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Learning to Sit at Christ’s Feet and to Hear His Words

December 2, 2013

For those whose lives are characterized by Type A behavior, there is perhaps nothing so abhorrent as inactivity or a hiatus between projects or sets of goals. Since their self-image is dependent on their activity and accomplishments, moments for reflection, contemplation, or stillness are perceived at best as idleness and at worst as a dangerous loss of self. Impatience with delays and a sense of time urgency are simply symptoms of overly identifying self-worth with accomplishments and viewing life as nothing more than a series of goal-oriented tasks. Unfortunately, this stance results in a devaluation of relationships and a prizing of productivity that construes human beings as though they were machines built to produce ad infinitum or at least until the machines break down. Of course, we are not meant to be automated robots, but living persons in communion with others. And this means that we need to learn not only to do, but also to pay attention and to listen to ourselves, to our neighbor, and to our God.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 11.44.10 AMTo those with Type A tendencies, one particular passage in Scripture calls out with especial clarity: “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).  As you may recall, the Lord Christ made this statement while visiting the home of Martha and Mary after Martha became perturbed at her sister for not helping her with the tasks of hospitality. According to Saint Augustine, Christ called out Martha’s name twice in order to get her attention (Sermon 53) and shift her focus from the tasks at hand to the Lord before her. In commenting on this passage, Saint Augustine writes, “Our Lord then does not blame the actions, but distinguishes between the duties. For it follows, Mary has chosen that good part. It is not that yours is a bad one, but that hers is better. Why is it better?  Because it shall not be taken away from her… You are still at sea; she is in the harbor” (On the Holy Trinity, Book 1, 10). Commenting on the same Gospel, Saint Theophylact writes, “Our Lord does not then forbid hospitality, but the troubling about many things, that is to say, hurry and anxiety. And mark the wisdom of our Lord, in that at first He said nothing to Martha, but when she sought to tear away her sister from hearing, then the Lord took occasion to reprove her, for hospitality is ever honored as long as it keeps us to necessary things. But when it begins to hinder us from attending to what is of more importance, then it is plain that the hearing of the divine word is the more honorable” (Explanations on the Gospels).

For those with Type A tendencies, this gospel teaches us that even when our tasks and goals are praiseworthy from the perspective of the Christian life, time spent listening in stillness is not only necessary, but also vital for becoming the kind of people Christ desires us to be. In fact according to Saint John of Damascus, this passage is about the need for stillness (The Sacred Paralells, PG 95.1245), whereas according to Saint Basil the Great it is about the need for the vision of divine mysteries through prayer (Ascetic Constitutions, PG 31.1328). In general, the fathers viewed prayerful stillness (hesychia) as indispensable to the curing of man’s fundamental illness. Saint Gregory the Theologian wrote, “It is necessary to be still in order to have clear converse with God and gradually bring the nous back from its wanderings” (Oration 26, PG 35.1237ab). Through prayerful stillness enlivened by the invocation of our Lord’s name, the nous is purified and enlightened with the love and light of God. Unfortunately, someone who is constantly striving to do more and accomplish greater things is too busy with activity to engage in this healing process.  When we devote ourselves solely to the busy activities of modern life, the passions are allowed free rein choking off the gift of grace offered by stillness and prayer.  When left unchecked, the human heart becomes sicker until what is abnormal (workaholism) becomes the norm.  Rather than providing us freedom and serenity, the opposite fruits are borne in the human heart.

Happily, there is another way to approach life and work.  When hesychia is practiced and cultivated it renews and refashions our work.  Work becomes an expression of ourselves rather than our whole selves.  In this sense, we have a time for work, a time for prayer, and a time to love others, allowing God to fashions us and sustain us through His purifying love. For those with Type-A tendencies, it might be helpful to write out the verse, “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her,” hang it up in a place of prominence, and whenever seen, to take a moment to just be quiet  with one’s Lord, to say a prayer, and let the prayer do its work on us.

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