Mary and Martha are alive and well and both living inside all of us!
It is an interesting observation that if you ever do a workshop with people about Mary and Martha, most will say that they are more Martha than Mary. And they will admit it as if they are somehow failures for being like that. But the truth is we need to be both these people. Martha is the hands and feet of Christ, the active Christian. Mary is the contemplative, sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from him what actions to take.
So we need to be both Mary and Martha to be fully rounded Christians – but not necessarily both at the same time! In the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of the two women (Luke 10: 38-42) we know that Martha was banging around in the background, whilst Jesus was talking to Mary. Martha was determined to make her presence and her irritation known. She made it impossible for Jesus and Mary simply to be quiet together.
Only lately have I realised that Martha is alive and kicking often when I want to pray. Part of my mind behaves exactly like her. As soon as the Mary in me tries to settle down to listen to God, Martha starts muttering about all we have to do. What about that email? What about that visit you promised to make? What about the phone call to a bereaved friend? What about the ‘to do’ list? Then there is the voice of accusation about all the things I have failed to do, and a rising sense of anxiety as I begin to feel, I must make up for lost time now; I haven’t got time for prayer! Of course, the Martha in me longs to settle down with Jesus, too, but she is “worried and upset by many things” and can’t help but nag Mary and complain to Jesus.
What can we do about the noise of Martha when we are trying to listen to God? To have both Mary and Martha in us at the time of prayer is perfectly normal and to have both sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet is ideal – the contemplative needs to be active and the active contemplative. Some days Martha is very quiet. But some days she makes such a racket that Mary cannot hear herself think. It doesn’t matter how long you have prayed or even how disciplined you are about your practice, this is the experience of most of us. But I have found that if I imagine simply sitting at the feet of Jesus and looking at him, and allowing him to gaze at me, my thoughts and emotions are calmed. Sometimes I simply share with him the thing that is most bothering Martha and then I just wait. In the silence filled and the pause the anxiety subsides and Martha no longer dominates the conversation.