal interests. When we advance into those higher places, God’s agenda gradually replaces our own and we begin to understand that authentic Christian living is supposed to be fruitful for Christ, not just ourselves.

In order to accomplish this, we must acquire the ability to combine the right amount of prayer with the right amount of work. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained Martha’s activity and Mary’s prayer, “far from excluding one another, depend on one another, presuppose one another, mingle and complete one another.”

A good place to start is to meditate on the advice of Dom Chautard and consider ways to apply it to our own lives, no matter what our work for Christ may be: “By contemplation the soul is fed; by the apostolate, it gives itself away.”

Excerpted from the book, With God Alone: Contemplative Prayer for Everyday People

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