One evening, not too terribly long ago – relatively speaking, there were two sisters who were preparing for a very special dinner guest. He was a powerful teacher, someone who radiated wisdom, and love. They each prepared for this special guest’s arrival in their own way.
The one sister, Martha, known for her accomplishments and work ethic started by making a thorough to-do list. Once she understood the scope of the tasks ahead, she got to work. Cleaning the kitchen and the dining area. Dusting, sweeping, and mopping. Doing the grocery shopping. Setting the table. And then chopping and broiling and heating and stirring.
Since this particular guest made a habit of traveling with at least twelve of his closest friends, it was a big meal to put together, and the timing had to be just right. It all had to be just right.
Martha’s sister, on the other hand, Mary. If Mary was known at all, it would have been less for what she did than how she was. She was often quiet. You may not notice her near you, but for the way she listened, and kept still. Accordingly, her preparation took an entirely different course than her sister’s. While Martha cooked, Mary waited. Just waited. Hopeful and watchful. She paid attention. She breathed deeply. She smiled more broadly, walked more softly. She offered thanks. She prayed. She felt blessed.
Finally, it was time. The guest – Jesus was his name – arrived, grateful and unassuming.
Martha was first to greet him at the door – always one for good manners. She brought him in, found a place for him and all of his companions to sit, and then went back to her work. There still was so much to do. She was nervous and unsure, wanting Jesus to see her, to appreciate what she had done, to believe she was a good person. Good enough to serve someone like him, in her home.
She returned to her pots and her hot oven, and kept on working.
Meanwhile, her sister sat at Jesus’ feet, and began to listen as he spoke. Just sitting there, doing absolutely nothing.
Though she tried not to make it obvious, Martha saw all of this. And she was Not. Happy. She was irritated in the way that only siblings can get irritated at one another: primordially, viscerally, irrationally, where one small irritation easily stands in for a lifetime of jealousy or fear, or love.
From this place, Martha stirred her soup around and around, picking up the pace as each thought came to her:
Who does Mary think she is?
Jesus must think she is so rude!
She is such an embarrassment!
And wouldn’t I like to sit there all still and quiet, learning all there is to learn, thinking big thoughts and dreaming big dreams – wouldn’t that be nice?
But then who would do all this work?
And as she stirred, the words suddenly came out from her, she spoke aloud, into the air:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” (Lk 10:40b)
The chatter in the room came to a sudden stop, and was replaced by a giant, awkward, silence.
Jesus had been watching all along, the stirring, the tending, the sighing. So, it did not take long for him to respond.
“Martha, Martha,“you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Lk 10:41a)
And everyone in the room was like…. What’s the one thing? For real, he never said. Religious scholars and bible readers have for centuries puzzled over this passage in the 10th chapter in the gospel of Luke, but still no one can say conclusively what Martha does not have, but Mary does.
It also does not say what Jesus planned on eating if everyone followed Mary’s– or his own – example.
It’s a fitting ending, for a story about time, and how we spend our time.
Because how we spend our time always seems to come with a non-specific sense that no matter how we do it, we’re doing it wrong.
Like everyone else has figured out a secret, that way of living that really gets that “one thing.”
I say all of this as someone who has for most of my life, been utterly confused about time. I don’t really believe that everyone else has entirely figured out time – but I am pretty clear most of you know more of the secret than I do.
Some of my confusion is inheritance. My mom’s family – she was one of 7 children – they lived next door to the town elementary school, and yet were always the last to arrive. It was a joke that the teachers and other children made, but my mom and her siblings didn’t really find it funny. It was embarrassing, but also something they felt they weren’t entirely capable of changing. There were reasons, in her childhood home, for why getting across the playground and in the front door was harder than it might seem. Some of it was the chaos of seven children born in six years – there were two sets of twins – and some of it was the chaos they in turn inherited from their parents, and their parents, and their parents.
All of this generational chaos adds up to what I sometimes think of as my “time disability.” Because my inner clock just does not match up to the actual clock – how long I think things take and how long they actually take, how many hours there are for real in a day, how many days in a month – I am literally always shocked at how off I can be. And I am not young. I should be better at this by now.
I acknowledge that my time challenges are not helped by my innate insatiable ambition to do all the things. I remember in fourth grade, I was 9 years old, and our school newspaper had an advice column you could write into anonymously. I was so hopeful writing my letter, that the mysterious letter answerer might be able to help me:
My problem is, I can’t choose. I want to do soccer, and piano, and tennis, and swimming, and basketball, and camp fire girls, and also I play guitar in the church choir, and also my family volunteers the second hand store, and I want to make sure I can ride bikes with my sisters, and also have enough time for school work, including all the bonus assignments….my letter went on for many pages. But at the end, the question was simply: I just don’t know how to fit it all in. I want to do it all. But there isn’t enough time. What do I do?
Time is like money – it is a limited resource. And also like money, the way we spend it tells us what we value most; because we can’t spend it on everything; and there’s no do-overs. Even at 9 I knew this.
Until the real-life invention of Hermione Granger’s time-turner, we’re all still stuck with a limited number of hours in each day, days in each week, weeks in year, moments in each life. Which is both the best and worst news that I know of: time is even now, passing.
In seminary, I discovered that some of my confusion around time might be a matter of linguistics – see, modern English has just one word for time. But the ancient Greeks understood that one word was insufficient, and gave time two words – Chronos, and Kairos. These two words describe two totally different realities, different experiences of this one things that we today call time.
Chronos refers to the actual clock time –– it’s the sort of time that Martha was anxious about – and Mary clearly was not. Chronos is the getting the dinner done, and served hot at an already-set table; it’s the stand through 2 stoplights at Prospect because the students are back and the construction isn’t done; and it’s the sitting in the waiting room until the nurse calls your name.
As author Glennon Doyle has written, “Chronos time is …. one minute at a time, it’s staring down the clock till bedtime time, it’s ten excruciating minutes in the Target line time when one kid has swiped a bra from the cart and arranged it over her sweater while sucking on a lollipop undoubtedly found on the ground; while the other is sucking on the pen from the credit card machine WHILE the woman ahead is trying to use it. Chronos is four screaming minutes in time-out, and, it’s two hours till daddy gets home time. Chronos is the hard, slow passing time [that many of us] actually live in.”
Kairos, however, is time in the larger sense. It’s time-out-of-time. It is time as in what mystic Julian of Norwich was present to when she said
“all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It is the time that some call God’s time.
Glennon Doyle describes Kairos as that same ten minutes in the Target line – but for a moment in the midst of all of that – you “notice the piles of healthy food you’ll feed your children to grow their bodies and minds and you remember that most of the world’s mamas would kill for this opportunity. This chance to stand in a grocery line with enough money to pay. And you just stare at your cart, and the abundance, and say thank you.”
Mary was connected to Kairos, entirely, gave herself over to it, but Martha – she was nowhere near.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”
Isn’t it the most irritating comment? Martha was making him dinner – making his friends dinner – meanwhile her sister was completely unhelpful.
“Worried” and “distracted” seems the least of what she had the right to be.
A lot of the traditional reads on this story cast the two sisters as a dichotomy of life choices – a choice between Mary’s being and Martha’s doing; a choice of contemplation or action; chronos or Kairos.
As you can probably guess, the celebrated path has not trended towards Martha in this dichotomy. Be a Mary, not a Martha, the usual lesson goes. Even though Martha was getting the job done – and on her own.
Although some feminist readings have tried to rescue Martha over the years, more often the feminist insight has centered on Mary – because she’s a woman not in the kitchen, right? And Jesus was like – follow her.
Martha, on the other hand, has been portrayed as a cautionary tale of over-work, over-worry, and over-functioning.
It’s a good message for today, where busy has become a status symbol, and a way of to demonstrate your value, and your worth. Not just demonstrate it, but prove it. To others, and just as often, yourself.
When you ask, how are you? So often now you get: busy.
Even though busy is not a feeling word.
Behind the “busy” answer might be all sorts of feelings – from loneliness to fear, to excitement, to exhaustion, even wonder, or boredom, anxiety, or despair. The only thing we know for sure with busy, is that we don’t know – because who has the time? Things are too busy.
To address the Martha-esque epidemic of modern life, we are told to work for balance in work, and life; in activity and in rest; in care for others, and care for ourselves. The two sides are still a dichotomy – just like the traditional reads of Mary and Martha – except that instead of choosing one or the other as better, we’re invited to straddle across.
To arrange our time as if placing pieces of ourselves on two sides of a scale, measuring and quantifying action…contemplation…work…rest…serving….relaxing…
But life does not actually separate out so easily. It’s so much more mixed up – less a dichotomy, and more like a paradox.
Because on the one hand, life is about Target lines and lollipops, and dealing with the clogged kitchen sink. Life is being too hot because you can’t figure out how to turn off the heat, and it is picking up groceries, and, in the middle of everything, the bag breaking.
Life is spilling coffee down your sleeve, buying a hairbrush, hurrying along wobbly bricks –
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.
All these little things, these daily things, these things that fill our hours and our minutes, our seconds. These are life.
And then at the exact same time, life is not actually about the kitchen sink, or the groceries, or even about coffee. It isn’t about any of this at all.
Life is about a thread that connects all of these, and all of us in the doing of these things,
And it is about that connection, that pulse,“that yearning.”
Life is even about the not getting anything done at all, about setting aside all the cooking to sit in a circle of friends who have dedicated their lives to love, and trusting that there’s a different sort of hunger being fed.
Life is do-ing, because of be-ing; Life is tending, and tasking, and tracking –because of who we are tending to, and tasking and tracking for, only because always in the next room, the next house, the next city – sits our beloved, and all of our tasks add up to something called healing, and wholeness, transformation, and liberation.
Which is why I vote we give up on the whole idea of balance. Give up charting a life of perfectly equal dosages of being, and then doing, resting and then working – Mary-ing and then Martha-ing.
My spiritual director likes to say, Sabbath is not feast or famine, Gretchen. She means, just because there’s this one day set aside called “a day off,” doesn’t mean that no resting can happen until that day. The wholeness of time is available, everywhere, and in everything. And the invitation and challenge before all of us, in this paradoxical life, is to pull all of these things together, to feel ourselves whole. To live an integrated life, a life that lived with intention, a life where we show up all the way, in all the parts.
And a life that seeks that connection – even across the pots and the pans and the annoying family members – with the big why, to keep weaving that connection, over, and over, and over, second-by-second; minute-by-minute. I’ve thought sometimes, that maybe that’s the One Thing from the story.
To approach time like this requires setting aside guilt, or judgment about how much time things should take – because if we are connected to the BIG WHY there’s always going to be more to do than there is time. So we accept what we can do, and show up all the way for that, and let go of the rest. To accept this moment as it is; this is the task at hand, and to forgive ourselves for the inevitable imperfection.
To remember that the holy is always within our reach. And so we are invited to surrender into all that we cannot control, and to give thanks – that we have this chance – simply, to be alive.