A woman named Martha invites Jesus to her home for dinner. As she busily prepares the meal, her sister Mary sits at the feet of the Master and listens to His words. Martha complains and Jesus tells her that she is busy and anxious over many things but that only one thing is necessary. “Mary has chosen the best portion and it shall not be taken from her”. Traditionally, this Gospel passage has been used to proclaim the primacy of the contemplative over the active life, and so perhaps I, as a contemplative nun, should be expected to take advantage of this opportunity to extol my chosen form of life. I plan, however, to take a different tack. Poor Clare nuns spend about eight hours a day in prayer, both liturgical and personal. Subtract the hours needed for sleeping, eating and other personal activities, and we have around four hours left for all the work required to keep a monastery going. Consequently, those work times are rather intensely busy times. Our Constitutions state that our main penance is the performance of our daily duties. In other words, while we no longer perform the ancient monastic penances of scourging and the wearing of hair shirts, we are expected to generously expend our energies in humble labor for the maintenance and happiness of our Sisters, just like most other human beings have had to do since our race was expelled from paradise. So, yes it is true that during our times of prayer we are “Mary”, but during our work periods, we are also “Martha”.
A perpetual challenge for the Poor Clare is how to balance her prayer and her work. Since we are human beings of the feminine variety, our homey works are rather important to us and sometimes they can become too important, despite our best intentions. But we have some built in safety devises to offset this danger. One of these is frequent changes in assignments. A few years ago, a Sister was happily engaged with all aspects of her work when she unexpectantly received a new assignment. Suddenly, all of her pet projects were completely wiped off her plate and she felt severely disoriented. The intensity of her emotions surprised and dismayed her. Had she not done everything for the love of God and made every effort to be detached? Evidently…not! Taking the matter to our Lord, she came to understand how absolutely secondary to Him were her works. He could get another Sister to do them and so He did. But what He really wanted from her was the “one thing necessary”: herself. If she did not give that, then everything else she gave was nothing and even worse than nothing—actually a hindrance between them. By His rebuke she felt both chastened and cherished. “The Lord is a jealous God.” She was reminded of another Gospel: the story of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple. Being then a temple newly cleansed, she wrote the following poem:
The din of fearful lowing fades and dies,
As do the startled cry and anxious bleat.
The useless coins are quiet at my feet.
Though flagellating cord in stillness lies,
The uncooled fire in His jealous eyes
Dries the heated childish tears in mine.
I seek no other verifying sign.
By all my gifts ejected suddenly
I see the needful one He wants of me.