The story of Jesus’ visit to his friends Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) is well-known, as is its standard spiritual interpretation: Martha represents the “active” life and Mary the “contemplative” life, the latter being understood to have higher value because of its more direct relation to God and because of Jesus’ words about Mary choosing the “better part” (literally, the “good portion”).
But the story deserves another look. We ought to notice that it is not the “active life” as such, i.e., the labors of active service to God and one’s neighbor, that is somehow of inferior value. Martha was not criticized, either by Luke or by Jesus, for serving (indeed, to serve is of the essence of Christian life, and Jesus Himself said that He came to serve). Luke says, however, that Martha was “distracted” because of her service, and this is the beginning of the difficulties. Jesus does not offer his gentle reproach because she is serving, but because she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” It is her anxiety, not her serving, that places her, on the scale of values, a step below Mary’s quiet listening to Jesus’ words.
One can listen to the word of God even while serving, if one is free from anxiety, distraction, and other such troubles. Listening to the words of Jesus is always the “good portion” in comparison to anxious and unrecollected busyness. But service is essential to the Christian vocation, so we have to learn how to listen while serving, in addition to making adequate time for quiet listening alone. For if we do not set aside sufficient “quality time” for contemplative prayer, which is basically listening to the word of God and responding in faith and love, we will not be able to listen well during our times of more active service.
God will fill whatever interior space we open to Him, and our silent prayer time is meant precisely to create “space” within our hearts for his indwelling. It doesn’t matter if we do not experience his presence during the times we explicitly invite Him to abide in us. As long as we faithfully do so, He will come, perhaps in a way and at an hour we least expect. God is sovereign and free, and the fact that we give Him a certain amount of time each day doesn’t bind Him to manifest Himself during those particular times. But be sure that if you open your heart to Him in prayer, He will come to you, sooner or later, with his blessing and grace.
So be like Martha in your zeal to serve, but do not be like her in her anxiety and distraction. Be like Mary in your quiet, focused listening to the Lord, both in the solitude of your contemplative prayer time and in the activity of your serving. No one will take from you this good portion.