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Mary and Martha: Ora et labora

July 19, 2019

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Jesus and St. Benedict were on the same page. Their advice was the same, and it was wise advice. Martha did not particularly like the advice. Neither did many of St. Benedict’s monks. Nor do hard working people who are constantly on the go.

Mary and Martha with JesusWhen Martha was laboring in the kitchen, Jesus observed, “Mary has chosen the better part” (Lk 10:42). When St. Benedict’s monks were ready to go to work in the monastery kitchen or dining room, the barn or the fields, the laundry or the workshop, the library or the classroom, he cautioned them with his famous motto, Ora et labora, pray and work, and in this order. It is crucial to follow the proper sequence. Prayer goes first. Work comes second.

The Christian life is about service. Jesus came not to be served but to serve (see Mt 20:28 and Mk 10:45), and he taught that “whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mk 10:43). The Collect for the memorial of St. Benedict on July 11 says that he was “an outstanding master in the school of divine service.” If Martha was thoroughly engaged in service, why would Jesus say that Mary had chosen the better part? If St. Benedict’s monks were chomping at the bit to get to work, why would he slam on the brakes with his instruction, Ora et labora?

Why? Martha was hot and bothered while she was laboring. She was upset with her workload. She was angry and frustrated with her sister who was no help. She was whining to herself. She complained to Jesus. She had a nasty disposition. It was no way to work.

St. Benedict’s monks often labored aimlessly. They were good men who completed their tasks, but the monks performed their tasks mindlessly, not concentrating, daydreaming, unfocused, without a sense of purpose, trudging along, and not all that happy. It was no way to work.

St. Benedict told his monks to pray before going to work. Jesus was pleased with Mary because she sat at his feet to listen to his instructions before she joined her sister Martha with the kitchen duties. Work without guidance often goes awry. It can easily be misdirected. The labor can seem meaningless or feel like drudgery.

When a person sits at the feet of the Master, like Mary did, or when the monks pray early in the morning, like St. Benedict’s monks did, the labor is properly guided. The work is motivated by love of God. It is done cheerfully and gladly. The load feels lighter. The time goes faster. The day seems brighter. The energy is stronger. Interactions with coworkers are more positive. The people who are served are treated better. The tasks are done with greater integrity. The work has greater purpose. It is more rewarding. There is more satisfaction. And most importantly, it is more pleasing to God.

We have long lists of tasks to do. We don’t want to wait. We want to jump right in and get going. This is dangerous. It is important to pause first, take a moment, sit at the feet of the Master, pray, and get our bearings for the day. Then, once grounded and pointed in the right direction by Jesus, we will be ready to begin the labors of the day.

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