Have you ever looked back on a day and thought – wow, I really accomplished a lot today! – and you get this feeling of great accomplishment, because from sunup to sundown, you were busy, you were productive. I occasionally feel like that. As a priest, I’m very happy to be in the parish, working hard, getting things done, but I have a hard time with some of the other responsibilities of being a priest, the quiet time, protecting time for prayer and reading, going on my spiritual retreat, because none of these have a specific, work-related task that needs accomplishing. If I’m not checking an item off a to-do list, I start to get physically itchy, my skin crawls and I have to hop up and do something, anything. We have all been conditioned to value productivity, thinking a successful person is someone who seems to be very active.
This, of course, is related to the question that arises from the story of Mary and Martha. The traditional Catholic reading of this passage makes a comparison between the active and the contemplative life, and there’s a related set of questions that arise from it – What is the relationship between work and leisure? Should we be like Martha or like Mary? Is one attitude more valuable than the other? If we work through these questions, we will come to a somewhat surprising spiritual insight regarding the source of spiritual laziness or sloth.
First, let’s talk about Martha. Martha is a worker. She washes the dishes, makes sure a coaster is under everyone’s cup, refills the pretzel bowl. She wants to be sure the gathering is going smoothly. At it’s best, her attitude is one of hospitality and generosity. Related to that, when we engage in work and productivity, we participate in God’s creative impulse. We work not only to make money, but more importantly to create something of value, a product or a service, something that makes someone’s life easier because you’ve done a good job. A job well done is something to be proud of, so the problem that we tend to face isn’t work; it is over-work. The insistent need to fill up our days, to measure ourselves by productivity, and the mistake of defining ourselves by accomplishments. This is the bad habit that Martha seems to be sliding into, and we see what happens. It separates her from Jesus. He is sitting in her very home and she is too distracted to spend time with him.
For those of us who over-work, what happens is that whenever we get any free time, we use it in idleness because we are exhausted. We watch mindless television, surf the internet, seek out gossip, that sort of thing. This, we should be careful to note, is not what Mary is doing when she sits at the feet of Christ. What Mary is doing is engaging in true leisure. She is taking a healthy rest from work. She isn’t simply vegetating on the couch until it’s time to work again. This authentic form of leisure is why God made us. We know this because the first, full day on earth is a sabbath, the day of rest. It is the leisure that completes the creation.
Leisure is not necessarily easy. Mary is putting in effort, too, just like Martha. It’s just of a different kind. She is listening. She is praying. She is contemplating. She isn’t wasting her time, she is putting in a great effort to be present for her Lord. This, I think, is why I find spiritual retreats so challenging. They take a lot of effort, because you go to the middle of nowhere, you read and pray, you take walks and think. It’s a way of self-reflecting and trying to hear from God and it is hard. But it is true leisure, and what I notice is that I always return from spiritual retreats refreshed and full of energy.
For most of us, our lives are going to consist of some mix of work and leisure – six days of work and one day of rest. We need to protect our leisure from being overwhelmed by work, because it is the leisure where God really meets us, and it is the sabbath that draws us out of earthly cares and into the important spiritual matters upon which rests our self-knowledge, our redemption, and our happiness.
The balance of work and leisure is different for all of us, and it may change during the course of our lives. If you’re raising children right now, your leisure time might be less and it might be different. Your leisure may be watching your children grow, taking time to kiss them good night, being with you kids and enjoying your family. If you’re retired, you have the opportunity to really spend a lot of time in prayer and reading. Your leisure may be enjoying quality time with friends, having a meal with your parents, taking a day trip somewhere. I would encourage everyone to make time for a spiritual retreat, and I know we have a group of men who go once a year to White House, which is a great habit.
Whatever your leisure time is, each of us needs to get it right. Otherwise a somewhat unintended spiritual consequence will result, which is sloth. Sloth is one of the deadly sins, and those who struggle with it find that they neglect their prayer time, or feel stressed and rushed, or even start skipping Mass on Sunday.
The philosopher Josef Pieper says, “Idleness and lack of leisure belong with each other; leisure is opposed to both.” In other words, being too busy with work and lazily wasting time are related problems – both of them are opposed to leisure, both of them are very different from what Mary is doing when she sits at the foot of Christ. When you are feeling spiritually slothful (the technical term is Acedia), the remedy is not to start working really hard, it is to restore and protect your leisure time. You may be slothful because you are over-working and you’re exhausted. You may also be slothful because you are not putting enough effort into your leisure.
Sloth is a weariness of the soul, and it is Jesus who heals us and helps us carry the burden. Leisure cannot simply be an accident of when you have a day off or a holiday. Like Mary, you must fight for it. You must make great efforts to stay near to Jesus. There’s always something else that we could be doing, but it isn’t important enough to draw us away from Our Lord.
Choose the better way, and just see what happiness and joy and blessing God sends to you.