Patti Armstrong is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families and Dear God, You Can’t Be Serious. She has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. Patti and her husband live in North Dakota, where they are still raising the tail end of their 10 children.
I don’t argue with God, but I did have a question for him. It would surface while preparing a meal. That is when the New Testament story of Martha and Mary occasionally crossed my mind.
In Luke 10:38-42 at the home of Mary and Martha, we learn that Mary sat at the feet of Jesus soaking in his teachings while Martha was in the kitchen making preparations. “She went to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”
Mary chose Jesus. Of course that is better. But meals do not prepare themselves.
So my question to Jesus was: if Martha joined Mary, who was going to get the food ready?
An Order to the Spiritual Life
I finally came to understand the point of that story thanks to a recent Sunday homily by Msgr. Thomas Richter at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck. “There is an order to everything, even the spiritual life … even to loving God,” he said. “The first order of the spiritual life is listening to Jesus.” Loving God isn’t doing stuff for him, Msgr. Richter explained. It is wanting to be with him. “Only then,” he said, “can we receive what Jesus has to give us.”
It is the relationship with Jesus that allows him to heal us and awaken our heart to his presence, Msgr. Richter said. “Jesus want us to be with him and throughout the Gospels he tells us: You can’t choose material things over a relationship with me; you can’t choose mother and father over me; you can’t even choose serving me over being with me.”
He said that dads often need to be reminded of this — working too much when the family just wants him home to be with them. It is the reason, Msgr. Richter said, that we go to Mass on Sundays — to be with Jesus so he can feed and heal us while we sit at his feet and listen. “We have not started being Christian until being with Jesus is the most important thing,” he said. “Our greatest service to him is wanting to stay and be with him.”
Relationship Before Actions
This explanation made me realize that I had heard this lesson before, but never recognized that it was the same point Jesus was making to Martha.
In Mother Angelica’s book Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises, she relates a time when she ended up on the wrong plane and landed in California rather than her intended destination in New York. “It was a perfectly good plane,” she recounted, “but it wasn’t my plane.” Using this example, Mother Angelica explained that there is a lot of perfectly good work to be done, but is it our work? The only way to find out is by spending time with God so he can direct us accordingly — relationship before actions.
Msgr. John Esseff has been a priest in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania for over 60 years. As a young priest during the 1960s, he became very involved in social justice activities. For several nights, he returned late to his apartment and felt a presence there. It filled him with fear so he would begin praying the Rosary and peace would replace the fear. This scenario repeated itself for several nights. Since Msgr. Esseff eventually became an exorcist, I expected him to tell me that the devil was the presence. Instead, to my surprise, he said he realized it was the Blessed Mother filling him with fear until he prayed.
“I was in danger of losing my vocation,” he explained. “I was so busy doing things that I had let my prayer life slip.” According to him, many vocations have been lost this way, especially during the Sixties and Seventies when activism often took the place of a prayer life. Actions came before a relationship with God.
Getting back to Martha, should she have stopped working? We are not told. But Msgr. Richter quoted St. Augustine: “Peace is the tranquility of ordered desire.”
Without the proper order, he said we get anxious and worry about many things. “She [Martha] needs to recognize where the problem lies,” he said. “It’s not in Jesus or Mary, or in the circumstances of her life, but the problem is in her heart. Surrender to God and he will do everything for you; that is the first step in loving him.”