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One Thing is Needful...

by Robin Maas

Editor’s note: This is the second of two essays by Dr. Maas on Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus visited in their home in Bethany. “Martha, Martha” appeared in the Pentecost issue.

“One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her”. --Luke 10:42

Mary is the sister who makes the “right” choice. Among all the possibilities that life provides for us, not all choices are equal. There is, Our Lord tells us, a “good portion” — something better. And the reason it is better is that it lasts. Once we have chosen it, we cannot be robbed of it. Whatever it is, it is the “gold ring” of the Christian life. Those who seek it with a single-minded perseverance find. Unfortunately, many begin this search but are somehow led astray. With every good intention, they begin the quest for the gold ring, the pearl of great price, and then ... something happens.

In fact, many things happen and that is where our problem lies. Notice that Martha is not rebuked for her generous hospitality. Our Lord rebukes her for being “distracted”: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful”. The path we need to be on, the choice we need to make, takes us in a single direction. It is a movement from the “many” to the “one”.

Martha rightly wants to produce a fine meal for the Master. The meal she has in mind may be an especially labor-intensive one. Before long, the tasks involved in producing this meal become the focus of all her attention. She is no longer the mistress of her choices. Her guest takes a back seat to her menu. As Saint Luke describes it, in Martha’s case, her “much serving” results in distraction; and the next thing she knows, she is eaten up with resentment. The honored guest — the reason for all the effort — is nowhere in sight.

When we are faced with multiple possibilities from which to choose, many of us simply try to choose them all. The result is something we call “distraction”. Distraction is a “drawing away” — a movement in a different direction. A distraction is a detour. We may eventually reach our destination, but we take much longer to get there because we have allowed something else to hold our attention and expend our effort.

Distraction is a problem in many areas of life but it is a famously difficult obstacle in the spiritual life. Distraction is the great enemy of prayer; and unlike men, who by nature tend to focus themselves on a narrow range of activity, women — who are generalists — are usually quite easily distracted by the large range of activities and personalities with which they have to deal on a daily basis.

I think all of us know what it means to be distracted by “much serving”. All of us would say, first, “I wish I had more time to pray”. Then, when we find a bit of time: “I wish I weren’t so distracted when I try to pray.” Finally, “If I were a nun, I would be able to pray without these distractions.”

All of this is futile rationalization. We do find time for the most important things in our lives. We do encounter certain realities which hold (or even grip!) our attention. And nuns are also troubled with the issue of distraction.

Mother Seton faced this very same problem in her efforts to form the women in her community; but she called it by a different — and, I think, a better — and more precise name: “dissipation of mind”. Listen to her words of instruction in this regard:

You must be in right earnest or you will do little or nothing.... What sort of interior life would you lead, if every time the door opens, or if any one passes you, you must look up; if you must hear what is said, though it does not concern you? Or, if you remain silent and in modest attention to your duty, what would be your interior life, if you let your thoughts wander from God? I once heard a silent person say that she was listening to everything around her, and making her Judas reflections on everything that was said and done; and another, that she delighted in silence because she could be thinking of her dear people.... (Joseph Dirvin, Mrs. Seton, p. 339)

She continues:

You will never receive any lively impressions of grace until you overcome ... dissipation of mind. If you are ever so fervent at your prayers, or desire ever so much to be good, it will be all like putting hartshorn in a bottle and leaving the cork out. What will it be worth? So all prayers, readings and good talk you love so much will be to little purpose, unless you place a sentinel at the door of your heart and mind. You often lose in ten minutes by your dissipation of mind more than you had gained a whole day by mortification. (Mrs. Seton, p. 340)

Raising the question of why, in a house filled with pious women of good will, there was so little real progress in perfection, Mother Seton claims that it is because

... we do not watch over our interior, do not watch the impulse of nature and grace in our actions, nor avoid the occasions of the habitual faults we live in when it is in our power, or keep a good guard on ourselves when it is not. (Ibid.)

While the word “distraction” tends to convey a neutral sense about it, “dissipation” implies something notably negative. A dissipated life is a life that has not just been unfocused and scattered but, in some sense, squandered — wasted. Dissipation of mind is mindlessness — a living on the surface of things — without regard for what is transpiring beneath the surface. It is the inevitable result of our refusal to place that vigilant “sentinel” at the door of our heart and mind.

Dissipation of mind can, of course, be an escape from the unpleasant task of looking at what is going on inside; and we have found useful allies in our efforts to escape. The worst of these is probably television and videos. The “boob tube” has the power to fix our attention in a way that few other things can. For women, the telephone is another great ally. Our friendly chatter with a sympathetic friend fills the emptiness in a consoling way. And now we have the internet — the newest answer to our innate love for “gathering” — otherwise known as shopping — even if it’s just shopping for information.

So, we can fill our days with tasks, conversation, television and e-mail because, deep down, we want to be distracted. We would rather not face our fears, our sins, our doubts. It can also simply be a form of heedless selfishness: I want to do what pleases me. Now.

A certain amount of distraction is inevitable. It is part of the fallen human condition to find it difficult to be entirely focused on one thing for any particular length of time. We know now, also, that there are physiological conditions that make concentration especially difficult for some people. The very young and the very old are easy prey to distractions. So, the issue is not whether we will have distractions. We know that we will. The issue is whether we, consciously or unconsciously, seek them to protect ourselves from the “one thing needful”. The issue is whether we will continue to use our “distractions” as excuses for refusing to make that choice.

The great teacher of prayer, Saint Teresa of Ávila, complained constantly of her runaway imagination and the trouble it caused her in her prayer life. The following testimony should help us from being too discouraged — or too complacent:

On the vigil of St. Lawrence, just after receiving Communion, my mental faculties were so scattered and distracted I couldn’t help myself, and I began to envy those who live in deserts and to think that since they don’t hear or see anything they are free of this wandering of the mind. I heard: “You are greatly mistaken, daughter; rather, the temptations of the devil there are stronger; be patient, for as long as you live, a wandering mind cannot be avoided.” (Spiritual Testimonies, #39)

Despite this, she never gave up on the effort to focus on the one thing needful and her work is filled with advice on how to stay focused. As she advanced in the spiritual life, the distractions — while still present — were less and less a problem. The good news is that God’s grace is not impeded by our involuntary actions or by the limitations of human nature. In fact, in the same passage she goes on to describe a very lengthy and consoling vision she received immediately following this message. It would seem that just her recognition of her weakness and her desire to be rid of it were rewarded by her heavenly Spouse.

The Church’s traditional take on this story is to see Martha as the embodiment of the active life and Mary as the contemplative. One does, one is. The contemplative calling is, one senses, the higher calling; but not because a contemplative is automatically a holier person than one who serves actively, but because when we focus single-mindedly on what is happening interiorly, we are more directly exposing our weaknesses to the only One who can do anything about them or with them.

In other words, a true contemplative is a beggar — not a doer, not a fixer. The doer and the fixer are easily seduced into thinking that their successes are their own. A beggar knows she has nothing but what she has been given. A beggar, who knows that if she does not succeed in appealing to someone’s heart this day she will not eat, will stay focused, laser-like, on the task. She cannot afford to be distracted.

Martha’s sister Mary is a beggar — a beggar for grace. She sits at Christ’s feet to receive whatever He chooses to give her. She is not preoccupied with what she must do for Him. She is not afraid to show her hunger and her need to the only one who can satisfy that need. When He comes into her home, she simply forgets everything else and clings to Him.

Another tradition about this story concerns Mary’s identity. Since Pope Saint Gregory the Great first made the connection, the Church has tended to identify Martha’s sister with Mary Magdalene, and it is not hard to understand why. Just as the Martha-Mary story in John reveals a deeper look at the character of Martha, so it also reveals more — much more — about Mary.

When Jesus finally arrives — too late, apparently, to help — in the vicinity of the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Martha rushes out to meet Him, but Mary stays behind, waiting until she is summoned with the words, “The Master is calling for you”. Like Martha, she tells Jesus that had He been there on time, Lazarus would not have died. But, interestingly, her remarks do not elicit the same kind of response from Him as Martha’s. He does not attempt to reassure Mary, as he did Martha, that Lazarus will rise again. He says nothing meant to instruct Mary about His true nature. With Mary, who again throws herself at His feet, He simply weeps:

Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw Him, fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (Jn 11:32-35)

The connection to the Magdalene is seen most clearly in the account of that “last” supper in Bethany:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with Him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. (Jn 12:1-3)

While Martha performs the role of hostess, Mary, once again, abases herself by performing the role of a slave, anointing Christ’s feet with an outrageously expensive ointment (according to one commentary, costing the equivalent of a year’s wages for an agricultural laborer), and then drying His feet with her hair. This event mirrors that of the sinful woman who “loved much” described in the Gospel of Luke (7:37-38). She steals into the home of the Pharisee hosting Jesus and does the same thing, washing His feet with her tears, anointing them with perfume, and drying them with her hair. This woman is not named, but because Mary Magdalene is described as someone out of whom Christ cast seven devils, it is not unreasonable to think that it might have been she, and so the Church has presumed up until very recently. (In fact this description of the Magdalene occurs in Luke 8:2, immediately following the story of the woman who “loved much”.)

So did this striking event happen twice in the life of Christ? It may have, or it may be that we have here two different versions of a single event. In any case, the woman (whoever she was) in the home of the Pharisee, Mary Magdalene who is always pictured embracing Christ’s feet as He hangs on the Cross, and Mary of Bethany are all beggars. They abase themselves in the presence of the Lord. They claim nothing for themselves but the right to embrace His feet. They are willing to squander their worldly wealth for the sake of an unworldly love. They have all chosen the one thing needful. They are not distracted.

And, let us note, they are rebuked for that choice. The Pharisee rebukes the sinful woman — and Christ Himself for appearing not to recognize her status — and Judas rebukes Mary of Bethany for wasting precious resources. We can only imagine how Mary Magdalene would have been scathingly criticized for her “unbelievable” conversion. And, note also, once again Jesus comes to Mary of Bethany’s defense: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:7-8) Thus Mary’s simultaneously humble and lavish display of affection is itself a service to the Lord. While her sister feeds His body, she prepares it for burial.

It is not clear to me that the scholars have done us a service by trying to distinguish between Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany. Women like Mary Magdalene or the unnamed sinner who washes Christ’s feet have nothing to lose. Their reputations, their standing in society, their social effectiveness are gone. Their only treasure, their only concern, is the man whose feet they bathe with their tears.

Mary of Bethany (if she is indeed a third case) is also a penitent soul. She herself is a sign of the extravagant love of someone who is poor in spirit, who has nothing to give that the world values, nothing to prove. What she does have, she will keep for all eternity, for she too is one who “loves much”. And it is this “loving much” that gives us the critical clue to understanding just what the “good portion” is.

I know of only one thing guaranteed to keep a woman’s mind and heart transfixed — undistracted — on a single focus. It is love — personal love. A man may want to sacrifice himself for a great cause and dedicate his entire existence to it. A woman gives herself to a person. A meal may be a close second, but nothing can fix a woman’s attention like the thought of her handsome Prince Charming or the face of her adorable child. It is a human face that will lead her in one particular direction and not another.

Saint Teresa of Ávila, who read all the right books about method in prayer that were current at the time, ended up having to discard most of the advice they contained because they dealt so heavily in elaborate forms meditation or abstractions and the need for detachment. Her method of prayer might therefore best be described as a method of attachment. She advocates “mental prayer”, which she explains is “nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” (Life, 8:5) It is “not with the noise of words but with longing that He hears us.”

Over and over again Teresa speaks of the necessity of devotion to the personal humanity of Christ. Her great desire was not to serve Him but to be with Him, to be His companion. In her words, “I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ our God and our Lord, present within me, that was my way of prayer.”

In her description of the early stages of prayer she tells us that there are things we can do for ourselves to awaken love for Christ in our hearts:

The soul can place itself in the presence of Christ and grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for His sacred Humanity. It can keep Him ever present and speak with Him, asking for its needs and complaining of its labors, being glad with Him in its enjoyments and not forgetting Him because of them, trying to speak to Him, not through written prayers but with words that conform to its desires and needs....

This method of keeping Christ present with us is beneficial in all stages and is a very safe means of advancing in the first degree of prayer. (Life, ch. 12.3)

As for determining what method of prayer might be best for us, in her book The Interior Castle (written in 1577), Teresa gives some very simple but sound advice: “The important thing is not to think much”, she says, “but to love much: and so do that which best stirs you to love” — which is not the same thing as simply stirring up an emotional response. For this is what Christ is asking of us: Love. He too is a beggar.

The point of all the effort we expend to place ourselves in His presence and listen to His word is to effect a deeply personal response in us. Our prayer must not be confined to what goes on in our head but must begin to move, inevitably, to the heart as its main arena.

We need not fear that this effort will deplete us, she wrote in The Soliloquies, for “love turns work into rest” — and should we be the type of person who finds it impossible to meditate, this cannot keep us separated from Christ, for “all souls are capable of loving”, she wrote in The Foundations (1573-82). In other words, there is nothing in our nature that makes it impossible for us to choose the better portion, or to bring forth fruit that will last. There are always obstacles to love, but these obstacles are not insurmountable. If we persevere, we will prevail.

The path to a love that is totally fixed or focused on its object is a path that, as we navigate it, requires us to change. Teresa explains, “I hold that love, where present, cannot possibly be content with remaining always the same”. Her writing on this subject is extensive and complex, but it amply rewards any effort we may extend in its study. As we grow in prayer — or in love, which is what our prayer is meant to be — we find that our own activity and striving gradually diminishes. We eventually spending less and less time in our mental “kitchens”, reading recipes. More and more, we want to go out into the living room and just sit at the feet of the Guest we have invited into our homes. We gradually become content to do less and less while God does more and more, until in the high stages of contemplation, He floods us with a love so great that we are literally taken out of ourselves. Says Teresa, “He never tires of giving.... Let us not tire of receiving”.

We know that sustained intimate contact with another person always changes us — we become what we love. Teresa recognized that Christ requires change in us, in our person, our character. The more time we spend with Him, the more devoted we become, the more aware we will become of the discrepancies between what He is and what we are. The more our flaws and weaknesses will pain us. The more we will be re-formed into beggars for grace.

The outcome of this awareness of our own neediness is a great increase in the virtue of humility, which Teresa sees as the foundation of all other virtues and the only sure foundation for a life of prayer: “Believe me”, she writes, “in the presence of Infinite Wisdom, one act of humility is worth more than all the knowledge in the world.”

There is a mysterious circularity at work here; the more we beg for grace, the more we love Him and let Him love us, the greater will be the service we render Him. Such a love must necessarily bear fruit. Teresa writes “This is the reason for prayer [for loving much] ... the birth always of good works, good works.” (Interior Castle). Fruit that lasts is the fruit of prayer.

Finally, in Teresa we see the role of feminine fidelity — i.e., tenacity in relationships. The one thing we must never do, she says, is stop praying. Prayer is not a duty we perform. It is the agency for the single most important relationship we will ever have; and we must never abandon that relationship, no matter how unworthy we may feel, no matter how unfulfilling we might think the effort has become. Whatever the problem that tempts us to abandon prayer — or distracts us from it — prayer is still our best recourse to solving the problem of distraction or dissipation of mind: “There is no other remedy for this evil of giving up prayer than to begin again.” Even if the desire for communion with Christ seems entirely dead in us, we should never despair for Christ can raise the dead to new life and rekindle our desire: Teresa writes, “In the measure you desire Him, you will find Him.”

Mary has chosen the one thing needful, because she has chosen Christ Himself — not His gifts, not His consolations, not even her own worthy vision of what she thinks His mission must be. And, shocking as it may sound, she has chosen rightly to love Christ rather than to serve Him. She has allowed herself to be overwhelmed, not with a set of tasks that must be done on His behalf, but with grateful love. She does not say, “tell me what to do and I’ll do it”. She simply says, “Let me love you”. She places herself in a position of abasement — at Jesus’ feet — where she can do nothing but receive whatever He wants to give her.

Mary’s service is her love. Like the slave assigned the lowly task of washing the visitor’s feet, she lavishes her love on the Lord, pouring it over His feet — that most humble but essential part of His humanity — and the fragrance of that love fills the entire house, making it a place perfectly prepared to receive the honored Guest.

Let me add a little epilogue here by saying that having consulted the learned Bible scholars on just who Mary of Bethany really is, I have, in the end, come to the conclusion that the Church in Her wisdom is right about the matter. I think Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene probably are one and the same woman. And it is Matthew’s account of a sinful woman anointing Jesus’ feet that, in my opinion, secures the connection. Matthew describes a dinner in Bethany at the home of one “Simon the Leper” where

... a woman came up to [Jesus] with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on His head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial.”

The same setting, the same gesture, the same rebuke — this time from all of the disciples — and the same rejoinder from Jesus: “you always have the poor with you” and the same reference to His “burial”. But this account contains an element missing from the story of that last supper in Bethany — a mysterious and touching prophecy:

Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. (Mt 26:6-13)

The Mary remembered here has always been the Magdalene — the woman of extravagant gestures, the woman so lost in sin that, once freed and forgiven, there was nothing that could hold her, nothing that could tempt or distract her, nothing she could possibly choose except the one thing needful.

Robin Maas, former Academic Dean and Professor of Spirituality at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, is the founder and director of the Women’s Apostolate to Youth in the Diocese of Arlington. Dr. Maas directs retreats, lectures, and conducts parish classes and workshops in spirituality, the teaching of holy women, Scripture, and the religious formation of the young. She is the author of numerous articles on these subjects and of five books. Dr. Maas is married, the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of seven.

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