Discerning the One Thing Needful
By Fr. Andrew Damick
Silence… is something that our culture wants to avoid at all costs. Some of us look for it on vacation. But on our way to that vacation, we make sure that we’re well insulated with noise, whether it’s blaring from the car stereo as we drive or plugged into our ears as we sit on the airplane. We may savor a few moments of quiet on a beach or in the woods or on a mountain, but then we eventually need a vacation from our vacation, and we rush back to get plugged in to the culture of noise.
Cellphones, Blackberries, texting, email, Facebook, television, Twitter, radio, laptops, GPS navigators, wi-fi, iPods, iPhones, iPads, iBooks—all of these are devices we employ to prevent being alone with our thoughts. Woe to that stretch of land that is not within sight of a cellphone tower!
We are a generation that has more access to incessant noise than any other in the history of humanity. This major cultural shift has largely taken hold for most of us without much in the way of introspection. And it has all happened rather quickly, too—with the exception of television and radio, all of the things I mentioned before have come into popular availability just within the past twenty-five years, most of them just in the last ten. As a result, many of us easily remember a time when such things were unavailable. And yet how often do we find ourselves saying, “I don’t know how I lived without that”?
Today let’s spend a few moments thinking about attention and how we divide and focus it. The Gospel reading which is appointed for this Great Feast of the Virgin Mary, her Dormition—that is, her falling-asleep and departure from this earthly life—bears within it two different contrasts, and both of them have to do with attention.
In the first, we hear of two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead. Martha is the classic “Type A” personality—she has to be doing something all the time. But Mary her sister just wants to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.
When we hear this familiar account, there is probably some part of us that looks at Mary and says, “Well, that’s boring.” For our culture, Martha is actually the much more attractive figure. After all, she’s doing something! Mary’s just sitting there listening to some guy talk, and it only makes sense that Martha would complain about that. But Jesus, Whose teachings will always be counter-cultural, says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”