We are faced with a choice between two concepts which, though they might perhaps be reconcilable, are regarded as opposed. One is an active idea of prayer: it accompanies work, and sanctifies work. The other a contemplative concept in which prayer, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of God, must "rest from exterior action and cleave only to the desire of the Maker."
In the monastic life one could find, according to [Saint Bernard of Clairvaux], three vocations: that of Lazarus the penitent, that of Martha the active and devoted servant of the monastic househould, and that of Mary the contemplative. Mary had chosen (said St. Bernard) the "best part," that there was no reason for her to envy Martha or leave her contemplation, unasked, to share in the labors of Martha. The portion of Mary is, by nature, preferable to the other two and superior to them. And one feels, reading between the lines of St. Bernard, that this had to be said because it was not unknown for Mary to envy Martha. The portion of Mary was not in fact always desired by the majority.
St. Bernard himself solves the problem by saying that after all Martha and Mary are sisters and they should dwell together in the same household in peace. They supplement one another.-Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer
A life spent serving God gets busy.
I'm looking at my calendar for this month, and it includes the following:
- Create and send out winter calendars
- Prep for Sunday morning teaching
- Communicate with worship team about schedule
- Plan prayer and worship night for families
- Have coffee meeting with volunteer leaders
- Contact a few local churches about a localized missions trip
- Meeting with the ministry department head
- Youth pastor networking lunch
- Be on high school campus once or twice each week
- Gather with my small group
- Have coffee with the fellow pastors and leaders at my church
In the midst of all this, I need to pray. I want to pray. But ministry can feel like Martha, busy and harried with all the ministry responsibilities I need to do. (And yes, I know that I can delegate some of the ministry tasks on my plate. I have already. I can't really delegate much more.)
So when Thomas Merton agrees with Jesus that "Mary has chosen the best part," I also concur. But I also know that the life God has called me to lead doesn't allow for much in the way of sitting. Walking alongside Jesus, following Jesus where He leads, being sent out by Jesus to minister and heal and proclaim the kingdom--I can relate to those biblical images. Sitting at the feet of Jesus is one that I long for.
Activity and contemplation: can they ever go hand in hand? Aren't we called to love God (contemplation) and love our neighbor (activity)? If Mary and Martha are sisterly postures of prayer, can I embrace both? Can I practice a posture of contemplation and reflection while I also take care of the ministry activities before me? I pray that I can. If I'm going to be busy, I want to be busy like Jesus.
In the midst of the busyness, I still need to slow down and listen for the small voice of the Spirit.
I need to wait, to rest, to breathe, to sit at the feet of Jesus.
I want my Savior to whisper, "Joel has chosen the best part."