St. Martha’s Lessons in Prayer and Work

By: Deacon Marques Silva

Today is my daughter’s seventeenth birthday. Not sure how this happened so quickly but here we are. It is also the memorial of St. Martha who, as many of us know, is one of Lazarus’ two sisters. Hannah reminds me of St. Martha because of her love for quiet and creative service so I thought I would reflect upon that today.

Now, if you still are wondering who this St. Martha is, she is also remembered as the poor soul who was famously chided in Luke 10:38-42. Why? For being distracted by her service and not seeing the benefit of sitting at the Lord’s feet:

 But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:40-42)

Did you notice that the Lord did not say, “Work bad, prayer good”? Scripture says that she was distracted by her service which I take to mean that she had separated it from her prayer and reflection.

St. Benedict of Nursia said, “Ora et Labora,” or “Pray and Work.” This ancient Christian maxim has guided the ideal rhythm for monks and laity alike for centuries. St. John Bosco, in the 1800s, reinterpreted this famous Benedictine maxim and said, “Ora est Labora,” or “Prayer is work.” One might think that they are opposed to one another but even in Hebrew the work for prayer and work are the same: adovah.

angelus Hannah has been a model of this delicate balance for me. (Is it bad to talk about my daughter without her permission?) For example, I watched her last week take on a “secret” major project at our house which, neither my wife nor myself, asked her to do. She encouraged two of her other siblings to assist as she worked many long hours on this project as a surprise for her sister. I was deeply impressed – and it was not just the commitment and work ethic that caught my attention.

What struck me was the manner in which she worked. It was done out of a heart full of love, with much joy and in prayer. As she explained later, no thanks was needed because that is what family does for each other and it was the Lord who made it possible.

In our society, work is usually viewed as a punishment for original sin – but that is not what Sacred Scripture proclaims. Work existed before the fall. In Genesis 2:15, the Holy Writ says,

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till (adovah – work or pray) it and keep (shamar – guard and protect) it. (Gn 2:15)

It is only after the fall does work become toilsome and wearisome. The Lord curses creation (because of Adam) and work when He says,

 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, `You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gn 3:17-19) [Emphasis mine]

And yet, O happy fault! Because of the redemptive work of Christ, the purpose of work has been redeemed even though we still deal with the effects of sin, illustrated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC),

 To human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the responsibility of “subduing” the earth and having dominion over it (Gen. 1:26-28).…to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. (CCC 307)

We now have the privilege of participating with Christ in the redemption of creation by sanctifying it through our adovah (prayer and work),

 In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. And so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God, everywhere offering worship by the holiness of their lives. (CCC 901)

Work and prayer is not an either/or but a both/and. Caveat: Do not misunderstand me. We must set time aside to focus solely on our relationship with Jesus in prayer. But work is not supposed to separate us from prayer. It should become part of it. Opus Dei has a common saying that I think summarizes this principle eloquently, “Sanctify yourself, sanctify your work, and sanctify others through your work.”

St. Martha, ora pro nobis! And, Happy Birthday Hannah! Ad multos annos!

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