Once there was a monk—we’ll call him Brother Alphonse—who was transferred from one monastery to another. When he arrived at his new home, he was surprised and upset to find that the monks there were all expected to do manual labor: working in the fields and orchards, running the small business that produced income to pay the monastery’s bills, doing maintenance work, or various other jobs. He announced, “At my previous monastery, we had none of this; we spent our time in prayer and study and spiritual reading. After all,” he said with a sense of superiority, “remember that Our Lord praised Mary for her spiritual attentiveness, whereas He rebuked Martha for being too busy.” The abbot of the monastery responded, “Brother, you make an interesting point. Take this book of spiritual wisdom to your cell, and spend your day in prayer and reading.”
Brother Alphonse was pleased he had gotten his own way, but as the day went on, he was surprised, and then concerned, when no one summoned him for lunch or for supper. After evening prayers in the chapel, he asked one of the other monks, “Weren’t any meals served today?,” to which the monk replied, “Oh, yes, we all ate as usual.” “Then why wasn’t I sent for when it was time to eat?” Brother Alphonse asked in anger. The abbot happened to overhear the conversation, so he explained rather forcefully, “Brother, it was because you chose for yourself the better part, as Mary did, and seemed to consider it unnecessary and a waste of time to worry about your daily bread. We, on the contrary, work hard, and require strength for our work, so we—unlike you—cannot dispense with eating.” Brother Alphonse accepted this rebuke in silence, and the abbot continued in a gentler tone, “If there had been no Martha to do the work, Mary would not have had the chance to sit at Christ’s feet” (Rev. Francis Spirago, Anecdotes and Examples for the Catechism, p. 374). Unlike the animals, we have souls; unlike the angels, we have bodies. God deliberately created us in this manner, and so we have a responsibility of balancing our physical and spiritual needs; overemphasizing one at the expense of the other will not bring us closer to the Lord. True wisdom lies in not only setting aside time specifically for God, but in using all our activities as a way of growing in His grace.
St. Paul speaks of “teaching everyone with all wisdom,” and this is what the Church has always tried to do—pointing out to the world the importance of seeking a proper balance among prayer, work, learning, rest, and leisure, and of having the inner foundation of faith that gives us the flexibility to shift from one to another as circumstances require. Abraham understood this. He was resting during the heat of the day, a quite sensible thing to do—but when he saw three strangers, the demands of hospitality took over, and he immediately sprang into action, and had Sarah assist him in preparing a meal for their unexpected visitors. Their generosity was rewarded; they were promised the miraculous gift of a son, in spite of their old age.
Martha’s situation was somewhat different. Yes, it’s true that without her work in the kitchen, her sister Mary wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sit and listen to Jesus, secure in the knowledge that the demands of hospitality were being taken care of. Martha was working hard. That wasn’t the problem; the difficulty lay in the fact that she was uncentered, drifting from one concern to another, without taking the time to invest herself completely and in what she was doing; as Jesus said to her, “you are anxious and worried about many things.” Her sister Mary was more focused; she understood there was a time for working in the kitchen, and a time for listening to the Lord, and that by doing each of these wholeheartedly, with an undivided spirit, she would be giving the Lord the greatest possible honor. This was the lesson Jesus wanted Martha to learn, and it’s one that is equally important for each one of us (Robert Barron, The Strangest Way, p. 34).
We as Americans are very big on “multi-tasking,” or trying to do two or more things at once. Quite often, this is an efficient, and even necessary, use of our time; it can make us more productive, and allow us to fulfill our obligations toward others—as when someone does a load of laundry while also thawing meat for dinner and running the vacuum, or prints out a report on the computer while simultaneously signing some checks and taking a phone call, or makes an important call on a cell phone while standing in line at the bank. It’s a good thing to avoid wasting time—but we often take things to an extreme. A very timely example is the fact that it was actually necessary to pass a law outlawing texting while driving; common sense would suggest that people shouldn’t focus on typing with their thumbs on a little keypad while driving a vehicle that has the potential to injure or kill themselves or someone else—but we as Americans can be very scattered-brained.
The Lord wants us to discover and maintain a proper balance in life. This certainly means setting aside time just for Him by praying every day and coming to Mass every weekend, but it also involves doing everything in a wholehearted manner, while consciously choosing to do it for God’s glory. This applies to our work, our household chores, and to any difficult or unpleasant experiences—but also to our enjoyments and pleasures, our leisure and rest, and our time with family and friends. We can offer up all these things as a prayer for God’s glory, and for any other intention we choose. Sacrifices don’t only have to be difficult and painful; they can also be easy and joyful; everything we offer to the Lord with a sincere heart pleases Him. Many times we can pray while we’re doing something else; even when that’s not possible, we can begin everything with a prayer, asking God for assistance in doing our best, or thanking Him for the blessings and opportunities we’ve been given, or simply sharing with Him whatever happens to be in our hearts at that moment.
There’s an ancient Latin saying: age quod agis, which means “Do what you are doing”—in other words, stay focused, enjoy and appreciate the moment as something valuable in and of itself, and try to recognize Christ’s presence in it. Living this way will help us make the most of life, and allow everything we do and everything we experience to be an occasion of grace.