Removing the Wall Between Mary and Martha

by Mother Raphaela

Vermeer's painting of Mary and Martha with Christ

Again and again during the year we hear the story of the sisters Mary and Martha being visited by Jesus. While Mary sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching, Martha was busy in the kitchen. Finally she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." Jesus answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."(Luke 10:38-42)

I've always had a hunch that, before the Lord arrived, Mary was right there with Martha getting all the food ready and cleaning the house. Martha's problem was that she didn't know how to enjoy her parties. My guess is that Mary was a good hostess, the kind who prepares everything ahead of time so that, when the guests arrive, she can sit down and enjoy them. But Martha was sure her guests needed to be waited on hand and foot. The Lord rightly corrected her.

Martha's error is one many of us fall into, especially if we are task oriented. In our effort to be perfect, we end up doing things that don't need to be done. While we may gain the satisfaction of seeing many tasks or projects completed, we may lose companionship along the way.

Because of St. Luke's story, Mary has come to stand for the contemplative life, while Martha stands for the active life. But when we talk this way, we are taking one small episode in the lives of these sisters out of context, assuming that Martha spent her entire life busy serving while Mary was always listening.

Church tradition tells us that both women went on to be Myrrhbearers. Later, according to ancient local traditions in France and England, they became apostles and evangelists.

We see Martha in a different light in St. John's Gospel. Here she makes the same confession of faith as Peter: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." The Lord had taught her a lesson and she learned it.

We should emulate both women, combining in ourselves both their good qualities. In an early story of desert monasticism, we are told of visitors who came to the monastery but were scandalized when they were asked to help with work. They complained that they had come to pray. So, the story goes, they were given use of a room in which to pray, but were not called when it was time to eat.

It doesn't take long for humans to discover that they are not quite up to a totally non-material angelic life. St. Paul tells us that those who choose not to work should not eat. On an empty stomach, work begins to look good.

For the healthy and able, there is no such thing as a contemplative life stripped of all activity. Balancing the two is the key to life.

Priests' wives have often told me that they embraced their marriage not only because they loved the husband, but also because they love God and the Church and were eager to combine married life with a deeper engagement in the liturgical life of the Church. But instead of living this wonderful life of constant Church services and prayer, and perhaps even serving the poor and otherwise helping mankind, they found themselves at home changing diapers, wiping dripping noses, and listening to parishioners' complaints.

Novices sometimes make similar complaints. We have a farm at our monastery which means hard work. We also have a guest house to clean, meals to prepare, lawns to mow, snow to plow, bills to pay, finances to manage, furnaces and plumbing and roofs that need maintenance - and we must do it all without husbands or children to help. Plus we're the ones responsible for making sure that services are sung in our chapel on a daily basis, usually without benefit of a priest.

So how do we manage to be contemplative nuns? It's a problem not very different than that faced by many priests' wives. How can we be both converted Marys and Marthas, holding together the good qualities of both?

Whatever our calling, we need to be fed with the Word of God in both Scripture and Sacraments, but if that food does not give us the eyes to see and the hands to work and the hearts to love whomever and whatever God wills to send us each day, then something major is missing. Because truly, every Christian vocation requires us to live one day at a time before God, accepting that He allows whatever happens to be for our salvation. This can seem hard.

The spiritual life does not mean spending 24 hours a day in church, but we do have to choose to take the spiritual, mental and physical nourishment we need in God's providence to live the lives we have chosen. And indeed it is true that "not to decide is to decide."

This means learning that we have choices about saying "no" to certain things around us. Far too many people seem to feel they have no choice - they "must" watch television, must play computer games, must get their children to every sports or school event, etc. Living such a life, there is indeed no room for prayer, or for time spent together as a family, little or no time for church, no time for learning about the faith and the saints who have gone before us.

Consider not only Mary, the sister of Lazarus, but Mary, the Mother of God. It is in the mother of Jesus that we find our best example of becoming a Christian. In St. Luke's account of the Annunciation, after hearing the news from the Archangel Gabriel that she would be the Mother of God, Mary's response was to go to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, then in her sixth month of pregnancy. She stayed three months, no doubt helping out until John was born.

Beneath all the glowing poetry the Orthodox Church has heaped upon the Theotokos is a sober and practical veneration for her. She is so important in the Church because her created humanity received the uncreated fullness of God.

At the Council of Ephesus, St. Cyril of Alexandria fought for her title, Theotokos, in order to make sure that the Church would never forget that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, was born as a human infant to a fully human mother.

This may not seem so important an issue in our time, but earlier generations found it hard to accept that God could walk on this earth as a human person.

We still have a touch of this. We have one way of relating to the "real world" and another way of being when we shift into a "religious" mode. Being able to weave it all together, to see Mary as both a wife and mother whose feet were planted firmly on the ground, and at the same time to realize that she brought God into the world - that her womb became "more spacious than the heavens;" this really is a stretch for us, perhaps even more than for our ancestors.

As she always has been since the day she met the Archangel Gabriel, Mary is the way to God for us. In her own person, she combines the two "Mary and Martha" vocations of contemplation and activity. It is crucial to have a healthy relationship with her as our spiritual mother.

With Mary, we realize that God needs women. He set up His creation in such a way that He could not enter it as a man without a woman. When one tries to throw Mary out, as so many Protestants have done, we may get the impression of a God who can do just fine without women.

Even in the Orthodox Church we find people who have this attitude. It can lead, for example, to those who think the Church needs only spiritual fathers and that everything is about power. If they are the ones with that power, they should rule the Church, and if they do not have that power, they should challenge those who do.

It may never even occur to such people that women (and often lay men as well) can and should be taken into account and be given more to do than show up for services, bake pieroghis or baklava, clean the church, give money, organize parish festivals, and repair cassocks.

Provided women continue to be mothers, spiritual motherhood is a reality that is urgently needed in the Church. Women can also be excellent administrators, task completers, etc.

Whether men or women, we all need to become saints: While monks in this country are frequently named after American saints, we can't do the same for our nuns. Sadly, there are as yet no recognized female American saints.

Many of the so-called (and sometimes rightly so-called) "oppressive patriarchal attitudes" in the Church are in fact relatively late developments in Orthodox culture. Historically, widows and deaconesses had official ministries in the Church for hundreds of years.

We nuns who serve at the altar in our own chapels and do some teaching are the remnants of part of that ancient practice. St. Elizabeth, the New Martyr of Russia, consciously revived the aspect of the serving diaconate when she founded her order of deaconnesses in the early 20th century. We also see an example of this in the life of another modern martyr, St. Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris.

A deaconess is different from a deacon. I am not advocating that we women be ordained as clergy. That is another issue. I will say, however, that I think the desire that some express to have women priests in the Orthodox Church comes in part from the vacuum created by the exclusion of women from legitimate ministries.

Mary and Martha, as the women they became, provide a strong corrective to many of our misshapen ideas and impressions. Both sisters were not averse to serving as handmaidens. Both were also women of faith. Both stand in prayer with the Theotokos and share in the same glory and honor of the Queen of all creation.

All of us are called to serve, as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians: "He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ..." (Eph 4:10-13).

In the light of our varied callings to prayer and service in both the Church and the world, let us seek Mary, the Mother of Jesus, together with the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany. These three women continue to be here with us as strong, active and praying presences, challenging our view of ourselves as well as our view of them and of our God.

Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is abbess of the Community of the Holy Myrrhbearers in Otego, New York. Her books include Living in Christ and Growing in Christ: Shaped in His Image, both from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. She is also a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49