By Sheila Read and Trevor Thompson
We live in a world of action. Most people who are drawn to ministries of service are doers. We want our actions to make a difference in the world. We like to get things done and see concrete results.
The Gospel story of Martha and Mary illustrates an age-old tension between two ways of serving God: Martha, who focuses on service, and Mary, who sits in contemplation at the feet of Jesus. When this story comes up in discussion, I find very few people who identify with Mary. Our culture values Marthas, not Marys.
But a focus on action and doing, when taken too far, can be harmful. We risk burnout -and losing sight of the real purpose of our work, to show love to others, not manage a project.
Franciscan friar Richard Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation because after many years as a leader in social justice work, he saw the need to teach activists balance between action and contemplation. Without a regular practice of prayer, he observed that active-minded people tended to burn out, with the result that their work became tainted by resentment and negative energy.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in his book “Contemplation in a World of Action,” wrote: “He who attempts to do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others.”
Parishioner Alice Stanford, who has been doing the contemplative practice known as Centering Prayer for many years, said that it helps her let go of what’s unimportant and focus on God. “You’re making room for the Spirit,” Stanford said. “And you become more and more in touch with the fact that God is in you, already, and that you are a part of or connected to everyone else in the world.”
Centering prayer, popularized by Thomas Keating, builds on the ancient Christian tradition of meditation. It is a way of prayer intended to open the heart to the awareness of God, transform the self into a more authentic way of being, and increase the capacity to live a life of love.
Centering prayer involves a daily practice of sitting for 20 minutes in silence and emptying the mind of thoughts. When thoughts intrude, as they inevitably do, practitioners are taught to simply notice that they are occurring and use a sacred word to return to contemplation.
Stanford says centering prayer has taught her to be aware of negative tendencies, such a tendency to want to control things. And the spirit of connectedness with others has inspired her to get involved with activities to make a difference. She was a regular at “Moral Mondays” protests last summer of laws enacted by the North Carolina legislature that cut a variety of programs and benefits counted on by people in poverty. She also is a regular volunteer at the Community Garden, growing organic food to feed the hungry.
At the end of the day, our most authentic prayer and action stem from the same source: the limitless love of the God who made us, reconciled us and calls us to be agents of that reconciliation in ourselves and in the world. Mary and Martha may not quite be two sides of the same coin, but they are as inextricably bound as they are distinct. We need them both.
- To learn more about the St. Francis Centering Prayer group, contact Alice Stanford at 919-781-5860.
- Concerned about burnout and looking for re-inspiration in your ministry? Contact Trevor Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-847-8205 x270.
“Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer,” by Thomas Keating
“Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer,” by Richard Rohr