Mary of Bethany’s Genius

jesus martha mary

Anton Dorph, Jesus, Martha and Mary

The Papist has abounded lately in articles about the beauty of “useless” things and the importance of leisure.  These are great and timely topics, and I’d be remiss not to put in my own two cents.

When I open my Bible in search of fodder for meditation I am often drawn to the episodes involving that great woman of inaction and practitioner of useless arts, St. Mary of Bethany.  In all the scenes in which she appears Mary exemplifies the contemplative attitude and the art of adoration (things apparently little prized in the world then as now).  You’ll remember that it was she who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” when Jesus was a guest in her house, while her sister Martha prepared dinner (Luke 10:38-42); who “sat in the house” waiting for Jesus when he came to console her and Martha after the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11:1-44); and who “wasted” a jar of costly ointment anointing Jesus in anticipation of his burial (Mt 26:6-13; also Mark and John).  The first story is simple but beautiful, and sums up Mary’s character succinctly.  Jesus, you’ll recall, gently chides Martha for being over-anxious about preparing their meal and extols Mary for having chosen “the better part, which shall not be taken from her.”

The Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft calls the story’s core message of “the one thing necessary” one of the most profound ideas he has ever heard:  I agree.  To me the tale is a great charter of freedom.  In it Jesus relieves us of the burden of external and self-imposed pressures to do “great things” in the world.  He justifies the humble, receptive and passive disposition of Mary of Bethany as the best one—an attitude that causes one to live a life devoted to prayer, works of charity, and the contemplation of beauty and truth, rather than external “accomplishments.”

It comes naturally to us young adults to be eager, driven, ambitious and preoccupied with the future.  We are on fire with enthusiasm for life and want to make our mark on the world; we desire to build a career, make friends and influence people, find a mate and start a family.  In this we are aided and abetted by the culture around us—a culture which is best summed up by the hyperactive buzz of social media news feeds.  For myself, I have always been a contemplative Mary-type, more interested in thinking about and understanding things than doing things; more interested in savoring and preserving the beauties of the past than building a shining future.  My experiences of the past few years have only strengthened these introspective tendencies.  Because of the poor economy I have had great difficulty finding my niche in life; I have found myself mired in chronic unemployment and underemployment.  During a time of life when it is natural to want to play Martha, I have been forced ever deeper into Mary’s role—doing more reading, thinking and praying than working.


Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

For a long time these circumstances caused me great frustration, but I have gradually come to understand what God is up to.  I know that He is gradually purifying me of external attachments, chastening my pride and rebuking my desire to control my life.  One of the effects of adopting Mary of Bethany’s prayerful attitude is to become more humble before the Lord; as one loses one’s faith in things, one becomes more radically dependent on God.  Thus having discovered the world to be a great delusion, a barren wasteland, I have retreated more and more into study, prayer and contemplation.  Having given up career-building and trying to author my own life story, I have simply entrusted myself to God’s care.  And in doing so I have found a deeper peace than I ever had before.

At moments when I am convinced there is no place for me in this world, I remember that there is always a place at Jesus’ feet; so I go there. “Sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his teaching” is not merely the sustenance of life; it is life’s very substance and purpose.  It is our loftiest activity as human beings. It involves immersing ourselves in the mysteries of Jesus’ life, uniting our heart with his during the sacrifice of the altar, and turning to him in prayer constantly and for every reason.  It is a lifelong project, and one with infinite rewards.  All action that is worth doing will proceed from this all-encompassing contemplation.

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