The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for July, 2005

God Knows Your Heart

It is a comforting awareness. God knows our hearts, knows what makes us tick, knows our sorrows and sufferings, capacities and incapacities. The fact that God knows our hearts is, however, a two-sided coin, as the Scriptures reveal. Let’s take a look first at what we might call the negative (though still salutary) side of this divine knowledge of our innermost selves.

God knows our bad will, our secret sin, whatever darkness or duplicity there may be within us and, to use a phrase of St John of Kronstadt, whatever “unrighteous movements of the heart” He may find as well. In one of his stern rebukes to the Pharisees, Jesus said: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). So the fact that God knows our hearts means that we cannot hide anything from Him. We cannot pull the wool over his eyes: “You have kept…our hidden sins under the light of your scrutiny” (Psalm 89/90:8). Nor can we appease Him with external acts or rituals when we are unreconciled to Him within. His harshest criticisms were leveled at those who presented a righteous exterior but who were interiorly corrupt: “You outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:28).

On the other hand, we find consolation in God’s thorough knowledge of us, because we can “reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts and He knows everything” (1John 3:19-20). Often we don’t even know what is in our hearts, and our inner life is in turmoil or confusion. After lamenting the inexplicable dark mystery of the human heart, Jeremiah cried out: “Who can understand it?” But God immediately replied: “I, the Lord, search the mind and try the heart” (Jer. 17:9-10). We are not stuck forever with the limitations and defects of our hearts, if we confidently entrust them to Him Who Is Greater Than Our Hearts. They may need a lot of healing, a lot of changing, but we can still rest in his providence and mercy.

In one of our prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, after acknowledging our sinfulness, we say that we run to Him for refuge. See, when we sin, we shouldn’t run away from God in shame but toward Him in repentance, like the prodigal son hastening to his father. For where else can we find forgiveness and healing for our wounded and reckless hearts? Adam and Eve hid from God after their sin, but He found them out anyway. Better for you to ‘fess up right away and get it all on the table, for God already knows your heart.

Sometimes we come before God trying to explain or excuse ourselves, or even trying to tell Him what we know is best for us! Be still and know that He is God. He knows your heart; He knows what you need before you ask. Take courage and consolation in that. He is with you; He understands. He won’t let you wallow in self-pity or mediocrity, however, because his compassion is based on truth and on what He knows you can do with the help of his grace. So reach out for that divine hand that is reaching out to you. God knows your heart, and if you let Him, He will make it one with his own.

Unrighteous Mammon

One of the most obscure sayings of Jesus (in my opinion) is this one: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations” (Luke 16:9). Since I don’t understand it very well myself, I thought I’d explain it to you.


The saying is found in the context of the s
tory of the dishonest steward, the teaching on serving two masters, and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. First of all, does “unrighteous mammon” have a counterpart of “righteous mammon”? It doesn’t seem so. “Mammon” is a semitic term that means money or riches, but that can also mean anything in which one puts one’s trust. The Lord never has praises for earthly riches, so mammon in general must be “unrighteous,” i.e., a kind of “necessary evil” for our bodily survival. But it can be even worse than that—if it becomes the “master” one chooses to serve instead of God.

Yet Jesus tells us to make friends by means of it, as a way of securing salvation (being “received into the eternal habitations”), as the steward in the parable used money (though deviously) to make sure he’d have hospitable friends after he lost his position. It seems that in our case charity can redeem the unrighteous mammon. Whatever we do to others, we do to Christ, as He has said elsewhere, so a righteous use of unrighteous mammon (for example, helping the needy, providing for loved ones, supporting the Church) will be blessed by God.

It also seems that there is a kind of test involved: “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (16:11). So then, the counterpart to unrighteous mammon is not righteous mammon, but “true riches,” that is, spiritual riches that provide for our heavenly habitation. The Lord has said not to store up treasure on earth but in heaven.

We have an example in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man reveled in his unrighteous mammon, but did not make a friend with it (i.e., Lazarus, who needed help). So when the mammon failed—I think that “when it fails” must mean when material things are finally of utterly no use to us, i.e., when we die—the rich man was received into an infernal habitation but Lazarus into a heavenly one. Lazarus, who had no mammon at all, was comforted in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man ended up “in anguish in this flame,” and at that point he even begged alms from the beggar Lazarus! But he learned too late where the true riches lay. He was not “faithful in the unrighteous mammon,” so he was denied the genuine, everlasting riches.

If our one master is the Lord, we will know how to be faithful even with unrighteous mammon, using it to “make friends” with the poor and needy, who will become intercessors for us and will be happy to receive us into pleasant eternal habitations. For mammon will ultimately fail, and we will be left only with the spiritual values and works of our lives. Will you be found to be worthy to be given the true riches?

Lost and Found

Lost sheep. Lost coin. Lost son. The fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke is the Bible’s “lost and found” department. Happily, everything that is lost in this chapter is eventually found.


Being
lost is a metaphor for being in sin, separated from God and from the righteous. Thus the sheep that wanders away from the flock is lost, the coin that has disappeared is lost, the son who leaves home for a dissolute life is lost. But what rejoicing there is in heaven when what was lost is found! Jesus says something quite startling about this: “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7). This will have its application in the parable of the Prodigal Son, over whom there is more rejoicing than over his less troublesome and “righteous” brother (who, however, still was in need of some repentance).

As Joni Mitchell would say, “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” In English translation, that means that we rarely (or insufficiently) appreciate what we have while we have it, and only realize how precious it was when we no longer have it. Such was the case with the father of the prodigal son. We can tell, by the words of the elder son, that the father more or less took his sons for granted, although it’s also clear that they were well provided for. The departure of the younger son was a shock, a loss, a bereavement, for the father didn’t know if he’d ever come back. When he did return, it was like finding something precious that was lost, even like resurrection from the dead: “this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Now our heavenly Father lovingly provides for us, though we can’t say that He takes us for granted. But we can perhaps say that his concern for us increases when He sees us straying, when we become lost through our sin and heedlessness. Therefore we can say that He is more concerned about the lost sheep or children than about the faithful ones who are already doing his will and who will be generously rewarded for so doing. (One gives more attention to a sick child than to a healthy one who doesn’t need it.) But when the lost ones return—then you will see the rejoicing begin! It’s not only God but even the angels, Jesus says, who will be celebrating the return of the repentant sinner. There is so much happiness in heaven because they know how much horror there is in hell. They know how urgently important it is (for his own sake) that the lost sheep return quickly to the arms of the Good Shepherd, who will carry him home to the Father.

Repentance is an important theme in the New Testament. The words “repent” and “repentance” show up about 60 times, but the theme or concept of the change of heart and life that repentance indicates is found almost everywhere in the Bible. “Lost and found” refers to sin and repentance. Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10), which means he came to “call sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). Repentant sinners tend to be humbler than the righteous; they tend to be more grateful and to love more ardently, for they know how far they have fallen, they know from what they have been mercifully saved. The one who is forgiven much, loves much (see Lk 7:36-50).

Let us pray for those who are still “lost,” that they may be “found,” that the grace of repentance will be granted, especially to the worst of sinners, those who have wandered farthest from the Father’s house. And let us rejoice, not only over the returning sons and daughters, but let us be grateful ourselves, for I can probably safely say that you who are reading this were once dead and are alive again; you were lost and now are found. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; his merciful love endures forever!

No Part Dark

After yesterday’s long reflection on the nature of evil and the devil, we’ll take a (shorter) look at ourselves, and the need to be free from anything within us that would negate the will of God. The Lord puts it this way: “When your eye is sound your whole body is full of light, but when it is not sound your body is full of darkness… If your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light” (Luke 11:34-36).


Jesus is not so much concerned
with the benefits of good eyesight for the body as He is for the clarity of a healthy and pure inner vision, which enables us to know and do the will of God. St Paul prays that you “may have the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19). For this to bear its intended and full fruit, there must be “no part dark” within us.

I said yesterday that evil is the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. Sin removes light and hence increases darkness in our souls. The whole work of our purification, our prayer and asceticism, is to come to the state of soul that is without darkness. This is a life’s work, but it is no less urgent just because it takes time. We learn from St John that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1John 1:5). Not being God, we may wish to make our apologies and quickly withdraw from the labors of living in the light. But St John still urges to follow closely Christ the Light: we “ought to walk in the same way in which He walked…Everyone who hopes in him purifies himself as He is pure” (1:6; 3:3). A tall order, but with God all things are possible. In any case, what is the alternative? Wherever light recedes, darkness advances by default.

St Paul urges us to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” and to “walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:11,8). Darkness and light may be metaphors, but they indicate essential realities of our lives. The consequences of allowing darkness to fill us are too horrible to imagine (though we ignore this at our peril). Even if we are mostly light within, we must not get complacent, but rather persevere until there is no part dark. Would you be content with having no cancer in your body—except in one place? Spiritual darkness spreads even faster than cancer.

I will close with an excerpt from a blessing we use for candles, and you’ll see why: “…as the visible light of the candles dispels all darkness and shadow, so let the invisible Flame of the Holy Spirit, which illuminates our hearts, cast out the darkness of sin, so that with the eye of an enlightened soul, we may see that which is pleasing to You and necessary for our salvation, and having triumphed over the dark afflictions of this world, we may in the end attain light everlasting…”

Go for it. No part dark.

Hell No!

The most well-known retort of the devil to God is the infamous non serviam (I will not serve). Hence it follows that all his fellow hell-dwellers scream (though no one hears) an incessant and eternal NO to God. To be damned is to be suffocated in an everlasting negation, not only of all that is good, but of all that simply is.

I’ve quoted the Christian novelist Charles Williams several times on this blog, because he has some very interesting insights into the supernatural world, both the bright side and the dark side. In War in Heaven, the villains are a few satanists: one a mere dabbler, another an experienced practitioner, and the other a soft-spoken fellow who is completely possessed. We can learn a few things about the nature of the devil from this novel, and hence why we ought to stay as far away from that horror as possible.

First, and this is nothing more than a point of traditional theology, it is asserted that evil is not a “thing” in itself, but an absence of good, as darkness is an absence of light. If evil were something that substantially exists, then we would have to assert that the all-good God created it, for He created all that exists. What of the devil, then? He was created as one of the (or the) most glorious and powerful of the angels. The name “Lucifer” means “light-bearer”. But as the saying goes, the corruption of the best is the worst. When the light-bearer forsook the Light through pride and disobedience, the absence of Light became total, and there was nothing but darkness left. Angels, with their superior intelligence, do not have the ignorance and other limitations humans do, which make us eligible for another chance, through repentance, after we sin. They know what they do, and therefore they are eternally confirmed in their choice for or against God. The fallen angels are not substantial evil, but absence of good to the fullest extent possible in an existing being. This “absence” is not passive or inert, however. It is manifested in every form of malice, blasphemy, and degradation known to man (and then some).

The devil incites moral evil in the hearts of men, but is himself beyond all that. He is even beyond hate, even though it is the air he breathes (into people). The devil simply is utter and total negation, absolute rejection of God, of all that God is and does. Satan tries to negate good with evil, truth with lies, love with hate, and, perhaps most insidiously, reality with illusion (this is the essence of temptation). He is “NO” personified and as such is the adversary of Christ, because “the Son of God, Jesus Christ…was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2Cor. 1:19-20). Christ is wholly Yes; the devil is wholly No. His only objective is to destroy—everything, totally (see John 10:10). And, as one of the satanists in the novel ominously says about his infernal master: “He is the last mystery, and all destruction is his own destroying of himself.” This total negation would not stop even if he could destroy the whole universe. If it were possible, he would ultimately annihilate himself, for he is compelled to utterly reject and negate all that is.

Why does he want to destroy not only what is good but all that simply is? This is the reason: being as such is good in itself, and here lies the intolerable, eternal conflict within the devil himself. The fact that he was created by God indicates the good of being. His insatiable lust for negation must destroy all good, and if the fact of his existence is a good (originally, at least), then he has to destroy himself as well. But he can’t, because he was created to be immortal, and this is part of his hell. Goodness and light may be wholly and irrevocably absent from him, but he still exists. Satan is a black hole of evil, sucking itself into itself unto an eternally frustrated act of self-destruction in a maniacal, suicidal cosmic frenzy—and he’d like nothing better than to take you with him.

Why have I been going on about such dark things? Well, think about it. This applies to each of us. Every sin is a No to God. The more you say No to God, the more you are confirmed in rejection of what is holy, good, true, and beautiful. The more you reject God and disobey his commandments, the more you share in the total darkness, the total negation that is the activity of the evil demons. Do you want to share forever in that raging (but impotent) hatred that can never spend or satisfy itself on the object of its hate? Do you want to endure the torment of endless self-destruction that never quite attains annihilation?

There will be no surprises on Judgment Day. That Day simply will reveal what we are, what we have made of ourselves. If our habitual response to God has been No (without final repentance), then we will in the end be consumed with that horrible spirit of negation, and we will flee as far as possible from the Light, from the Love that is all Yes. The only place to go then is hell. Human life is a high-stakes adventure, and it is imperative that we say Yes to all that God is and has given for our salvation. The only thing we should say No to is the “negator” himself, to all the evil he incites in the world, and to all temptations to negate the will of God in our own lives.

Hell? No! I won’t go. I will be a Yes to God in Jesus Christ, through fidelity to his will, “for faith says Yes to every truth of God, seen or unseen” (von Balthasar). In gratitude for the Lord’s merciful love, I will serve. How about you?

In This You Rejoice

The Scriptures often invite or exhort us to rejoice, but perhaps we don’t feel like rejoicing all the time, having that “What’s good about it?” attitude to someone’s friendly “Good morning!” But if we take a look at the First Letter of Peter, we will see that he’s not asking us to rejoice about any particular morning or any given set of circumstances at all. His sights are set much higher.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1Peter 1:3-4). Immediately he adds, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…” He’s not asking them to rejoice over the pain of their trials, but to rejoice in the fruit of trials well-borne, the end result of the “testing by fire,” that is, what has been prepared for us in heaven, which is “the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

St Peter is inviting us to keep before our eyes the glory of the Kingdom, through a “living hope” in the power of the resurrection of Christ. He knows we have to suffer on earth, but the vision of heaven is what makes the suffering endurable, even embraceable. This was also the intention of St John when he wrote the Book of Revelation. St Paul had a similar idea when he exhorted us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thess. 5:18). Note that he didn’t ask us to give thanks for all circumstances, but rather in all circumstances. It’s rather difficult to induce any sane person to become deliriously happy over some tragic disaster, but in the midst of sufferings believers can still look to the reward, the outcome of faith, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.

Now, our looking to heaven for consolation doesn’t mean that we must view this life as wholly miserable. We still have sacraments and sunsets, music and merlot, creativity and contemplation, and opportunities to give and receive love. But since many tend to feel the sting of suffering more intensely than the gentle joys of walking in the Spirit, it is good that God has placed before us the promise of everlasting delight in the glory of heaven.

So, whatever is troubling you, let it not consume you. Read the first chapter of First Peter, and try out the first chapter of Ephesians while you’re at it. In this you will rejoice.

On Bearing Burdens

St Paul encourages us to “bear one another’s burdens” because this will “fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). How are we to understand this? In the most basic sense, and one of which all of us are capable, it simply means to help others in their needs, for Jesus’ sake. We can all “be there” for others when they need us, and offer whatever material aid or spiritual consolation it is within our power or charism to give.


But there are deeper levels. In one of Charles Williams’ novels, he calls this bearing of burdens “the doctrine of substituted love.” He means that one can, on a spiritual level, out of love for another—and in conscio
us reliance on God’s grace—will to experience another’s fear or grief or other burden of suffering, and thus help free them from it, provided they believe it can really happen. (This isn’t the same thing as psychic “sympathetic suffering,” for that generally does nothing to help relieve the original sufferer of his pain.)

Williams calls it “picking up another’s parcel,” of which they first have to let go. In the case recounted in the novel it was worry and fear. After Pauline agreed to let Peter Stanhope “carry her parcel,” we read the following: “Her mind leapt back to Stanhope’s promise, and she knew that, whatever the explanation might be, she had been less bothered for the past ten minutes than ever before in any solitude of twenty years… She had promised to leave it with him… she only had to keep her promise… She wouldn’t worry; no, because she couldn’t worry… She was, then and there, incapable of distress. The world was beautiful about her, and she walked in it, enjoying. He had been quite right; he had simply picked up her parcel. God knew how he had done it, but he had.” Not everyone can do this, because not everyone has the capacity for it. But that does not mean that the capacity cannot be developed.

In his book on anxiety, Hans Urs von Balthasar notes the difference between “sin-anxiety” and the anxiety (or angst) of the Cross. The former is the one that plagues most of us, the one that Jesus forbids his followers in the Sermon on the Mount—the one that has its source either in a lack of trust in God, in a culpable psychic or emotional malaise, or in unresolved guilt. One would vainly attempt to glorify sin-anxiety and call it the angst of the Cross (as people often confuse psychological depression with the “dark night of the soul”). There is a vast space between the two: the space of Christian faith, hope, and love. If one cannot rid oneself of sin-anxiety through divine grace and the practice of Christian virtue, one can never reach the spiritual maturity and radical openness of spirit needed to embrace the angst of the Cross and bear fruit thereby.

One can enter into Christ’s redemptive sufferings only if one is already immersed in a profound joy, trust, peace, and genuine Christian love. Then he is prepared to bear, with Jesus, others’ burdens, and that only insofar as it is the explicit will of God. We can “pick up the parcels” of others through the power of the Cross, once we are free from anxiety and rooted firmly in grace. At this point we are no longer mere servants or disciples of Christ, but friends and lovers. At this point it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in and through us.

There’s really only one way to advance beyond sin-anxiety, to enter into the joy of grace and love, and to be strong enough to share the Cross of Jesus for the sake of others: “Come to Me… Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Dust We Are

When Abraham dared to argue with the Lord over the fate of Sodom, he used this humble introduction: “I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Dust he was, and to dust he would return, as the Psalmist also knew: “What profit would there be in my going to the grave? …can dust sing your praise or proclaim your truth?” (Psalm 29/30:9). It has been said that, materially seen, we can be reduced to a few dollars worth of chemicals, and we know what a small pile of ashes one can become if he passes through the crematorium. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Are we ultimately nothing more than a mound of dirt?

Before I get spiritual on you, let’s remember that there is, even in the Old Testament, a good side to being dust. The fact that we are dust actually spares us from punishments that would be due to nobler substances. God has compassion on us, we learn from Psalm 102(103), because “He remembers that we are dust.” If we were angels we’d only have one chance to get it right, but being dust makes us eligible for repentance and forgiveness. God knows our humble origins and the limitations of people made of dust, and so He makes allowances for our lack of wisdom and fortitude. He knows that we struggle with “grievous weakness and painful passions” (as one of our liturgical texts laments), and that we have much difficulty finding our way clear of all kinds of besetting (or besotting) plagues. Being dust ought thus to make us humble, and grateful for God’s forbearance. Yet we can’t seem to learn the simplest of lessons. “Why are dust and ashes proud?” (Sirach 10:9).

Though our bodies shall return to the dust from which they came, there is more to humanity than the assembling and disassembling of bodies of dust. How do we know? Pull your old dusty Bible off the shelf and read Genesis 2:7. You will see that once God formed man from the earth, He breathed the breath of life into him. This dust is sustained by the very breath of God! We’re on to something here. We also learn that we are created in God’s image, which immeasurably ennobles this humble dust. But the greatest thing (and this—for better or worse, depending on your perspective—is the destroyer of all our excuses) is that God Himself has taken our dust upon Himself by becoming man in our Lord Jesus Christ. He has united our dusty human nature to Himself and—descending farther into hell—He has also taken on the filth of our sins and nailed them to the Cross. Through faith in Him and obedience to Him, come what may, we will discover that we are more than mere dust, and are destined for the glory God has prepared for those who love Him.

So dust yourself off and get busy with the work of your transformation! God does the lion’s share, but He still requires our free co-operation. Can dust sing his praise? Yes, when it is animated with an immortal soul and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Being dust we shall return to dust, but being united to God we shall rise again and forever sparkle like gold dust in the Sun of Righteousness!

Set Your Face

As the time for Jesus’ passion approached, He decided to head toward Jerusalem. Well, He didn’t merely decide, He set his face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). That is a biblical expression for a resolute determination to do something. He was so determined to do his Father’s will that even the Samaritans noticed it—though with a certain haughty indignation. They wouldn’t even let Jesus stay in one of their villages, for they knew his face was set toward Jerusalem. The disciples wanted to blast them with fire from heaven (saw too many movies, I guess), but Jesus reminded them that He came to save lives and not destroy them.

A funny thing happened on the way to Jerusalem (not “ha-ha” funny, but curiously remarkable). Jesus invited others to set their faces as well (9:57-62). Or rather, He showed them how properly to set their faces, since they already wanted to but didn’t quite understand the demands of discipleship. One who wanted to follow Him didn’t realize that it meant relying utterly on Providence, even unto being virtually homeless. Another one wanted to wait till his parents had died so that he would be free of filial responsibilities. But Jesus reminded him that if he was going to preach the Kingdom of God, that work must be left to others.

Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, one poor fellow wasn’t even allowed to go home and say goodbye to his family and friends before setting his face toward the Kingdom. Jesus’ response to his request was: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Here is the basic principle: if you set your face forward, you cannot turn it back. If you resolutely determine to follow Christ, you cannot return to your previous way of life; you cannot even toy with that idea or make a few compromises. It’s all or nothing. If you are to be fit for the Kingdom of God, you set your face and keep moving forward.

I would guess that most of those who would take the time to read this have already (at least to some extent) put their hands to the plow in the service of Christ and the Kingdom. But we have to examine our consciences: are we looking back? Have we made resolutions about which we tend to waver or compromise? Do we sometimes long for the “fleshpots of Egypt” while we sojourn through the desert on the way to the Promised Land? Do we try to justify or rationalize behaviors that are incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus? Do we fall into self-indulgence or self-pity when what the Lord requires is fidelity, courage, and trust?

Let the dead bury the dead. You have to speak and live the word of the Lord. Set your face toward Christ and resolve to do his will. Put your hand to the plow—and don’t look back. The only thing that ultimately matters is being deemed fit for the Kingdom of God.

Martha, Martha

The story of Jesus’ visit to his friends Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) is well-known, as is its standard spiritual interpretation: Martha represents the “active” life and Mary the “contemplative” life, the latter being understood to have higher value because of its more direct relation to God and because of Jesus’ words about Mary choosing the “better part” (literally, the “good portion”).

But the story deserves another look. We ought to notice that it is not the “active life” as such, i.e., the labors of active service to God and one’s neighbor, that is somehow of inferior value. Martha was not criticized, either by Luke or by Jesus, for serving (indeed, to serve is of the essence of Christian life, and Jesus Himself said that He came to serve). Luke says, however, that Martha was “distracted” because of her service, and this is the beginning of the difficulties. Jesus does not offer his gentle reproach because she is serving, but because she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” It is her anxiety, not her serving, that places her, on the scale of values, a step below Mary’s quiet listening to Jesus’ words.

One can listen to the word of God even while serving, if one is free from anxiety, distraction, and other such troubles. Listening to the words of Jesus is always the “good portion” in comparison to anxious and unrecollected busyness. But service is essential to the Christian vocation, so we have to learn how to listen while serving, in addition to making adequate time for quiet listening alone. For if we do not set aside sufficient “quality time” for contemplative prayer, which is basically listening to the word of God and responding in faith and love, we will not be able to listen well during our times of more active service.

God will fill whatever interior space we open to Him, and our silent prayer time is meant precisely to create “space” within our hearts for his indwelling. It doesn’t matter if we do not experience his presence during the times we explicitly invite Him to abide in us. As long as we faithfully do so, He will come, perhaps in a way and at an hour we least expect. God is sovereign and free, and the fact that we give Him a certain amount of time each day doesn’t bind Him to manifest Himself during those particular times. But be sure that if you open your heart to Him in prayer, He will come to you, sooner or later, with his blessing and grace.

So be like Martha in your zeal to serve, but do not be like her in her anxiety and distraction. Be like Mary in your quiet, focused listening to the Lord, both in the solitude of your contemplative prayer time and in the activity of your serving. No one will take from you this good portion.

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