This Sunday’s Gospel about Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary often sparks a heated conversation about Martha doing all the hospitality work while her sister Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak. Now those who are goal- and action-oriented would sympathize with Martha’s complaint about her sister Mary, and may find it difficult to understand Jesus’ response that “Mary has chosen the better part”. In a way, I can relate to this story as many of you can. I personally have hosted family gatherings and as the host of the party, I became so focused on making sure everything was just perfect for the guests, that at the end of the party I realized that I didn’t really visit or spend much quality time with anyone. In the Gospel, the whole reason for having Jesus over to their house was to spend some quality time with him – “Mary has chosen the better part”.
The wisdom of St. Benedict’s Monastic Rule of “Ora et Labora” (Prayer and Work) gave me a better understanding of this Gospel passage. Notice in this monastic rule that ‘Prayer’ comes first, followed by ‘Work’. Jesus’ message to Martha is a message that emphasizes the importance of both prayer and work but giving priority to prayer as the “better part”. Why is that? Let’s take a look at why prayer and work should be harmoniously united.
The importance of Prayer is to have a deep personal encounter with God our Creator. That is why each day we should carve out some time in our busy schedule to have a heart-to-heart conversation with God. Prayer is ultimately a loving encounter with God as demonstrated by Mary who chose the better part by sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening intently to the living and life changing Word of God. This profound prayerful encounter with God ultimately gives us a deeper meaning, purpose and understanding of why God created us. This encounter with God ultimately gives our daily work new life, meaning, and purpose.
In essence, when we combine a life of prayer and work together it offers a fundamental rhythm for the balancing and ordering of our everyday life where work is now done for God’s greater glory and is no longer a mundane or routine act. As in the Gospel story of Martha and Mary, there is always the danger of disrupting our daily life rhythm of prayer and work where we can get out of sync and we too can forget to choose the better part.
Silence and freedom from distractions are necessary for keeping prayer separate from the other aspects of our lives. So, when you feel like work or life activities become a threat that consume your prayer life, I challenge you to carve out at least 10 to 15 minutes of your day and dedicate it to contemplative prayer. By choosing the better part you will restore the balance of “Ora et Labora” (prayer and work).
Fr. John Poncini