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How to Achieve the Martha/Mary Balance

July 29, 2016


Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:40-41)

Of those two sisters, I want to be Mary, I find that I am Martha. For example, it is the dilemma of a typical Wednesday. I am at work, pen in hand, recording names in the sacramental registers of my parish. Then there are more miscellaneous duties and countless phone calls. Worthwhile work, both for the parish and for me. And yet… The typical Wednesday is also the day when we have day long adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Here is just one example of my search for Martha-Mary balance in my life: I wrestle with my envy for those who have an hour or more to spend with our Lord. I console myself with the short time I can steal away to make a visit. When I am home, there are myriad projects that catch my attention and cause me to cut short my time for prayer and spiritual reading.

I do want to choose the better part. But, like so many of us, I cannot just tell my employer or family that I will be in church if you need to find me. I cannot let my share of household responsibilities slide while locked in my room with only my rosary, a spiritual book, and a liter of sparkling water for sustenance.

We want to choose the better part while meeting our other obligations and that involves striking the proper balance between our Martha side and our Mary side. The problem for so many of us is that we are surrounded by “many things” that steal our Martha’s attention. 

Contemporary culture thrusts us into a very Marthian mindset. As much as we may like phrases about living as a “human being, not a human doing,” the truth is that just about every waking moment – and some stress-filled nightmares – present us with things that could be done. It is little wonder that Wikipedia names St. Martha as the patroness of homemakers as well as butlers, cooks, dietitians; domestic servants; housemaids; innkeepers; laundry workers; maids; manservants; servants; waiters and servers among others. As a mother of many years, I could say that I have filled most of those positions. Well, except for butler and manservant. But in the absence of a butler, most mothers fill that job, too. The domestic sphere has such a hold on me that I was reminded of how much I like St. Martha holy cards, which show the saint conquering the dragon. And why? Because the dragon looks to me like a recalcitrant vacuum cleaner; a household necessity of the genus hooveratus ductapum. Conquering the appliance is a symbol of conquering the constant onslaught of a homemaker’s work.

Popular culture’s domestic maven, cheerleader, icon of all that is Marthian is the aptly named Martha Stewart. On top of our quotidian tasks, a quick look through her magazine gives us inspiration for even more that can be done, which is not inherently bad. The domestic sphere has taken on a new shine (and shall I say earned more respect?) with the help of Ms. Stewart and her kind. To paraphrase Philippians 4:8, there are tasks that are ‘honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise.’ Martha Stewart famously calls these “good things.”

The need for balance is when the “good things” begin to obscure and edge out the better things. We can be anxious, worried and distracted about the work before us. Perhaps we have spread ourselves too thin; our charitable inclination for “good living” is on the verge of becoming a bad lifestyle. Like Mary, however, we can choose the better part and it will not be taken from us. On the feast of St. Martha, let us spend some time with the Lord and ask for an increase in our Mary side, a decrease in our Martha problems, and a sanctification of all the tasks we perform. Then we can ask for St. Martha’s intercession as we return to that which awaits us, be it the grossest of dirty laundry or the glitziest glitter and glue project.