The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Martha and Mary
In the old days, Roman Catholics used to refer to the various religious orders as either “active” or “contemplative.” One was out in the world, running hospitals and schools, and the other was in the cloister, praying. One was said to be like Martha, busy and distracted by their many tasks, and the other was Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet.
Sometimes identify themselves more as a Martha or a Mary in their faith life. The Marthas like to organize potlucks and the Marys like to be in contemplative prayer groups. We’ve held up these two models as spiritual personality types, almost like the Enneagram or the Myers-Briggs. Both are considered equally valid ways of living out our faith.
While this is true, it comes from a misreading of this story. Here’s what happened. When Martha complained to Jesus about how Mary was not helping her, Jesus did not say “well, isn’t it nice that we’ve got different forms of spirituality here, one active and one contemplative. Martha, you go on and fulfill your vocation there in the kitchen and Mary, you fulfill yours here sitting on the floor.”
Instead, Jesus said “Martha, stop your fussing and settle down. Mary has chosen the better part.” The better part. Now I don’t think that this was a sweeping statement about the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life. It was, I think, a response to a particular situation.
We don’t know what was going on before and after this evening. But it is possible that what Jesus had to say that evening was important. Maybe he had just healed someone, or maybe one of his disciples had come to the stunning realization that Jesus was filled with the light of God, and said so. Whatever was going on, sitting down and listening to Jesus with devotion was, in fact, the better thing to be doing at that moment.
There are times for busy activity, and there are times for sitting at the feet of the Lord. Neither is superior the other. None of us is oriented toward just one or the other. But there are times when it is better for any of us to stop our fussing and settle down with God. There are times when it is better, as it says in Psalm 46, to be still and know that [God is] God.
If sometime you turn to back of The Book of Common Prayer and look through the Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism, you’ll find a section on prayer. It names 7 principle kinds of prayer: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition.
Adoration is when we sit at the feet of the Lord, when we leave ourselves behind and put our attention on God. Adoration the kind of prayer we have come to associate with Mary in this gospel story. It is the first form of prayer that the prayer book lists, and perhaps by implication, the most important. But what is adoration, and how is it different from praise or thanksgiving?
There is a phenomenon that takes place mostly, but not exclusively, with women and babies I call the Adoration of the Blessed Infant. The other day I went into my dentist’s office. A young mother, the dentist, in fact, came through the front door with her 1-year old, and you’d have thought that Brad Pitt just walked in. The receptionist, waiting patients, hygienists from the other examination rooms – they all immediately glided towards the baby. All eyes locked in on the little girl, smiles spread across each face, each body leaned in her direction. It was like iron filings being pulled toward a magnet. It was the Adoration of the Blessed Infant.
What they were doing was a form of what every good parent does with their baby. It’s called mirroring, or attunement. The parent stays focused on the baby’s eyes, and the two of them mirror expressions, eye movements, subtle smiles. It’s very natural and very important. From the infant’s point of view, there is no subject and object; the baby is one with the parent. It is how the baby learns that the universe is safe and good, and that they are connected in love.
So it is with the prayer of adoration, the prayer of Mary. We attune to God, we fix our attention on the One with whom we are one, and there is no subject or object. In doing so, we learn that the universe is safe and good, and that we are connected in love.
In other forms of prayer we bring out concerns into the relationship: we name what we’re grateful for, what we’re sorry for, and who we’re carrying in our heart. But in adoration, we leave ourselves behind. We only gaze upon the Beloved. It’s not about us at all; it’s about God.
The prayer of adoration isn’t complicated and it isn’t reserved for the especially holy, or for those who are supposedly a contemplative or introverted “type,” any more than attunement is reserved for those kinds of babies. We’re all made to adore God at times. It is natural to our humanity. And there are times when it is the better thing for us to be doing, as Jesus said that day in Bethany. Some are drawn to do it a lot, and others are drawn to it just once in awhile. It doesn’t matter. What matters, as the Catechism teaches, is that we learn to include it in our repertoire of prayer.
Sometimes adoration just comes over us. This happens for me when I’m sitting and listening to beautiful music. It happens sometimes when I’m serving communion here at this altar. Last week I was camping up in Abiquiu, and it happened almost every time I lifted up my eyes and took in the beauty of that powerful land. In these times, I know I am with God, and I’m just happy to be there.
But adoration is also something that we can sometimes set out to do, just as we set out to offer prayers of thanksgiving or confession or intercession. In adoration, we are not praying for anything. We’re not expressing our needs, we’re not asking for a feeling of peace, we’re not focused on ourselves or other people at all. We’re focused on God.
How do we do this? God is, after all, invisible and silent. How do you focus on a mystery? Well, in this case it’s probably more helpful to do it than to talk about it. So let me demonstrate, by guiding you for a few minutes in prayer.
close eyes, feet on the floor, hands on your lap
chest, soften and warm your heart - light
light in heart radiates outward, beyond you
in this room, connecting you with those around you
beyond this building, into neighborhood
sky above, out into all the earth
light that is within you is everywhere; it is the Spirit of God
no subject and no object
you are part of it
Russian Orthodox Theophan the Recluse: prayer then consists only in a standing before God, in an opening of the heart to him in reverence and love.
now take a few moments to stand before God
asking nothing, expecting nothing
in reverence and love