To Be or To Do

Whenever I share with a group the story of Mary and Martha told in the gospel of Luke, some of the women in the group will be upset by the story.  They know very personally the work required to prepare food and provide hospitality for guests.  They identify with the overburdened Martha and the pain of not being helped.  Jesus’ response can feel to them like a slap.   I heard a man recently accuse Jesus of speaking from “male privilege” because Jesus didn’t know what it was like to be responsible for preparing meals and serving guests.  Things don’t happen if people don’t do.

So why did Jesus support Mary, who was sitting at his feet and learning from him?  I assume, of course, that in Jesus’ day (and in ours?) the role of women was to do the work of hospitality, which means his response was radical, expanding women’s value and possibilities.  He was also pointing to the importance of tending to one’s soul, of listening to one’s Guide, of being present.

What I find is that trouble comes when I see being and doing as an either-or.  If I go through my to-do list with a rushed and distracted checking off one after the other, the tasks will be accomplished but I most likely will have missed the gifts that were present along the way.  Even with the tasks done, I may well still feel burdened.  As I learned from Contemplative Outreach, if I participate in too much, I will participate in nothing.

The same is true of prayer.  If my prayer is rote, dutiful repetition of words or practices that do not leave me open to be moved by God, I have not been present.  I and the world have not been changed.  A time of true prayer is contemplation (quiet presence with the divine) and also action, an act of being that changes what can happen in an act of doing.


Are you more oriented to action or contemplation?  How might you put the two together?

What helps you be present in a situation with all you are, not distracted and thinking about the past or future?


Find a time to sit quietly for 20 minutes, praying in any way that you can, listening with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

For further reference:

“Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (See John 15: 4-5).

“You have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth” (See Isaiah 51: 12-16).

Watch and Wait

A woman suffered from a terrible headache.  When she went to the emergency room, she came home with a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor.  Her friend, surrounding her with love, began to watch and wait.  The friend didn’t panic or try to find a way to fix what wasn’t fixable.  She simply was present, resting in God, holding the woman in Love.  Of course the friend hurt, grieved, wondered why it had to be.  And she celebrated their friendship.  She held all these feelings in an inner place of quiet and trust, as she carried the woman in her heart and her prayer.

I was on retreat, giving time and focus to preparing upcoming talks.  For a while I tried to push my way through the work I had to do.  I read relevant material from book after book, continuing even when I was sleepy and losing interest.  The harder I worked, the less useful the work was.  Remembering I was on a spiritual retreat, I stopped the pushing and controlling.  I surrendered and began to watch and wait.  I listened to what my body needed.  I did things that brought joy.  And when I heard in my heart that it was time to do more preparation, I turned to that, receiving what was given me.

To watch and wait is important in the contemplative life–a life grounded in God, being seated at the feet of Jesus, open to the leading of the Spirit.  Its opposite is busyness, being preoccupied with what is coming next, rushing from one thing to another and never being fully present anywhere.   When we watch and wait, we are inwardly and outwardly attentive, mindful, observant, prayerful, and present with our hearts open and tender.  In order to be so, we will be surrendered and trusting in Holy Mystery.


Being in limbo can be a time of high anxiety and stress or an invitation to watch and wait.  What has been your experience?

What allows you to live in the quiet surrender of watching and waiting?


“Stay with me.  Remain here with me.  Watch and pray. Watch and pray.” (Sing this Taize chant over and over.  It invites a felt sense of being present with Jesus and of Jesus being present with you.)

For further reference:

“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).

“Only in God is my being quiet.  From God is my rescue.  Only God is my rock and my rescue, my stronghold—I shall not stumble” (Psalm 62: 1-2, Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary).

Spiritual Lessons from a Cell Phone

There is no question that cell phones can be addictive and very distracting to the spiritual life. How can it be that they can offer spiritual lessons? I don’t know if all smart phones do the same things, but here is what mine has taught me.

When I am attending a concert or a lecture or Sunday morning worship, one way I can turn off my phone so it doesn’t disrupt me or others is to put it on “do not disturb.” It is very effective. No messages get through until I turn that off. The trouble is that I forget to turn the do-not-disturb off. There may be messages or calls that I needed to receive that I miss. I wonder how often I have my internal do-not-disturb button on, and I miss God’s call. I am so busy with other things that I will not be listening if there is a word to be heard.

I check my phone over and over again during the day. I look to see if I have received a text or an email or perhaps a phone call that I might have missed. I want to be in communication with my friends and the outside world. I look to my phone for companionship or community and to tell me if I matter. My focus is outward instead of looking within, but people fail me and my cell phone in the midst of my addictive attachment to it fails to work.  It is in listening inwardly, attending to God the Inward Teacher where Love and Truth lie. The apostle Paul encourages us to pray unceasingly. Sometimes I’ve wondered what that means. If I tried praying as often and as intently as I check my phone, that might come close.  My life would have a quiet center, not a collection of ring tones.


What helps you listen for the Spirit, and what distracts you from paying attention? When you are attuned to the Holy does that make a difference in your life?

What lets you know that you are loved and valued? What do you love and value?


“You are my strength, I watch for you; you, God, are my fortress, my God on whom I can rely” (Psalm 59:9-10).

For further reflection:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . .” (See Mark 12: 29-31).

See the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, Matthew 25: 1-13.