There’s a tiny little story in the Gospel of Luke that has been blown into epic proportions. It goes like this: Jesus comes to dinner at the home of three siblings, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. While Jesus is sitting around teaching, Martha is working really hard to fix dinner for everyone, while Mary is at Jesus’ feet, listening to the stuff he says. Martha comes and asks Jesus to please tell her sister to come help. Jesus tells her she’s fretting over lots of things, but Mary has chosen the better lot.
Now, forget the fact that maybe he was joking, because drawing lots was a common way of settling disputes. Maybe he was razzing Martha for getting the short straw and having to make dinner that time, while Mary got to listen without the distraction of not burning stuff. So, he was maybe teasing her about it being her turn on the dinner rota, and given his propensity to tell people to calm down already, he may have been joking about the subject matter of his talks and her busy times over the fire.
The way we usually hear this story is with the following gloss: Sitting still and listening to Jesus is more important than cooking and other busy work. A lot of times, this scandalous message is accompanied with descriptions of how you, too, can learn to sit quietly for an hour or pray in stillness and quiet.
But that interpretation is pretty facile, if you ask me, even if you lay aside the cultural tendency to absolutize any description of a woman, so that her one time circumstance is applied to describe her whole life. Here’s why: Jesus was totally for feeding people, and even explicitly tells his disciples and other followers to do so on several occasions. He was so well-known for his food-multiplying miracles that he had an entourage that was in it for the meal plan and had to send them off on at least one occasion, when they failed to get the deeper connection between food and eternal life. Oh, sure, say the Mary was better than Martha because silent contemplation is awesome crowd, we know Jesus is fine with us feeding people; it’s just not the main point.
They are wrong, of course. Work is not opposed to prayer. Work is a type of prayer. If Jesus was teasing Martha, it was to tell her to get some perspective, not to say that working for the sake of hospitality is bad. The main part of faith is not sitting around in stillness. We are embodied, and our bodies are important to our salvation. Work and prayer are active pursuits. (And don’t even get me started on how weird and modern it is to pray or even read in silence. Traditionally, these -especially with prayer- were communal pursuits, spoken aloud.)
We see the proper relationship of prayer and work in the lives of the desert fathers and mothers. These extremely disciplined Christians lived in tiny stone houses in the desert, where they spent their time praying and weaving long ropes. Work and prayer went together in their daily lives as they sought to pray without ceasing.
I told you all that to tell you this: I like to crochet during Lent. Last year, I had the privilege of meeting with a small group of women so that we could crochet or knit while we took it in turns to read aloud from C.S. Lewis essays. That experience taught me how to weave prayers into the rhythm of crochet. Double crochet has three pull-throughs of yarn, which correspond to a simplified Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ,/Son of God,/Have mercy on [us].
The long form of the Jesus prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s often shortened to end at “me,” but when I’m making a project for someone, I often say, “us,” to include the recipient as well as myself in the prayer. Sometimes I pray for the whole world in that “us.”
Other bits of crochet fit other prayers:
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us.
All of these simple prayers can be worked into the things we make with our hands. Prayers put hidden beauty into handwork like the cook’s love and creativity spices food. Prayers can likewise be stirred into our cooking, of course, and folded into our laundry, and made into our beds.
Maybe you’ve already “failed” in your Lenten discipline, or maybe you’ve never even heard of Lent. But here’s an idea for these last days of winter: don’t fret so much about separating out the spiritual from your daily life. Martha and Mary are not opposites; they are sisters who work better together. This week, if you are so inclined, try a simple prayer while you walk or work around the house. If you’d like, come back and share your experience in the comments.