I struggle with “the spiritual life” as it is most commonly construed. Because I am a pastor, others may imagine me sitting down to pray for long hours; more realistically, others might suppose that I have mastered the art of efficient and efficacious prayer—that is, that I have a red phone to God, and God always answers when I use it.
I look at the shelves in my pastor’s study, and they are heavy-laden with books with titles like How to Be a Monastic Without Leaving Your Day Job, Discerning God’s Will Together, In Constant Prayer, The Art of Spiritual Listening, and of course, Celebration of Discipline. These titles don’t even scratch the surface (I’m something of a bibliophile), but they point to that same “commonly construed” idea of what “the spiritual life” ought to entail: quiet, contemplation, discernment, meditation, and the like.
But I’ve a problem. I long to live a life of spiritual peace and tranquility. I’ve been assured by so many authors, so many contemplatives that such a life is not only possible but preferable. And yet I am almost never content, almost never at peace. Perhaps I am a Mary at heart who’s been forced to do Martha’s work.
But it occurs to me that conventional interpretations of the famous “Mary and Martha” passage are rather unfair to Martha. Mary and Martha are playing host to Jesus and his cadre of disciples. Martha is bustling about in the attempt to be the consummate hostess. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him talk. When Martha complains that Mary isn’t helping (and demands of the Lord that he do something about it!), Jesus’ response is, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42, CEB).
The fact that Mary is sitting and listening does not mean that this is what Martha should be doing. In a subtle shift, Jesus has reframed the discussion in order to advise the individual to whom he is speaking. “Martha, you’re not angry because Mary isn’t helping; you’re angry because you’re worried and distracted by many things, when only one thing matters.”
When I was in high school, one of my favorite movies was City Slickers. In it, Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a New York City resident who has just turned 39 and who is going through something of an existential, midlife crisis. As a birthday gift, his more adventurous friends give him the gift of a 2-week southwestern cattle drive experience. The trail boss is a tough-as-nails man called Curly, played by the late Jack Palance (who won an Oscar for this role). Initially, Mitch and Curly do not hit it off. Curly overhears Mitch insulting him behind his back, and later, a destructive stampede turns out to have been Mitch’s fault. His punishment: spend the night alone with Curly, seeking out missing cows that had strayed from the herd during the stampede.
At first fearing for his life (for Curly was, indeed, an intimidating, unpredictable man), Mitch found that despite Curly’s tough exterior, he was very wise. Curly offers Mitch some advice about how to deal with all the problems in his life. “Do you know what the secret of life is?” he asked Mitch. Holding up an index finger, he said, “This.”
“Your finger?” Mitch asks.
“One thing,” Curly replies. “Just one thing. You stick to that, and the rest don’t mean shit.”
“But what is the one thing?” Mitch queries.
And smiling, Curly replies, “That’s what you have to find out.”
That’s the Hollywood version of Jesus’ conversation with Martha. “You’re distracted by many things; you need only one thing.” Where conventional interpretation gets this pericope wrong is in suggesting that Mary has found “the thing” but Martha hasn’t. Mary has found her thing. Martha is, perhaps, unable to figure out which of her life’s many things is her “one thing.”
This has implications for congregations that support a bazillion ministries and missions which, if honestly assessed, are really the pet projects of a few individual members. A congregation should have a singular identity and a focused missional calling as a body. But some congregations are distracted by many things, and it behooves church Sessions (or whatever their governing boards may be called) to prayerfully consider seeking the “one thing” that God is calling their congregation to be and to do.
But getting back to my original point: this has implications for individuals like me. I long to be more like Mary, because sitting at Jesus’ feet sounds like a peaceful place to be. But I’m not Mary; I’m Martha. And recently, I discovered that no less a venerated and respected mystic and monastic as Thomas Merton was, arguably, a Martha just like me.
In the most recent volume of Weavings, “a journal of the Christian spiritual life,” Johnny Sears writes, in “Merton and the Spirituality of Restlessness,”
“For much of Christian history, restlessness has been viewed with suspicion and seen as an indication of a lack of faith or conviction—especially in the eyes of the ‘powers that be.’ After all, a restless spirit can be disruptive and out of control. It usually raises hard and uncomfortable questions and is generally inefficient from an operational standpoint. Nonetheless, restlessness has continued to break out when the systems and structures of religion or society have become too rigid and the answers too easy…
“In this tradition, spiritual restlessness is a gift that wakens us to an inner discontent with the self-delusions and culture illusions that prevent us from realizing the fullness of our humanity as beings created in the image of God. Indeed, when we listen to our discontent, it can drive us to seek a better way” (Weavings, Vol. XXX, No. 1, pp. 17-18, emphasis added).
Sears goes on to note that “restlessness alone is insufficient,” and that a “container or crucible” is necessary to contain us as we undergo the transformation that restlessness seeks and signals. For Merton, this was Benedictine monasticism. For others, it is something else. But again, the theme of “One Thing.”
On the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, I am an ENFP (Extrovert iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving). This casts me as a charismatic, visionary leader with poor attention to detail and follow-through (admittedly, this is remarkably accurate). But it also points to the restlessness of my personality, work ethic, and spirituality. As noted by Roy M. Oswald and Otto Kroeger in their book published by the Alban Institute, Personality Type and Religious Leadership,
“The continual search to find themselves can leave NF clergy with a lack of peace and joy in their lives. The gap between who I am now and who I might become is never bridged with NFs. So that they do not surrender to impossible demands, NFs must recognize this gap as a spiritual issue that will always be with them so that they can experience some degree of peace. As the old NF St. Augustine once prayed, ‘We will be restless, Lord, until we finally find our rest in you.’”
As U2 succinctly puts it, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” But while I may never “find peace” as if it were my life journey’s destination, perhaps I can “make peace” with the journey itself, acknowledging that my restless spirit is what keeps me walking on The Way in the first place.