Last Sunday I sat with Megan on a bench outside MCV Hospital in Richmond. At that point she had been at the facility for six straight days, sitting at the bedside of her son who was in the pediatric intensive care unit. Megan said that the prayers everyone is offering for Zack have been amazing. And she said that she has been blessed by all the prayers that have been offered for her. Then she said something that took me back. After six non-stop days of focused care and attention, with little sleep and so much heartache, she said, “I don’t feel like I have been praying enough.”
Megan’s remark played with several different things I have been reading or thinking about and I want to try to string them together for you. They raise basic questions about the nature of prayer and the goal of the spiritual life. And it plays with today’s reading from the gospel where Martha is tending to the demands of the guests and meal while her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus listening to His words.
I was listening to NPR as I drove to Richmond last week and became fascinated with an interview of a guitarist I had never heard. Steve Tibbetts’ music is influenced by his exposure to the sounds of India. Most of his recordings feature only his guitar accompanied by soft percussion.
The interviewer remarked about a comment Tibbetts had made in a press release: “I am partial to the sound of silence.” This struck the interviewer as odd for a musician. Then the interviewer noted how Tibbetts’ music made ample use of stops, gaps, and delay. The artist explained himself by observing how with most music today the goal is to push the maximum amount of sound and instrumentation into the space of a four or five minute song. Tibbetts’ approach is different. He wants each note to have its own space. He wants the hearer to be able to focus on the instrument and each sound that it makes.
The artist is not just commenting about music, but about our culture in general. We live in a Martha world of multi-tasking. We push more and more into the space of a minute or an hour or a day. What few gaps or spaces or stops there are in the day are uncomfortable because we are weaned on the frenzy of activity. Even if we wanted to give our time and attention to a single, important thing, it would be difficult, if not impossible.
Much of the devotional material I have been reading of late lifts up the spiritual value of attention, of the ability to perceive and focus on those moments of grace that are nourishing or even life-changing.
Denise Levertov, the daughter of an English minister, captures such a moment in a poem called “First Love.”
It was a flower...
there was Before I saw it, the vague
past, and Now. Forever. Nearby
was the sandy sweep of the Roman Road
and where we sat the grass was thin.
From a bare patch of that poor soil, solitary,
sprang the flower, face upturned,
looking completely, openly into my eyes.
I was barely old enough to ask
and repeat its name.
‘Convulvulus,’ said my mother.
Pale shell-pink, a chalice
no wider across than a silver sixpence.
It looked at me, I looked back,
delight filled me as if
I, not the flower,
were a flower and were brimful of rain.
And there was endlessness.
Perhaps through a lifetime what I’ve desired
has always been to return
to that endless giving and receiving,
the wholeness of that attention,
This is a description of a Mary moment. All of our diplomas and awards and certificates and accolades come to us for the work we do as Martha. No one ever gets a plaque for an instance of secret communion with a flower. Yet, if you have had an experience or two like the one Levertov describes you know exactly what she means when she says the rest of her life all she has truly desired is to return to that moment of endless giving and receiving.
As I listened to Megan I reflected on how I had watched her attend to her son as he lied unconscious in the bed. Nothing else mattered to her. Not the past, not the future. She was given completely to the present. Hers was an act of complete attention on the thing that mattered most.
The trauma of a horrific accident, the tragedy of death, and the significant celebrations of life, such as birth and marriage, have the ability to pear down the music of our lives to a single instrument and note and sound. They allow us (or force us) to be attentive to what matters at the moment. Prayer, I told Megan, is an act of focusing on God, the Ultimate Reality of existence. One of its goals is to develop our capacity to be attentive to what is most significant at any given point in time; to shed away all the other instrumentation and sound that is the Martha part of our lives. Observing Megan’s attentiveness to Zack was for me the experience of watching prayer in its purest form. She was like Mary, able to choose the one, needful thing when it presented itself.
But the reality is we do live in a Martha world. We cannot be like Mary 24/7/365. Finding a balance is essential. If we don’t cultivate our capacity to be like Mary our lives suffer, our humanity is diminished.
Paula Tatarunis, a Boston area doctor who describes herself as a poet, an Episcopalian, and a weed photographer, describes this struggle in a poem called “November 1938.” She wrote is about an experience she had at the Abbey of Solesmes, a French community renown for its use of Gregorian chant and plainsong.
If only I could enter
the sanctuary of the poem,
naked as a spirit,
my miserable flesh
shed in a heap on the porch—
like at Easter at Solesmes,
when the plain song
plucked me aloft
from my suffering
and I hovered like a feather
on the breath of God,
or dust in his splendor,
far above the malheur, dégoût et
pareses of my unworthy life:
love bade me welcome, Love.
“Malheur, dégoût et pareses” translates to “the suffering, disgust, and laziness” of life. When I first read that I thought Tatarunis found a way to summarize the totality of my Martha world in just three words. But what has stayed with me is the incredible image of hovering like a feather on the breath of God. It is an image I have tried to absorb. I have brought it back to mind when I am wedged into the Martha mode of life. It is an image of Steve Tibbetts’ music, of Megan’s bedside prayerful attentiveness, of Denise Levertov’s endless communion with a flower.
Hovering like a feather on the breath of God is who we are, but it is also something we often fail to recognize. The demands of our Martha work have a way of crowding out the singular sound of grace that Mary was able to hear. But the grace is there. It is always there. It never leaves us and we ride on it always whether or not we realize it.
The thing about Martha is she was right. Eventually the guests are going to get hungry. At some point the work needs to be done. There is no way to get around it. The problem is that, like many of us, she became absorbed by the demands of her work. The tasks at hand became all she had. She and they were inseparable from one another. But with each item she checked off her to-do list, she became less like a feather and more like a cold, hard stone. And, if there is one thing I know, it is that stones can’t hover on the breath of God.
So there it is, and handful of different things and thoughts strung together for you to ponder. As with all my sermons, I hope that you will take these ideas and images and play with them for yourself. And, as always, I love to hear about what you make of them and where they lead you.