Nearly forty years ago I came on retreat to Mirfield. It wasn’t the first time – I had by then come to expect that I would find refreshment and uplift in this place. It had been a bad year in Northern Ireland. Where we lived you rarely went to sleep without the sound of gunfire or an explosion and it was a relief to come to somewhere that was calm and quiet. I was, in those days, about 24 and looked like a half-starved twelve-year-old. Apparently I was given to wearing outlandish ties, as the Prior of CR helpfully reminded me when I came for interviews to join the Community some eleven years later.
The retreat was conducted by a very handsome young Father with dark wavy hair whose name was Crispin Harrison and who was assisted by the baby-faced, curly-haired Damian Garwood.
I can’t remember what the retreat was about but Crispin had decided to be avant garde and introduce the idea of having a time for discussions. We divided into two groups and my group met in a room which in years to come evolved into the upper sitting room. There were two men in that group who were destined to drop in and out of my life for the next thirty-nine years. They have both gone to their reward, the second just about six months ago.
One of them was substantial in build, a south Yorkshire man, an inspector of drains who would one day be a student of mine at the College of the Resurrection. The other was a cousin of a famous CR Father. He was thin and bony, had a piercing high voice and was rather opinionated. Needless to say I didn’t enjoy the group work. I did learn one phrase that I have never forgotten. As we came out of one session the inspector of drains turned to me and said: “’E’s a right Mary.”
How different from the Mary who was ‘right’ in today’s Gospel. When we speak of a Mary as opposed to a Martha we think of someone quiet, someone who doesn’t fuss – a good listener. Yet I wonder what Jesus meant when he said ‘Mary has chosen the best part.’
Did he mean that those adoring ladies of the Fraternity of the Resurrection who sat in rapt attention, reporter's note pad in hand, ready to take down every golden word uttered by a CR Father, were superior to the other army of ladies who manned the tea and cakes?
I think that we are talking about something other than just listener and doer here. It is not even about contemplative versus active life or monastic as opposed to apostolic. The galleries of heaven are full of those who have served God by their good and generous works and the cup of tea or the glass of something has often been more welcome than the rapt attention. The one who rescues a starving infant and the one who contemplates the wonder of how a baby comes to be are equally lovers of the God of Glory.
The rebuke to Martha suggests that she was missing something important. Jesus placed a high value on hospitality. He rebuked Simon the Leper because he had not acted hospitably when Jesus visited him. In that story the woman who washed his feet worshipped Jesus through her activity. He himself was among them as one who serves. But Martha’s complaint about her sister lacks generosity and emphasises her own importance. Fr Luke used to tell of a brother in Africa who would make his entry just as the others had settled down to afternoon tea and by the manner of his appearance would make the others feel that while he toiled in the vineyard all they did was drink tea and gossip.
It is likely that Martha is one more follower who has missed the point. She is not, like James and John, looking for position in the new order, nor the disciples who took offence at them but still wanted to know who was the greatest. She is more like the woman at the well who did not recognise the gift that was being offered in the one who asked for a drink.
Martha saw a nice man, a good friend, someone who loved her family. She wanted to return that love - perhaps she smothered him with love but she missed the one thing needful, the better part, the gift of God who could give living water.
Sometimes we are too busy – we all like being busy because it proves that we are valuable and so we like people to see that we are busy ("My department is essential to the community’s very existence. I have preached ten sermons in three days. I can’t cope with all this work"). Sometimes we are too anxious – there is a cloud above our head containing a multitude of disasters ("How are we going to pay for the Church? What will I do if we get a woman bishop? What is that pain that won’t go away?") Sometimes we are too fussy - we try to please, to show how much we love or how much we care either for individuals or for all the good causes that make a demand on our conscience. It is all worthy but, like Martha: “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.”
The better part is to know who and what Jesus is. He is the gift of God who can bring us the healing waters. He calms the seas: "Why are you anxious, you of little faith?". In the face of our cosmic anxiety he tells us through Martha and Mary that he is the presence of God’s power even in the face of death and corruption.
My friends, this week we have been contemplating the Lord in the Psalms which tell us that even in the valley of the shadow we need fear no evil. If we dwell under the shelter of the Most High we can rely on the protection of the Almighty. Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. What would it be like if we took him at his word? What if we ceased to take anxious thoughts for tomorrow? What if we ceased being distracted by many things? What if we looked towards Jesus the author and fashioner of our existence? As the most anxious person in the Community I don’t know the answers to these questions but Jesus puts them to us and it is he who says "Be of good cheer – I have overcome the world".
John Gribben CR