I want to begin by telling you about two religious sisters. They both had an important part in my priestly formation. The first is Sr. Mary Finn. She lives at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and she has the habit of telling everyone, “Keep your eyes on Jesus.” So whenever she would see me in the hallway she would ask, “Christopher are your eyes on Jesus?” I would say yes, sister, but I’m not sure she believed me because she would then say, “Christopher, keep your eyes on Jesus.” This was always followed with a punch to the arm. And for a woman in her 70s she could deliver quite a wallop. She never got the memo about not hitting students, she was old school. But the message stuck, “Eyes on Jesus!” “Always!”
The second is Sr. Mary Bridget; she’s a Carmelite living in Boston. She once played the spoons on TV for David Letterman. Her community takes care of the aged and infirmed. They operate a number of nursing homes around the country. Every Tuesday during my second year of seminary I’d visit patients at their nursing home in Boston, St. Patrick’s Manor. Now in that facility every resident’s room had a prominent crucifix on the wall. If anyone removed that crucifix there’d by heck to pay. Sr. Mary Bridget would make sure of it. Even the Jewish residents had to keep the crucifix on the wall. Sr. Mary Bridget explained that the crucifix was there to remind the nurses and the sisters of whom they served. In serving the resident they were serving Jesus. So even in the midst of work they knew for whom they served. Now sometimes the sisters and the nurses would get flustered or anxious or distressed. In those moments Sr. Mary Bridget would say they’re acting like a bunch of Marthas. For a moment they took their eyes off Jesus.
In our Gospel today Martha, for a moment, took her eyes off of Jesus. She needed to learn that what we do for Christ has to flow out of what we are for him: true and devoted friends.
It’s easy to overload our agenda with activities and commitments (even good and beneficial ones) that we lose sight of our real goal in life: to know, to love, and to imitate Christ more each day. Only that will give real meaning to our lives. Only that will enable us to help others find meaning. Only that will fill us with the joy we long for.
Jesus isn’t saying that we shouldn’t do things, like serving others, working hard, and honoring our commitments. No, Jesus doesn’t reprimand Martha for her activity. He reprimands her for being “worried and anxious“ about all those activities. She’s become so caught up in getting things done, that she’s lost sight of why she’s doing them. And the result is; frustration, anger, impatience, losing her temper. Unless we are plugged into Christ and his grace, unless we constantly feed our souls with his words, unless everything we do flows out of our friendship with him – the one thing necessary – none of our actions, even the good ones, can have lasting value. And only lasting value will give peace to our hearts.
St Phillip Neri learned this lesson well. His nickname was “Mr. Happy-go-Lucky” and his holiness and good humor made him the most sought-after priest in the city of Rome during the mid-1500s. He was an adviser to popes and cardinals, kings and dukes, but also to beggars and shop keepers and regular people. Universally loved and respected, he reformed a corrupt city almost single-handedly.
One day a young man came to him after finishing his bar exam. After years of study, the young man had finally made the grade, and was about to begin a promising career in the law. He was also courting a beautiful, popular young lady. He was positively beaming with enthusiasm as he described his optimistic plans: first he would take a respectable job as a legal clerk, and then he would marry his girl.
St Phillip asked him one question. He said, “And then?” So the young man continued, explaining how he would climb the ladder of success and raise a family.
St Phillip asked him another question. He said: “And then?” At that, the young man frowned and thought for a moment. Then he started stammering about becoming a famous judge and having grandchildren, but his enthusiasm seemed to be waning.
St Phillip smiled, peered into his eyes, and asked him another question. He said: “And then?” The young man looked at the saint with panic and confusion – he had never thought that far ahead. He slowly walked away to think things over. The next day he joined St Philip’s oratory, and eventually he became a holy, fruitful priest.
Not all of us are called to the priesthood or consecrated life, but all of us are called to keep Christ first, to keep our eyes on Him. Sooner or later, only “the better part” will remain, and if we haven’t chosen it for ourselves, we’ll be left out in the cold.
The crucial sign that we may be following Martha’s footsteps a little too closely has to do with our prayer life. Not everyone is called to spend 4 or 5 hours a day in prayer as the cloistered nuns do. But every single one of us is called to at least have a prayer life. We cannot follow Christ if we do not love Christ. And we cannot love Christ if we do not know Christ. And we cannot know Christ if we don’t spend time with him in prayer.
Prayer is doing what Mary did in this Gospel passage: taking our place at the feet of our Lord and simply listening to him. And Eucharistic adoration is perfect for sitting and listening. Bring the Bible, spiritual reading, let our Lord speak to you through them.
He always has something to say to us. He is always thinking of us. He always wants to guide us. If we don’t pray, regularly and sincerely, we frustrate all those desires; we shut out the grace he wants to give us.
As the Catechism says, “Prayer is a vital necessity.”
As St Alphonsus Liguori wrote: “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned.“
If we find ourselves frequently becoming frustrated, angry, and impatient in the middle of our efforts to do good things, maybe we have let ourselves become so “distracted with all the serving”, so caught up in the whirlwind of our activities, like Martha, that we have forgotten the reason behind them. Renewing our prayer life is a sure way to remember.
Now one simple way we can do this is to every morning remind ourselves that everything we do we do for the Lord. There’s an old prayer that a priest once recommended I pray every day and in this prayer we offer up to God our day, we offer him our work. It’s a way to make our whole day into a prayer, to focus our day unto Him. It’s called the Daily offering, so even when our focus is elsewhere we’ve given our day and our work to God. The priest who gave it to me told me to tape it to my bathroom mirror so I’d be reminded to pray it every morning.
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you all my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.
In the Gospels we only read of Martha in three passages. The last we read of her is in John 12 and all that’s written is, “Martha served” she simply served Jesus. My prayer for us today is that we always serve Jesus in all that we do. Welcoming him into our home like Martha and into our Heart like Mary.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley