Martha, Martha, you’re worried and upset about many things. But Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.[i]
I recall waking up to the monastery bells while it was still dark out, shuffling across the foggy courtyard of the Trappist Abbey. It seemed to me like the middle of the night as I entering the building, headed up the carpeted stairs, and quietly settled down on one of the kneeling benches to attempt thirty minutes of silent meditation. It was a disaster.
Though I love times of quiet, I fidget a lot. Once I’ve settled down into a posture of rest, my long legs get jumpy with nervous energy and shout out to be stretched. My skin prickles, calling for various places to be itched. My clothes get rumpled and need to be readjusted. While kneeling in dark, I snuck quick peeks at the monks gathered in St. Anne’s Room. They were still as gravestones. Strange sensation. Sure, they’re monks. This is what they do. Meditate and pray. Still, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that some insect was crawling slowly across my scalp, from front to back. I used sheer willpower to refocus my mental attention away from the itching feeling on my scalp, turning back to the simple breath prayer they taught me. But there it was again. That odd sensation persisted. An insect, maybe a large insect, seemed to be crawling slowly across the surface of my scalp, making its way through the forest of my thick brown curly hair.
Ignore it, I told myself. I tried, but kept thinking maybe there was a real insect up there. Distractions. Our inner life is filled with distractions. Remove the external distractions and your mind becomes a roomful of jumping monkeys, demanding your attention. The more you try to ignore them, the more they jump and screech for attention. This is the initial work of meditation. Settling down those monkeys. This takes time. Don’t expect it to happen this week. Keep practicing. Breathe slowly. Say a simple prayer inwardly, refocusing our attention on God. Keep coming back. Be patient with yourself. Don’t fuss over it. These are the wise words of the monks when I asked them how to deal with mental distractions.
Finally, I gave up in St. Anne’s Room. That itching feeling just would not go away. I reached my hand up to check for bugs. There it was, a beetle crawling along my scalp. Strange. I plucked the creature with a squeamish grip, threw it across the room, and attempted to get back to the slow, rhythmic breathing the name of God. Two minutes later, the bell went off, signaling the end of the thirty minutes. I believe I managed to sit in focused meditation for about thirty seconds over the past half hour. Ah, well. Thirty seconds of sweet Mary Time is better than thirty minutes of anxious Martha Time.
Mary Time. You may not know the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Their home is on the outskirts of ancient
On one of these occasions, we hear Martha banging pots off in the next room, in the kitchen. She’s pretty steamed up. Finally, she comes storming out and asks to have a word with Jesus. There was no way not to overhear the words she speaks, whispered in loud angry tones from the kitchen. “Tell my sister Mary to come back here immediately please! I’m in here cooking all afternoon, which I’m glad to do for you and all the others. But Mary apparently thinks she’s one of the men. She is an embarrassment to my family. Her place is here in the kitchen, preparing the evening supper. Please my Lord. Tell her.”
Mary hadn’t been doing anything wrong really. Just sitting at Jesus feet listening to his stories. So Jesus speaks up with a voice that all of us can hear. Martha, Martha, you’re worried and upset about many things. But Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.
Mary Time. Sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet listening. Food for the soul. That’s what brings me to the monastery to St. Anne’s Room. I hunger for Mary Time. I want to learn to meditate. So I sit there with a small group of monks, trying not to fidget too much, learning to settle one distraction after the next, helping my soul learn to listen. I already spend plenty of time with dear sister Martha, anxiously doing all the many, many things that need to be done. Why not spend a little time every day learning from Mary? Why not take hold of that which will not be taken from us, that which is described as the “better part”? Mary Time: Learning to be silent, with my soul attuned to God.
[i] Luke 10:41-42.