Spare of prayer for my poor mother, now gone to God. She and Dad had four sons and no daughters. My brothers and I were dearly loved and always cared for. But it is true that Mum did have a moment of personal delight when the first granddaughter finally arrived—at last God had blessed her with another female in the Comensoli family!
My brothers and I were dutifully good sons, let me just say, but we weren’t exactly subtle and gentle in our ways. What we did to family gatherings at Christmas is a good example. Christmas lunch was always at the family home, where Mum would provide a traditional Christmas feast. The grandkids loved it, as did we all. But it inevitably meant that Mum spent Christmas in the kitchen, cooking and serving.
So as things got harder for her, the four of us devised a plan to get Mum out of the kitchen. We drew up a rotating roster for Christmas gatherings at our places, but excluding Mum and Dad’s place. A great solution, we all reckoned (and still do), freeing Mum of all the burden, but it certainly wasn’t seen that way by Mum! Who’d have thought?
Often enough—though wrongly, I believe—the story of the meal at Martha and Mary’s place is seen in binary terms: Martha’s active work verses Mary’s contemplative stance, with Mary seen as the ‘winner’. This is not a good way of understanding what happened, nor of appreciating the point Jesus was making. Let’s go back to the story and take a closer look.
We are told that the visit of Jesus to Martha’s place allowed for Mary to spend time at the feet of Jesus, while Martha herself went about the serving of the guests. There is nothing wrong with either of these actions—to serve is always honourable, and to be present to another is likewise a good thing.
Much in this story hangs on the description given of how Martha was disposed, not what she was doing. We are told she was ‘distracted by all the serving’. Her focus was everywhere else other than on her guest, even though her serving was for him. Martha’s activities were fine; it was where her attention had drifted that Jesus had noted.
St Teresa of Avila, that great mystic Carmelite of the 15th century, was quite direct and uncomplicated in her spiritual life, offering easily graspable suggestions to those who asked. She once wrote that ‘All one need do [in prayer] is go … and look at Him within oneself, and not turn away from so good a Guest, but with great humility speak to Him as a father.’
Here, we have a simple way of understanding how to be present with Jesus: attentiveness. Attentiveness calls for a loving focus on the other before you. They are the ‘good guest’, whoever they are, and they look to draw from our hearts an attentiveness to their needs. On that day in Bethany, at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Jesus was the ‘good guest’ among them. What did he need? Where did his hosts need to be? How could they best be attentive to him? This is what Jesus noted: not that Martha was serving, but that she had allowed herself to be distracted from him.
So, spare a good thought for Martha, that we may see the ‘good guest’, Jesus Christ, and attend to him. And spare a prayer for my poor mum, the mother of four incorrigible sons, and no daughters!
Featured image: Maurice Denis, Marthe et Marie, 1896, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli17 November 2023