Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Living Between the Lines

In the Gospel of St. Luke we read that our Lord came to Martha’s house and while she set about at once to prepare his meal, her sister did nothing but sit at his feet. She was so intent upon listening to him that she paid no attention to what Martha was doing. Now certainly Martha’s chores were holy and important…But Mary…was totally absorbed in the highest wisdom of God concealed in the obscurity of [Jesus’s] humanity.

Mary turned to Jesus with all the love of her heart, unmoved by what she saw or heard spoken and done about her…Why? Because it is the best and holiest part of the contemplative life possible to mortals and she would not relinquish it for anything on earth. Even when Martha complained to Jesus about her, scolding him for not bidding her to get up and help with the work, Mary remained there quite still and untroubled, showing not the least resentment against Martha for her grumbling. But this is not surprising really, for she was utterly absorbed in another work, all unknown to Martha, and she did not have time to notice her sister or defend herself.

My friend, do you see that this whole incident concerning Jesus and the two sisters was intended as a lesson for active and contemplative persons of the Church in every age? Mary represents the contemplative life and all contemplative persons ought to model their lives on hers. Martha represents the active life and all active persons should take her as their guide.” (William Johnston, tr. & ed., The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, Doubleday, New York: 1973)

In 2005 I led a retreat for the Affiliates of the Order of Julian of Norwich, entitled "Living Between the Lines: Reconciling the Martha & Mary in Ourselves as OJN Affiliates in the Midst of our Day-to-Day Challenges". The gist of the retreat was to help folks following a rule of life, however formally or informally that may be designed, to live that life faithfully, learning to "read between the lines", learning to distill from the printed page of a rule the essence and spirit which lies behind the words.

As I see it, two elements figure into this process: 1) learning how to balance our contemplative and active be-ing in accordance with God’s will, and 2) maintaining this balance in the midst of the real-time and challenging environment in which we find ourselves: family, parish, workplace, community, nation, world. The more proficient we become, by God’s mercy and grace, in these two endeavors, the more deeply we’ll be living our simple rule which is none other than a life of Love.

Two touchstones may help guide reflections on this a bit. One is a passage from Luke’s Gospel, and the other is a contemporary novel, entitled The Monk Downstairs, by Timothy Farrington (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).

The Scripture passage is one well-known, but I suspect readers may be less familiar with the novel, although seven years ago it was a best-seller. It’s the story of Rebecca Martin, a divorcee and a single mother with an apartment to rent,
and a sense that she has used up her illusions. In her words: “...I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’ve got a daughter learning to read and a job I don’t quite like. I don’t need violin music...” The new tenant in her in-law apartment is Michael Christopher, who happens to be “on the lam”, so to speak, after twenty years in a monastery, and is smack dab in the middle of a dark night of the soul. Which causes Rebecca to suspect that she’s not as thoroughly disillusioned as she’d thought.

Rebecca’s daughter’s name is, coincidentally, Mary Martha. She’s delighted with the new arrival, as is Rebecca’s mother, Phoebe. Phoebe is a rollicking widow making a new life for herself among the spiritual eccentrics, hippies, really, of the coastal California town of Bolinas.

Rebecca’s friend, Bonnie, urges her to “hook up” with Michael, but Rebecca feels that neither Bonnie, nor Phoebe, nor Mary Martha can understand how complicated and dangerous the business of love actually is for her.

Over the course of the novel, Rebecca’s friendship with the ex-monk, Michael, begins gradually to develop toward something deeper. In the process Michael wrestles with demons of despair, of yearning for a life of prayer, while
adjusting to the need for living in the world, in his case flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s. Rebecca struggles with her own temptation to hope. But it’s not until she’s brought up short by some realities of life and death that she begins to
glimpse the real mystery of love, and the unfathomable depths of faith. It’s a story about one woman’s spirit, as well as of her relationships, and of the power and possibilities of love. I encourage you to give it a read.

The Scripture passage from Luke 10:38-42 relates:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:38-42)

In the novel, Michael, in a letter to his periodic “antagonist”, Brother James, who is still in the monastery, comments on the Martha/Mary passage: ...Meister Eckhart goes so far as to insist that Martha is the spiritually mature sister, that Mary in fact needs to get up off her butt, and that Jesus’ words to Martha are not chiding at all but rather reassuring: that Mary too will eventually mature sufficiently to let go of the intoxication of his simple presence for
the true spiritual work of an activity rooted in God’s love. was easy for me to feel righteous in my obstinacy, for years on end, when the rewards of contemplation were vivid and all activity seemed like a kind of distraction. Ruusbroec castigates the ‘natural emptiness’ of certain mystics of his time, their tendency to rest in a silence that is merely avoidance. But who is to say, at any given moment in a soul’s journey? By their fruits ye shall know them...but fruits ripen slowly, especially the fruits of silence. Push too hard along Martha’s busy path and you may wake one day to find that you don’t believe in anything
anymore. Your own dry will has made every effort arbitrary. Abide too stubbornly in Mary’s quiet and you risk morbidity, mere inertness, a nothingnessas arbitrary and willed as the nothingness of Martha’s driven and empty activity...

But it was not until I passed into the desert country of my own dark night, when the joy of contemplation withered into emptiness and dread, that the conflict reached its crisis for me. It was no longer a question of balancing Martha’s claims against Mary’s; the seed of love at the root of both the active and the contemplative life seemed to have died in me...I had simply lost my way.

These are the baffling ways of God. Abbot Hackley now is dying, and finding his joy in the prayer of quiet presence; ...And I have fallen in love with Martha and bent my will to serve her at last...” (pp. 218-219)

The novel, Luke's Scripture story, and our lives are totally enmeshed in relationships. With that in mind I throw out to you some questions: food for thought, grist for the mill, fuel on the fire of your spiritual life:

+ At this point in my life what are my relationships like: with God? with others? with myself?
+What is it right now which particularly preoccupies me and demands my spiritual attention and energy?
+ How committed am I, really, to truth and honesty about who I am, humanly and spiritually?
+ Where or to whom do I go to draw strength for coping with my day-to-day living?
+ To what kind of ongoing conversion/transformation/redemption am I being call, especially in my relationships?
+ How do I feel about the "Martha" and "Mary" in me?

I couldn't help but end the retreat in 2005 without giving some hint about how things turned out in the novel, and I can't help but do it here also! The novel ends with Rebecca, Mary Martha, and Michael, hopeful yet still unsure of their future, attending the wedding of their friends, Bonnie and Bob, at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. As they’re leaving, Mary Martha spots the labyrinth in the outdoor courtyard and, of course, has to walk it, or rather “run” it! While Mike sits by on a bench Rebecca catches a glimpse of him as she walks the labyrinth. He looks “wonderfully placid”: "...Rebecca gave him a smile and made her next turn, and her next, and for a moment she was filled with a sudden quiet joy. There was nothing ahead of her but the cathedral, its upper reaches drenched in sunset gold, and the plum trees in the evening hush, waiting for spring. There was nothing ahead of her but all the steps to be taken."

And for each of us, too, there’s “nothing ahead but all the steps to be taken”, faithfully and with love continuing to “live between the lines”, with St. Benedict’s words in his famous Rule sounding in our ears:

...Whoever you may be, then, in your eagerness to reach your
Father’s home in heaven, fulfill with Christ’s help this small
Rule, which is only a beginning; and then at last you will arrive,
with God’s help, at those lofty heights of teaching and virtue
which we have mentioned above...” (RB, 73)

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