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Being in Silence: Part I

By Julie McDermott

Author’s note: This is a three-part blog series taken from a retreat lecture given on the topic of silence one year ago. The basis of this talk came from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s “The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise” (Ignatius Press, 2017), and his wisdom is strongly referenced below.

With Lent upon us, we have entered into a slow season of the church year. It is a time for reflection, fasting, and spiritual renewal through prayer. This sounds peaceful yet does not come easily to one living in today’s demanding culture. We continually wrestle with our modern plagues: device and screen addiction, family’s no longer sharing meals together, 70-hour work weeks, and busy schedules with no time for rest and reflection.

How can we learn to rest in Lent? How do we resist the temptation to be constantly doing, clicking, and moving, when we should slow down and learn to simply “be?” The story of Saints Mary and Martha found at the end of the Gospel of St. Luke chapter 10 is an example to us of actively doing vs. actively being.

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:38-42).

Often we are taught this story in a positive vs. negative light. We have a positive example in Mary who washes the feet of Christ and forgets all the cares of the world. We have the poor example of an anxious, task laden woman in Martha who sees the reality that people need to eat and ignores precious moments before her Lord.

In fact, this type of teaching goes all the way back to Church Fathers. Origen wrote the first recorded homily on this passage, and his exegesis was followed for centuries: Martha symbolized action, and Mary symbolized contemplation. He went so far as to say that Martha represented the Jews in the synagogue who were observers of the law, and Mary represented the Christian Church and the new spiritual law.

Instead of pitting the two women and their examples, against each other, Cardinal Sarah makes the point that we should view them as a spiritual pedagogy -- or, a method for our spiritual life. We should work to become Mary before Martha, otherwise we will be bogged down in our daily life of responding to emails, texting, keeping up relationships, and staying on top of our work.

There is certainly a need for a woman like Martha who is in the kitchen and prepares the food. But what must be of utmost importance, central to us, is our desire to be at the feet of Christ -- the work of contemplation.

Let’s look at the scripture. How does Christ correct Martha?

“Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41).

Cardinal Sarah writes that Christ rebukes Martha for her “inattentive interior attitude” which is betrayed by her annoyance with her sister when she says, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” His use of “inattentive” to label Martha reminds me of my priest, Fr. Spencer, who often teaches on, and encourages us to implement, the Four Transcendental Imperatives: be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible.

Second, when Christ tells Martha that Mary has chosen the “good part” he is reminding her to quiet her heart, as Mary has done by calmly placing herself before Christ. This idea references Psalm 131:

Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child (Psalm 131:2).

Before we can be effectively active -- as in, the ideal Martha -- we must be prayerful, contemplative, seeking and obeying God’s will. Thus, Christ invites Martha (and us) to stop so as to return to her heart, the place of true welcome and the dwelling place of God’s silent tenderness.

“In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (30:15).

When we are in silence and solitude (both interior and exterior) we encounter God’s own silent tenderness. Let this be a Lenten prayer -- to grow in silence and quiet confidence thus slowing down our restless minds.

Julie McDermott lives in Charlottesville, VA and attends All Saints Anglican Church.

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