I recently attended a retreat week-end at Pluscarden Abbey, led by Bishop Richard Moth, an oblate of the abbey. Knowing that I had this article to write, I was hoping for inspiration over the week-end. Sure enough, the first talk was based on the story of Martha and Mary. Bishop Moth suggested that we all needed to be a mixture of Martha and Mary – practical and contempative. Of course we need to eat, sleep, keep reasonably clean and earn enough to have a roof over our heads. However these activities must be secondary to our relationship with God. If they take precidence in our daily routine over our prayer life, then they drive a wedge between us and God. Mary had chosen the better part because she put listening to the word of God before everything else. Perhaps, if Martha had done the same, then after a while, Jesus would have stopped speaking and both sisters would have produced a meal together. Jesus needed to eat just as much as anyone else and there are several stories of him taking part in meals, both formal and informal, but his task of teaching about the Kingdom of God came first. His lesson to Martha and Mary is that our physical needs must take second place to our relationship with God.
As the week-end progressed, Bishop Moth talked on how this relationship with God can only be maintained by us listening to the word of God – through private scripture reading, taking part in the Liturgy of the Church and the practice of Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina was particularly important for allowing us to listen to any specific messages that God might have for us. Bishop Moth advised us to choose a specific text and read it from begining to end, rather than picking sections at random. He also advised using modern translations, be it Scripture, the Early Fathers or other traditional spiritual reading.
It struck me as I listened to Bishop Moth’s talk on Martha and Mary that there was a parallel between this story and the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule is also a mixture of intructions on developing a close relationship with God and on attending to the physical needs of oneself and others. It is significant that the Prologue, which is read during the first week of September, begins with the word ‘Listen’ and continues in each day’s readings to remind us to put God first. Here are a few examples:
And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it.
Today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts
What can be sweeter to us, dear brethren, than this voice of the Lord inviting us?
Let us walk in His paths by the guidance of the Gospel
Hence the Lord says in the Gospel. ‘Whoever listens to these words of mine and acts upon them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on rock.
Only after these instructions, does the Rule itemise the pattern of life in the monastery, which itself is a mixture of formal liturgy, private prayer and whatever manual work is necessary – a mixture of Martha and Mary but with Mary coming first.
To return to Lectio Divina, I went away from this talk wondering what material I should use for this exercise, which I had been rather neglecting recently. Then the first post after my arrival back home included a small envelope. I had won the Sudoku competition in my diocesan magazine – a copy of the classic ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ by Brother Laurence in a modern translation by Marshall Davis. So that was that problem solved for me! I am feeling almost nervous about what message is waiting for me within it’s pages as another of Bishop Moth’s messages was that we are all given a cross to carry. Another sentence from the Prologue to the Rule is relevant here ‘… let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible.’
Oblate of Pluscarden Abbey