Martha and Mary on Anxiety

I’ve always considered the story of Martha and Mary as being about the two paths of spiritual life: the via activa and the via comtemplativa. Depending on my mood and spiritual fancy, the story either comforted or bothered me. Oftentimes both.

Today was different: Father’s homily was about anxiety. Martha’s problem was not her activity; it was anxiety that Jesus was correcting. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.”

This interpretation rings true to me. Anxiety. I’m the sort of guy who should probably be taking pills for it. I refuse, of course. I’m too anxious about anxiety pills to take them. I fear I would develop meta-anxiety: anxiety about anxiety.

But, on a larger scale, anxiety is at an all time high, I think. We sleep with our phones! The collective, modern life we lead is foreign to contemplation or action. It is anxious almost by definition. Fear, despair, cheap palliative thrills, mindless entertainment, media and politics everywhere.

Go to the mall: there you will find the late modern American Church, the place where anxious people go, often spending the money they don’t have to release their anxiety about not having money. There all faiths and races and classes and political parties put aside their differences to attend the secular eucharistic ritual of shopping: consumption, consumption, consumption. Bread and wine and garments and gold and more, all there to relieve and heighten the religious experience of anxiety.

There is a difference between the activity of hard work and honest labor and the activity of anxiety. Today’s Gospel rejects the latter. But more than the important rejection of what is false, it offers a more radical alternative: Mary’s silent witness to the beauty of being, dwelling in the presence of God.

This is as countercultural as anything imaginable. This is why monks and nuns — and certainly not those always-anxious politicians — are our only hope.

Remember this during election season.


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