According to the story told about Mother Teresa, St. Teresa of Calcutta, she was in a meeting with her order, the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta, India. One of the sisters asked her, “Mother, I have a request for you to consider. There are so many sick and dying people coming to our hospital and we barely have time to take care of them. Our Rule of Life requires that we spend one hour a day in prayer and meditation in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament in a Holy Hour. Would you please consider making that requirement optional, so we can decide when we can do it? There are so many people sometimes that we simply do not have the time every day to make our Holy Hour.” (In a Holy Hour, the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance on the Altar so people can pray in silence before the Lord.) As the story goes, Mother Teresa responded something like this, “Sister, allow me to think about your request.”
The next day Mother Teresa called her sisters together to give them her decision. She told them, “I’ve decided on my response to our sister’s request. From now on we will require that all the sisters spend two hours in prayer every day before the Blessed Sacrament!”
St. Teresa’s lesson was that the work they were doing was almost impossible anyway. They simply could not do it on their own. They desperately needed God’s help to do their ministry to the poorest of the poor. It was a serious mistake to believe that they could be successful without God’s help.
For the past two thousand years the Church has always been involved in social ministries like hospitals, orphanages and ministry to widows and people in desperate situations. Social ministry is at the heart of our mission as Christians. If we are faithful followers of Christ we must be involved in caring for the least among us, the poorest, the most disadvantaged. In our own Diocese, the Catholic Church is the largest provider of healthcare to the poor. If we didn’t provide that care, the system would crumble and people would suffer because the government services could not take on the amount of work we do as a Church. Nationwide the story is the same. The Church is either number one or two alongside government assistance. I just read a report that stated the Catholic Church provides care for an estimated 27% of all the poor AIDS patients worldwide. Meanwhile all you hear in the Press is about the Church’s stand on condoms. Catholic Charities in our Diocese coordinates help to thousands of poor and disadvantaged. In our own parish we are blessed with a very active St. Vincent de Paul Society that cares for thousands in our immediate community, usually behind the scenes, out of sight. But poor people in the San Marcos area know that they can count upon our St. Vincent de Paul.
However good we are at social ministry, we must realize that the task is always larger than we can accomplish without God’s help. Therefore it must always begin in prayer and reflection. The temptation always exists to cut out prayer and reflection to allow more time for ministry. It is a false pride to think that we humans can do the work before us, or that God and prayer are not necessary. The Gospel today speaks to that issue.
Martha is upset with her sister, Mary, for sitting and listening to Jesus while she was busy with hospitality duties. It helps to see this Gospel story in the context of the earlier Gospel stories from the same Chapter 10 of Luke, teaching about discipleship and ministry. Jesus sends out the seventy-two, telling them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.” The Lord tells them to pray for more laborers. There will never be enough, much like the situation in Mother Teresa’s hospital. Then, last week we heard the Gospel parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the need for compassion in our concern for our neighbors.
However, our ministry can become so overwhelming that we become stressed, anxious, overworked, and even discouraged and hopeless. Sometimes Jesus sends us on seemingly impossible missions; impossible for us, but not for God. Or, like the good Sister of Charity, we reach a point where we tell ourselves, “I can’t do this anymore!” And, all too often, we reduce our prayer, instead of the “busy” activities. We should not be discouraged that we are inadequate to the challenges, although that is a very human response.
In the story of Martha and Mary, we are not told that Martha is doing anything wrong. Hospitality is an important ministry. Both women were doing good things. However, there is a priority of ministry. Prayer is in a higher level of priority than service ministry. They are both good, but they are not equal. Mary chose to remain in Jesus’ presence, listening to the Word of God and learning from him.
Fr. Victor and I have begun a practice to which we invite you, to come to a Holy Hour with us. Every Thursday evening at 7pm he and I meet in the Chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. We both work hard. But, we both know the source of our strength and inspiration. That source is Jesus, not ourselves. We both pray several times a day. We both say Mass almost every day. But, we both know that sometimes we need to just stop and be quiet before the Lord. It is a time of profound peace and nourishment.
Mary understood this as she remained in Jesus’ presence. Martha was too busy. Jesus told Martha, and St. Teresa told her sister, “you are anxious about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”