Mary, Martha and Einstein

    … in relativity theory time is defined by a description of specific manipulations with clocks, light signals, and measuring rods. It turns out that events that are simultaneous for one observer will occur at different moments if viewed by another observer moving at a different velocity… All operations by which time is measured are relative ones. — Klotz, Irving and Rosenberg, Robert. Introduction to Chemical Thermodynamics

    Time is not absolutely defined. – Albert Einstein

With Einstein we see a theory of time based in the concept of relativity. Time is relative to our ‘frame of reference’. Thus two observers of the same event in two different frames of reference will experience the event differently. This is a mathematically verifiable phenomenon. Scientists have actually placed highly accurate clocks on jets on flown them all around in order to verify the calculation. Amazingly it worked! (Now why can’t I ever get a job like that?) As Einstein says, “time is not absolutely defined”; it is dependent upon your frame of reference.

While ‘frame of reference’ is important to physicists, the concept of frame of reference is also useful to look at in the context of spirituality. One aspect of your spiritual frame of reference is your relationship with time. The story of Mary and Martha provides a good framework from which to explore this concept.

    38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!”
    41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10: 38-42, NRSV)

Martha is a real 21st century kind of woman. It is incredibly comforting, isn’t it, to see that our culture’s obsession with busyness and constant activity is not a new issue (although we have taken the idea to new extremes). Martha struggled with this same issue nearly 2000 years ago.

In the passage from Luke, we find the two sisters in two starkly different frames of reference. Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening, and Martha is hurrying around distracted with the preparation of the meal. Indeed, the two sisters are in almost completely opposite frame of references!

We find that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks”. Her mind is distracted from the present moment and the presence of Jesus by her many tasks. Martha is not fully present in the current moment. Jesus gently (“Martha, Martha”) holds a mirror up for her to see the problem – her distraction and her worries are preventing Martha’s presence in the current moment and thus her connection with Jesus. Her frustration spills over in her judgment of her sister, Mary.

Martha echoes the voice of our culture when she judges her sister’s choice to just sit and be in the presence of Jesus as inferior to her choice of frenzied activity. She makes the judgment that our culture makes: we are what we do. There is always something ‘useful’ that we could be doing, such as loading the dishwasher, starting a load of clothes, answering email, etc. The decision to take time to sit in the presence of God is one that often seemingly requires justification. But not in the economy of Jesus, he affirms Mary’s choice as the ‘better part’ that will not be taken away from her. Mary has her heart in the right place and is focused on Immanuel.

While the work Martha is doing is not in and of itself bad, it is Martha’s mental state or ‘frame of reference’ as she performs the tasks at hand that is the issue. Jesus encourages Martha to detach from all of her many worries and distractions. Traditionally, we have taken this to mean that Martha should put aside the preparations for the meal and sit at the feet of Jesus listening as is Mary. But it is just as easy to be ‘worried and distracted by many things’, while sitting at the feet of Jesus as it is to be ‘worried and distracted by many things’ while busy about meal preparation. ‘Being present’ without ‘being present’ is a spiritual issue.

Can Martha change her approach to the meal preparation? Can she strive to put aside her worries and distractions and do the quotidian tasks before her mindfully immersed in the tasks at hand? Can she stay immersed in the present moment fully and thereby make connection to Jesus in the midst of her tasks at hand? Answering yes to these questions will provide a shift in Martha’s frame of reference and transform her mental state.

There is no need for her to stress over the meal preparation. Jesus certainly isn’t, and in the gospel of Mathew Jesus reminds us, “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or your body, what you will wear…” (Matt 6:25, NIV) The things of daily life will take care of themselves – there is a natural rhythm that Jesus alludes to here. Pushing ourselves harder, expending more effort will not make us successful or happy. Instead, it will leave us worn out and distracted.

Jesus wants us to remember, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt 6: 27, NIV) All of our obsession with schedules and time will not add a single hour to any day. Each of us is given the same twenty-four hours to live within; it is our frame of reference as we approach these twenty-four hours that makes all of the difference.

If, on the other hand, we can manage to go about our daily tasks without being overcommitted and while at the same time cultivating a sense of mindfulness in the current moment of time that we are working within – then we fall into the basic, God-given rhythm of time. We let go of our need to manage and control time. We are able to be fully present in the moment at hand. Then time becomes a sacrament that we live into. Time is no longer our enemy, but our partner as we move through life.

    “I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self.” Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work’

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