Again Magazine, September, 1994, Page 11-12.
Reconciling Mary & Martha
by Jan Bear
When Saint Luke recorded Christ’s words to hard-working Martha that “Mary has chosen that good part” (see Luke 10:38-42), he captured in that brief scene one of the fundamental tensions of Christian life.
Martha and Mary: work and prayer, community and solitude, movement and rest, goaldirectedness and simple being. Between these two poles of the Christian life, the Church teaches us (or attempts to teach us) to find balance.
As I write these words, my husband of twenty years and I are preparing to move into a larger house, to make room for two Russian children that we hope to adopt. There are the practical details of buying, selling, moving, filling out adoption forms; and the weekly deadlines come and go at the newspaper where I work. My friends of my own age already have children in elmentary school or older, and their struggles and frustrations are a warning of how difficult it is to make decisions that will mold a child’s future.
And so, as time whistles in my ears, I continue to search for that place of silence that Psalm 91 talks about: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” The Church and her saints testify that this place of silence does indeed exist and that it is in some mysterious way connected to God.
Nevertheless, even within the Church, there is a pull between the poles of Mary and Martha. The beauty and majesty of our worship calls out to the Mary in us: but it takes Martha to make the worship happen—minding the candles, cleaning the church, baking bread and buying wine for the Holy Gifts, preparing food for the weekly potluck. As a member of the choir, I find that we need Mary to help us pray well and Martha to help us sing well. On the parish council, Mary is there in the friendships we forge among the members, and Martha is with us as we hash out our necessary and healthy disagreements about what is best for the parish.
And, as in everything about the Church, its struggles and victories flow outward into every area of life. I first discovered that I was a writer when I was about ten years old, and through the decades, that undercurrent of my life has ebbed and flowed. In my “pre-Orthodox” Christian experience, I found no place for my writings. My fiction didn’t tell the “truth” (in a factual sense), and the things I saw to tell as nonfiction didn’t fit into the religious categories I heard about in sermons and Sunday school. My works didn’t “win souls” or accomplish objectives. Since becoming Orthodox, I have found room for this aspect of my life—a huge area, ranging from the hymnography that so beautifully expresses Church doctrine to the novels of Dostoevsky, who brings his Orthodox world-view into “secular” literature. For all the “uselessness” of a novel, it takes a very Martha-like goal-directedness to write it. And for all the “usefulness” of a nonfiction book on the Orthodox Christian view of the cosmos, it takes a very Mary-like spirit of contemplation to research it.
In my family—both at home and in my parish—we work together to learn what it means to be Christians at the end of the twentieth century. Men and women nowadays are like pioneers in this postindustrial wilderness. The old family roles don’t quite work any more—neither the pre-industrial model of man as hunter-gatherer-farmer, teaching boys how men work, and woman “keeping the home fires burning” (literally), teaching girls about women’s work; nor the industrial model of the “Leave it to Beaver” family where Dad goes off to the office every day and Mom stays home, and the school teaches kids how to live the industrial lifestyle. The postindustrial model seems to be that both Dad and Mom are absent, and no one teaches the children what it means to be human, much less what it means to be a man or a woman.
To say that this model doesn’t seem to be working is a thundering understatement. We need to ask what Woman is, what Man is—defined not by work roles, but by something deeper and more permanent. I am utterly confident that the answer can be found in the Church—in her Scriptures, in her saints, in her Holy Tradition; but the answer is not immediately obvious, because this precise question has never been asked before. I also believe that the loss of a “Mary” in our society—our busyness, our utilitarian bent, even our lack of a monastic presence—is both a symptom of the problem and a contributor to it.
In the Church, though, we find the model of one who resolves the tension between the two sides of our lives—the “other” Mary—the Theotokos. She took on the daily, practical responsibilities and anxieties and difficulties of rearing her Child, while remaining a true contemplative who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2: 19). Her icons show this perfectly. Holding her Creator as a little boy in her arms, she gazes in profound contemplation at His mystery.
The idea, I think, is not to eliminate Martha, but to help her stop being “distracted with much serving.” We are a sacramental Church. That means that the family meal we serve on Tuesday evening is only one step removed from the eucharistic meal on Sunday. It means that serving the poor in the name of Christ is serving Christ. If we Orthodox Christians are, as Bishop Kallistos says, profound materialists, then the work and effort of serving, planning, implementing, executing are important. But we must, like Christ, protect the “Mary” in our lives— in our homes, in our time, in our hearts.
Jan Bear is a parishioner at Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Portland,
Oregon. She co-wrote, with Father George Gray, Portraits of American
Saints, published by the Diocese of the West, Orthodox Church in America.