Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mary and Martha--With a Twist

I've been promising that I would post some more quotes from The Pace of a Hen (Josephine Moffett Benton, 1961). Here's one of my favorite passages:

“A woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was cumbered with much serving; and she went to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and needful about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

This is a mere incident that took place as Jesus and his disciples “went on their way.” It was not told as a parable. It is not a principle that Jesus taught, saying, “Let them who have ears, hear.” This was a bit of eldering [instructing] done to fit an individual case. It wasn’t that Martha worked and got the meals on the table that was all wrong; it was that she was anxious and troubled. And it is not that the meals do not need to be prepared; it is just that Martha needs to be partly Mary and put first things first.

The incident might even have been reported in this fashion: A woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who worried and could not center herself. She sat at the Lord’s feet and questioned him and wearied him with much talking. But Martha was calm and sweet-tempered and went about her work preparing the meal with much serenity. Mary said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left us alone? Call her then to come and talk with us.” But the Lord answered, “Mary, Mary, you are anxious and troubled about your libido, about your dreams, about the progress of your soul. You waste my time, your time, and that of everyone you meet. One thing is needful, and Martha has chosen that good portion. She has accepted herself, and the frame in which she lives. She is receptive of grace and truth. She has learned to love and serve God and her neighbor as herself. This shall not be taken away from her.”

I was astounded the first time I read this chapter, having all my life heard poor Martha either villainized, excused or defended, to read this story in a new light. To think that it is our attitude toward work, and not the work itself, that is wrong when we are feeling anxious and cumbered by our responsibilities was a pivotal idea for me. I may not be able to control the amount of work before me--and it can seem overwhelming at times--but I can choose my attitude toward it:

…whether [work] is hard or easy depends upon a woman’s feeling about the multitudinous, monotonous tasks that confront her each day. She has the opportunity to choose one of the most creative roles in the world, or to exist as a toiling slave forever chained to household drudgery.

...A friend who came back from spending a vacation on a ranch related that her most enlightening experience of the summer was observing the unhurried and tireless work that seemed to continue all day and into the night. Work does not wear us out, but an emotional jag of feeling abused and overburdened very quickly produces a “cumbered Martha.”

I love the line from the "rewritten" story of Martha: "She has accepted herself, and the frame in which she lives." For me, the word "frame" is a multi-layered symbol. I think that Ms. Benton means it as something like a picture frame: the boundaries around the life of a woman. They could be constraints--having small children, being without a car during the day, having a husband who is gone a lot. They could simply be her realities: the husband and the children she has, or doesn't have; the distance she lives from extended family; the number and quality of friends she has, or doesn't have; opportunities she has or doesn't have.

No woman can find joy and fulfillment if she is expending energy railing against these realities or striving for the day when things will be different--she must accept the frame in which she lives, for the present moment at least. In this way, I think of "frame" also as meaning "time frame."

But a third meaning could be our physical frame. As women, our skeletal frames are generally smaller than those of most men, yet we are the ones who carry the children for nine months inside our bodies--and for years afterward we lift and carry them, though they grow heavier every day. We must accept the physical limitations of our frames and respect the body's need for rest and replenishment. If we don't, we're far more likely to fall into "an emotional jag of feeling abused and overburdened."

In a metaphorical way, too, many of us small-statured women shoulder Atlas-sized burdens. Accepting our frame sometimes means admitting that we can't do it all, all at once! We often think we are stronger than we are. There is a great relief--and a power--in confessing our weakness, our inadequacy to God, for "when I am weak, then I am strong."


For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
(Psalm 103:14)


3 comments:

Deborah said...

Excellent post! I would love to get my hands on this book!

"No woman can find joy and fulfillment if she is expending energy railing against these realities or striving for the day when things will be different--she must accept the frame in which she lives, for the present moment at least."

I looked up a few homes on the Internet the other day, in another state, at astoundingly lower prices than here in good 'ol psycho California. And I have been feeling discontent since then -- wishing for a different time and place to raise my kids (out of the big city, in the semi-country). I have heard God's voice reminding me not to strive... He knows my dreams, and He knows what's best. And he's given me a husband to be a help-mate too -- a husband who's current dream does not include moving out of California!

I can be content and trust the Lord!

Thanks for twist on the Mary Martha story -- food for thought!

5KidMom said...

Brilliant! I need to read this book.

Jennifer said...

wow, that was wonderful! I've got to get this book too. I would not have thought of changing the story around, it helps. I've always been a little disquieted with the the Mary/Martha story...this helped put it into perspective.
blessings to you today,
Jenny in Ca