Mary Has the Better Part: On Being Present

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One of my least favorite Scripture passages is the one about Mary and Martha. Most Bible thumpers know exactly which one I’m referring to. My not-so-religious friend who found herself in Bible study one afternoon was totally confused. 

“I’m sorry, who are we talking about? Martha Stewart?” she asked.

The story of Mary and Martha is found in Luke 10:38-42 and also in John 12:2.

Mary and Martha are sisters of Lazarus, the guy Jesus raised from the dead. One day Jesus and his disciples were walking through the town of Bethany and decided to drop in on the sisters. Mary immediately drops everything and sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to his every word. Martha heads to the kitchen to start cooking and is distracted by all the preparations that need to happen. She is annoyed at her sister for not helping her and says to Jesus, “Dude, back me up! Tell that one to get off of her butt and give me a hand!”

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus responds, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

Up until recently, I always saw Jesus as a bit of an enabler in that passage. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mary is sitting with him. Big whoop. It’s Martha who is doing the real work.

Just Being

My interpretation came back to bite me during my chaplain training, because all you are really doing as a chaplain is the role of Mary … being present. It looks deceivingly easy –like letting your mind wander as you twirl a whistle up on the lifeguard stand. But it’s not. Its degree of difficulty is off the charts when executed properly.

My cohorts called me on my inability to sit with a patient’s pain the first time I presented a case to them.

I spent the first five minutes of my visit with a patient asking him about every item of food on his tray and how he would rate it. I was afraid to go deep because I could see the person in the hospital bed was in a lot of pain. If I uncorked it, who knows what might come out? All of a sudden he started to cry and I couldn’t avoid it anymore. He told me about how he had lost three loved ones in the last six months. 

I nodded as he told me the details, looking for the silver lining in each death or some piece of hope with which to pivot this conversation. I was fishing pretty hard when suddenly he perked up while mentioning his Catholic faith. That was the source of light in his darkness. Bingo! I stayed there for the remainder of the visit – talking about the saints, Catholic social justice, Mary, novenas. If I could play the guitar, I would have channeled Julie Andrews and broke into a hospital rendition of “A Few of My Favorite Things.” 

“Ummm. You seemed afraid of just being with him in his pain,” a colleague said after I read aloud the dialogue between him and me.

“No. I wasn’t,” I responded defensively. “I just think we need to concentrate on leading our patients to hope. What good does it do if we just sit with them in their pain?”

Actually, it does a lot, I learned in my future visits with patients. It is the hardest thing in the world to resist the urge to fix someone’s pain. But that is exactly what you have to do. You have to sit with the messiness and not pick up the broom, mop, or sponge.

Remeasuring Productivity

One of the hiccups I had is that sitting with someone without offering a solution renders no tangible results. Allowing someone the space to open up her heart isn’t a strategic exercise that extracts quantifiable data. It’s a bit like working out for two hours a day for eight weeks and seeing nothing happening. Who wouldn’t be tempted to swap that time for bagels and coffee?

It’s not that the empathetic friend isn’t being productive. It’s that she is measuring productivity in the wrong way. If you think about it, most of our interactions with others are driven by the desire for positive feedback. We want to come away from an exchange feeling as though we made an impact. We unconsciously desire an outcome in others — for a person to feel a certain way so that we feel good in return. Maya Angelou once wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I became a chaplain because I wanted that feedback. I desired to leave a hospital or a nursing home facility drowning in warm fuzzies. In my first three months, I often left depleted, wondering if I did anything good in my day. Somewhere in the halls of that hospital I came to realize that the most meaningful acts are the selfless ones. When we do something good just to do something good, regardless of the way it makes us feel.

The gift of presence can’t be measured in the same way that a motivational speech from Tony Robbins can. The hospital patient or a friend could, in fact, feel worse after talking about her pain. But that result doesn’t make the act of sitting there any less valuable or needed. Being present is about trusting Jesus’ words that “few things are needed – or indeed only one.” 

Modeling Mary

Last fall, I used the story of Mary and Martha to lead a spiritual group at a nursing home. Only two women attended that day, both in their late 80s with progressive Alzheimer’s. I had spent two hours on my lesson plan, with thoughtful reflection questions and religious quotes to follow the reading. 

We were sitting outside on the deck. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. 

After I read the passage, I prompted them to discuss it with my questions.

Nothing.

I rephrased the questions.

Still nada.

“Look at the ladder!” one woman said, pointing at the next building over.

“Do you think you could climb that?” I asked her.

Both of them howled.

I returned to my lesson plan.

No response.

“Look at the ladder!” the same woman said, pointing to the same building.

“Do you think you could climb that?” I asked.

Both of them howl again.

One more time I tried to get us back to the passage.

The other lady looked like she was falling asleep.

I closed my binder with the lesson plan and just sat there with them.

“Look at the ladder!” the same woman said a third time.

“Do you think you could climb that?” I asked.

There was no better lesson about being Mary than that. Even in discussing the passage, I was modeling Martha, investing my time into the preparation of the morning and determined to carry out my lesson plan. However, all I really had to do was to sit there with those two lovely women and respond to whatever intrigued them – which happened to be a ladder against a building.

Few things are needed. Or indeed only one.

Image credit: Rijks Museum

Copyright Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (“CCO 1.0 Dedication”)

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10 Responses
  1. claire

    This is a beautiful piece, thank you for writing it. It is perfect. I will print this and read it over and again. As someone who craves outcome measures and action plans from every meeting, I have learned the slow way about what “support” actually means. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Mary

    Therese, you are such a wonderful gift. You have no idea how much I needed to read this. I didn’t even know I did until I started reading to see where you were taking us. It hits home for me. Thank you!

  3. Shelly Holt

    Therese,
    Thank you for this piece. I am working on my “Mary” when I am with my clients doing telehealth therapy. It can be tricky to leave my chair for the day not feeling like I was even effective. However, it is never about me. I am doing what God has called me to…listen. I’ve considered it a ministry since I was called 12 years ago. Thank you for accompanying me on my journey.

  4. Michael Leach

    A ladder against a building! This is pure Therese: beautiful, brutally honest, wise, funny, and helpful. How can you not want to read everything she writes?

  5. Dale Heins

    Thank you Therese for always reminding us what is the right thing to do or not do. Center your life around Jesus is what’s right.

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