"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The passion and the patience

Today's Gospel in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite was Luke 10: 38-42, the story of The Lord in the middle of a minor domestic issue between two sisters, Mary and Martha. I've always loved this passage. Not only does it present a very human situation; a given person's reaction to it says a great deal about where they are spiritually. I've heard many ostensibly good Catholics say that the Lord was being unfair to poor Martha. Since the thought of Jesus doing something wrong is intolerable to them, they conclude that the story was either the writer's own invention or that it had somehow got garbled in oral transmission. Once, I even heard a prog nun say that the story was made up to discredit Martha in her later roles as preacher and prophet, because she was getting to be too much of a threat to the Apostles' authority. You know, the personal is the political, and all that. Not knowing where to begin, I just rolled my eyes.

I believe that the Catholics who reject this story are wrong. Many preachers, exegetes, and spiritual writers—including most of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church—have produced meditations on this Gospel. I've read a fair number of them, and from my readers I welcome references to those you have found most helpful. What I want to do here is synthesize what I've learned so far.

Part of my stock material is an ever-lengthening list of Yogisms, which I must someday make a post out of. One of my favorites is: "Progress entails deterioration," a fact I see confirmed every day in the business world I am obliged, for the time being, to work in. In the typical MBA mind, for example, "improving productivity and efficiency" means either making employees work harder for the same pay or, what amounts to same, firing some of them and giving their work to those who are left. (I recall the term 're-engineering' being used for that back in the '80s.) In my observation, however, that only works when the work process itself is also streamlined, which rarely happens unless what's being implemented is sheer automation, which it usually isn't. Most of the time, all that happens is that the people who are left take longer to get the job done and are even unhappier about it than the customers. So, all that's served is the short-term bottom line; consigned to irrelevance, the long run gets awfully slow. Management's lack of patience—which, in public companies, is driven largely by stockholders' impatience—can end up killing the passion behind the business, thus killing the business over time. I've seen it happen firsthand, more than once. It's the sort of thing that happens when Martha wins out over Mary. Whether it's business life, personal life, or even political life, our society is replete with examples of people who undermine their own goals by pursuing them without due regard for the less tangible but more important side of their reality.

Another Yogism of mine is: "A prayer for patience is the one prayer that God can be counted on to grant immediately." As you Latinists will have noticed, the words 'patience' and 'passion' come from the same root: the Latin patior, whose broadest meanings are "to undergo" and "to endure." To have a passion for something or someone is to undergo a powerful attraction, hard to resist, and quenchable only by something stronger than and incompatible with it. To be patient, by contrast, is to undergo something instead of acting when one might, and doing so for the sake of a greater good—even if the greater good is only that of avoiding the cost of refusing to endure. Now the "Passion" of the Lord was both. He loved us so much that endured even a horrible, shameful physical death in order to save us, by his presence in our darkness, from horrible, shameful spiritual death. By his "obedience unto death, even death on a cross, God highly exalted him" through the Resurrection and Ascension; our hero now has "the name above every other name, at which every knee shall bow" when all is fulfilled. Baptized into him, our vocation is to emulate that pattern in our own lives. Our passion for the Lord must take the form of sharing his cross with joyful patience; only if we die with Christ will we live for and with him. When we ask for that gift in love, we will get it before we know it. For in the life of the spirit, passion and patience can and must go together.

Martha's sister Mary had both the passion and the patience. She had the same passion for the Lord that Martha did, but also had the patience to sit at his feet and contemplate his words and his person. It did not occur to her that splitting the chores with her sister was more important at the time; I somehow doubt she would have complained if Martha had joined her rather than getting dinner on the table right away. We can safely infer that the Lord himself would not have complained either. Mary represents people more concerned with the meaning of things than with practical affairs, those of us who want to sit at the Lord's feet rather than dash about doing things to earn his approval or, short of that, to forestall his displeasure. But our society encourages us to be Martha. We must always be doing things or we're "good for nothing;" and by doing things, we can assure ourselves of the Lord's good fortune in having people like us doing things for him. Sort of like Martha.

But that is not the life of grace. As Abbot Placid reminded us today at Belmont Abbey, the message of today's Gospel is that it is by grace alone that we are saved. Whatever good we do that also avails for our salvation, it is God who is doing it. That doesn't mean we are to do nothing but wait for him to act; it is our actions, as much as our prayer, that serve as the raw material by which God shapes what he is re-creating us, and the world, to be. We need to be Martha as well as Mary. But the priority of the latter over the former, the unum necessarium, must always be kept in view. Love of God begins with openness to him, not in trying to gain his favor. If we make that openness our chief priority, only then will our actions be his. The passion must begin with patience.
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