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Some years ago, while I was serving as bishop of Chicago, during a particular busy time in my life, I went off to Omaha, NE, for a week of retreat. I went to Omaha because a priest I knew who had been transferred there said that he would guide me in my time of prayer and meditation. I went armed with all sorts of spiritual classics and Bible commentaries lest I feel that I was wasting my time or failed to achieve spiritual insights. I felt that if God was slow in producing illumination, I was ready to take over and do it by myself.
Most of the week not much happened-no insights came forth. I fretted and fussed, at times blaming God and at times blaming myself for not being more adept and clever. Then one day I went out walking and I passed a soup kitchen. I mentioned the soup kitchen to the priest who was guiding me, and he suggested that the next day I might want to go and volunteer. I thought that was an excellent idea. Since nothing seemed to be happening to me spiritually, I could at least feel useful and do some good for others.
So the next morning I went to the soup kitchen and approached one of the volunteers and said I was there to help. He smiled at me and said, "You can't really volunteer unless you're given the okay by Sister Pat who runs the soup kitchen, and she's not here today." Then he looked at me and said, "But you can help. You can sit right down with the other guests and have a plate of pancakes." And I suddenly realized that in his mind, I was one of the guests. So I decided to try to play the part and I ate my pancakes and then went into a sitting area where a number of people were reading magazines. And I just sat there and contemplated the other guests until one of them shouted out, pointing at me, "Why are you staring at us that way?" And, suddenly, I realized that even the guests sensed me as somewhat alien, and so I fled, more desolate than ever.
I then went back to the priest and told him what had happened, and he said, "I want you to go back again tomorrow." And he said, "I want you to tell them who you are." So, in obedience, I went back the next day, and this time another volunteer-coordinator met me, and when I asked to help, he said, "Certainly. You can wash dishes." And so I went to the sink happy that I had been given something to do.
A few minutes later a formidable woman with a empty pot that had contained spaghetti sauce came up to me, shoved the pot into my stomach and said, "Who are you?" And I thought this is the perfect moment, and I said, "I am the bishop of Chicago." She, of course, turned out to be Sister Pat. And without blinking an eye, she handed me the pot and said, "We'll talk later and have a cup of coffee." So about half an hour later, once I had cleaned the spaghetti pot, she came back and said, "Let's go out in the yard and talk."
When we got out in the yard and began to speak to one another, I became aware of one of the guests who was circling around us, obviously trying in some way to break into our conversation. Finally, he asked the question, "Are you a Michelob man?" he said. And I said, "No, I prefer white wine." But that didn't stop him for a moment; he continued on and he said, "You're the man from Chicago with the gift of words." And I thought, "How does he know anything about me? How does he know I'm from Chicago?" So I was stopped dead in my tracks. Sister Pat spoke to him, and he turned out to be a man named Patrick.
We finished our conversation. I went back to my room, and early the next morning, I awoke, and in my mind's eye, I saw this same Patrick and recognizing the fact that I'd be leaving that afternoon to go back to Chicago, I felt it was very important for me to see Patrick once again, though I really didn't know why.
So I got up and headed back to the soup kitchen in time for the breakfast routine, hoping that I would see Patrick. And, sure enough, as I was washing breakfast dishes and looking out the window, I saw Patrick approach. He came in. He saw me, and he shouted out, "Frank! Good morning! How are you?" And my heart leapt with joy. Someone knew who I was. Someone seemed to care. He ate his breakfast, and as he prepared to leave, I followed him out into the yard, because I had to speak to him. And I went up to him and I said, "Patrick, I just have to tell you how important it has been for me to meet you." And he turned with this broad smile on his face-said, "Frank, I want to thank you for all that you've done." I turned away and burst into tears. I thought, "What on earth is going on?" And I suddenly realized that the Jesus whom I'd been so desperately seeking in my frantic efforts to make something happen in the formal times of prayer had in fact shown up and met me in the person of Patrick. And instead of being judgmental, this Jesus was filled with gratitude and loving acceptance. "Frank, thank you for all you did." I felt it was a confirmation-not just of my being at the soup kitchen but a confirmation of my whole ministry as bishop of Chicago. And that really was a moment of incredible joy and consolation.
So there were my frantic efforts and desperate ways of trying to produce results--my self-preoccupation that had got me nowhere--all dashed as I sort of gave up and entered into my own poverty of helplessness and was able to encounter Christ in Patrick.
I had defined myself largely in terms of my own spiritual success, you know, I can pray, I can make insights happen. It's really a form of pride. And I had been reluctant to admit my own dependency on God-reluctant to admit that everything ultimately is grace and gift.
In the Gospel reading that I read earlier, Martha and Mary are sisters living in the same house, a point made by the 12th-century monastic Bernard of Clairvaux who observes that Martha and Mary living in the same house are both part of the same household. They are both part of the same essential Christian experience. Martha and Mary live within each one of us. Martha was active, busy, fretting, distracted by many things, and at times self-preoccupied--how hard I am working, she says, feeling somewhat the victim and somewhat resentful of her sister Mary, who is sitting at Jesus' feet and listening in contemplation--Mary, who is open and receptive to the Word of Life. Here are the two sisters, who aren't simply two different personalities; they are two dimensions of ourselves. Using more modern vocabulary, you might say they represent extroversion-focus on the world and action-and introversion-focus on that inner world and contemplation.
We need both dimensions. We need to embrace both realities within ourselves. We need to be both busy and engaged, but at times, we also need to be passive and receptive as God invites us both to action and to contemplation, not as separate states or activities, but as two much loved sisters who need each other and live together in one reality. And so-action-reaching beyond one's self-can lead to contemplation just as my experience in Omaha revealed. My washing the dishes opened the way to my meeting Christ in Patrick in a place of receptivity, in a place of undefendedness.
In the 4th century, one of the desert monastics, Abba Silvanus said, "Martha is necessary to Mary, for it was because Martha worked that Mary was able to be praised." That whole notion of the balance and inter-play between action and contemplation, between putting ourselves forward in service and then at times being passive and receptive, available to God's deep emotions within us, is all part of the rhythm of life, is all part of our being fully human.
If I hadn't volunteered at the soup kitchen, I wouldn't have met Christ in Patrick, who in terms of the Gospel, is one of the least in whom Christ by his own words, is "truly present." Action and contemplation-breathing out, breathing in, giving and receiving are part of the wholeness God seeks to work in our hearts. May we therefore embrace both the Martha and the Mary within us, welcome them as sisters, as dimensions of ourselves, and may we in God's own way, be drawn out of ourselves into deeper union with him in Christ, both in service and in contemplation.
Let us pray.
O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and rest, we shall be saved. In quietness and in confidence shall be our strength. By the might of your Spirit, lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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