Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Martha Complex

It is Wednesday, and so time for the second instalment of ‘the Papal examen.’ For those who missed it last week, I am going through the Pope’s marvellous talk to the Curia from before Christmas, where he laid out fifteen spiritual diseases he saw as endangering the health of that body. My take on it is that his words are not for the Curia alone, but that it is a great examination for all of us, and so I’m taking Wednesdays (the day Judas betrayed the Lord) to go through each of these diseases.

Disease two is “the ‘Martha complex’, excessive busy-ness. It is found in those who immerse themselves in work and inevitably neglect ‘the better part’: sitting at the feet of Jesus (cf. Lk 10:38-42).

“Jesus called his disciples to ‘rest a while’ (cf. Mk 6:31) for a reason, because neglecting needed rest leads to stress and agitation. A time of rest, for those who have completed their work, is necessary, obligatory and should be taken seriously: by spending time with one’s family and respecting holidays as moments of spiritual and physical recharging. We need to learn from Qohelet that ‘for everything there is a season’ (3:1-15).”

Now, just to forestall the obvious objection, there are times and seasons in life when we are, in fact, very busy. Parents in the midst of raising their children are not necessarily suffering from the ‘Martha complex,’ but simply dealing with the reality of many little people who need to be cared for each day.

I would say, though, that even there, there has to be a balance. I am involved in the lives of many families—it is one of the perks of the priesthood!—and it does seem to me that sometimes parents can indeed become excessively busy, so taken up with the real work that needs doing that they don’t actually enjoy being with their children too much. I have seen both—parents who are very responsible and attentive and yet can laugh and play and delight in their children’s little ways, and others who don’t quite manage to do that.

A sense of responsibility and seriousness of purpose is a good thing—but life is filled with these moments of beauty and joy, laughter and fun (especially in a house full of children), and it does seem to me that any of us can become so taken up with the work we have to do that we can miss these little moments which are meant to refresh and renew us, that are sprinkled throughout the day.

It is perhaps worth noting here that the Pope is not using the language of sin here, but of sickness. The person who not only works hard and is attentive to the needs of those who depend on them, but who cannot stop working, cannot relax and enjoy life, cannot enter into that Sabbath space where it is time to simply be and receive, to sit at the Lord’s feet and rejoice in the gifts given by Him—this person is not in a state of sin, but they are unwell.

Of course his primary audience here is not parents of young children, where clearly this poses special challenges, but a group of celibate churchmen. And this certainly can be among the perils of celibate life, that life is work and work is life and there is nothing else going on in one’s life except the work one is doing for God and the Church. It is understandable, but very unhealthy.

All I can say is that St. Martha did us all a big favour when she had her little meltdown with the Lord, faithfully recorded in Luke 10: 38-42. Perpetually, human beings need to be reminded that the main event of life, the most important thing going on in any of our lives, the ‘better part’, is not the work we are doing, not the endless tasks life serves up to us. Far more important, far more deserving of our attention, far more vital to our life, is the work God is doing in each one of us, the hidden mysterious work of the Spirit in our hearts and in the hearts of those we are trying to take care of.

When we lose this sense, life does indeed become ceaseless drudgery and a constant worry. Worse yet, we can start to feel more responsible for things than we really are, as if it is our job to make everyone happy and fulfill every need of everyone around us. This is nonsense, of course, and we will wear ourselves to exhaustion if we don’t realize that.

God is working; God is doing something; God is on the move, and part of our whole sense of Sabbath, in the Christian understanding of it, is to reclaim that sense of God’s gift and grace flowing through our lives.

It can be very challenging to do this in the middle of a busy hectic life, but it is spiritual health, and makes our lives much more peaceful and happy if we can find our way to it. Let us pray for the grace to receive, and enjoy, and give thanks to God for his presence and his work in our life.

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