Gospel: Luke 10:38-42
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The familiar and famous words of Jesus to Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus of Bethany, deserve special attention on this day, the Feast of Saint Scholastica, sister of Saint Benedict, and the day on which our four brothers, Seraphim, Faith, Efren and Columba pronounce their first or simple vows as Benedictine monks of this Monastery of Christ in the Desert. On this day our four brothers are moving closer to what Jesus calls “the one thing needful” (unum recessarium), namely, God and His kingdom.
Jesus does not dismiss the work of Martha as unimportant or say that her serving and bustling about is wrong in any way. Rather, serving others through hospitality was and is considered an important element in Semitic culture, but also part and parcel of belonging to Christ and walking in his ways. Certainly for Saints Benedict and Scholastica hospitality was an essential facet of their life and it was in the context of a fraternal gathering that Saint Benedict and his saintly sister Scholastica held their final meeting.
What Jesus emphasizes to Martha is not to be anxious or troubled in the work in which she is engaged, even if her honored guest is Christ Himself. At the same time, Jesus points out to Martha the importance of the element of taking time at the feet of the Lord, listening to Him and realizing that we do not live by bread alone, but “by everything that that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3). In another place, Jesus says: seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be added unto you (Mt 4:4; 6:33).
This point is what Mary of Bethany seems to grasp fully, what her sister Martha needs to hear, and each of us to remember as well.
The question that is often asked about the remarks of Jesus to Martha is this: which is better, action or contemplation? The response to “which is better” would be that both are vital and a genuine response to the Lord’s call.
Saint Scholastica knew this to be the case, so too should our brothers preparing for making vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life today. Every monastic life entails both “doing” and “being,” action and contemplation. It wouldn’t be monastic life otherwise! Said another way, there should never be opposition between work and prayer. These two elements have become the unofficial motto of Benedictine life, ora et labora. Both come from the same origin: the Word of God and fidelity in the service of God’s Kingdom. Listening to the Word of God should direct us to putting that Word into action. In other words, all of our activity should be the fruit of our prayer and lectio divina.
Jesus also said: “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28). And at another time: “My mother and my brethren are those who hear the Word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21).
Saints Martha and Mary of Bethany represent for us and for the Christian community in general, complementary dimensions of prayer and action, which are certainly at the heart of our monastic call. Prayer and work are to be in harmony and not in competition. They are two sides of one coin. Saint Teresa of Avila points out in her writings that as Martha and Mary lived in the same house, so also contemplation and action are to be unified within one’s self and within one’s community.
For a balanced and fruitful monastic life, we dedicate time each day to both prayer and work, silence and lectio, choral praise of God and humble adoration. From this flows work that is a genuine sign of charity, rooted in Christ and at the service of God and neighbor. We thereby contribute our efforts to the building up and flourishing of the monastery, with its varied forms of work, and in turn build up the Kingdom of God.
Saint Scholastica is a model of the ideal being considered in the Gospel today. Authentic prayer does not remove us from human realities, and in fact should give us the needed energy to transform our lives and the world even, in our little way, day in and day out, to the glory of God, so that in all things God may be glorified, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, as Saint Benedict tells us!
Congratulations to our four brothers and assurance of our prayers.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB