Stillness, One of the Doors of the Temple

Vermeer, "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha"

Vermeer, “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”

Spiritual Sunday

Thanks to the blog Journey to Jesus for the poem that I share today. Daniel Clendenin says that the story of Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary reminds him of a Mary Oliver poem.

The Mary and Mother story rouses strong reactions in our work ethic culture, with many siding with Martha. Here it is:

As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42).

Rudyard Kipling finds himself drawn to Martha. In his poem “Sons of Martha,” he sees Mary as a version of the gentry class, getting a free ride provided by the working class. A couple of stanzas give you his take:

THE Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

Here’s the final stanza:

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd – they know the angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the Feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!

Clendenin disagrees, however, and focuses instead on the word “distracted.” Discussing our tendency to get sidetracked by busyness when we should be centered on God, he compares the story with the Good Samaritan, and one can see resemblances between Martha and the elder brother. Just as the brother must learn the second of the great commandments, Clendenin says, so must Martha learn the first.  Above all, Jesus tells us, we are to love God and love our neighbor. Just because we work hard doesn’t automatically mean that we are virtuous.

Luke contrasts Martha’s “distracted” life — a word he uses twice, with Mary’s “centered” life. How ironic that Martha’s earnest acts of devotion precipitated aggravation and annoyance.

Clendenin then turns to Oliver’s poem, which he says helps him follow Mary’s path rather than Martha’s:


By Mary Oliver

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the gardening rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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