Sit at the Master’s feet, as did Mary. She chose the better part because she is seated at the feet of Wisdom Incarnate, Jesus Christ, who is not only the source of all truth but is Truth Itself. In listening attentively to her Master, Mary is engaged in the one activity that matters above all the rest: focusing her attention on Jesus.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
21 July 2019
In this Sunday’s gospel (Lk 10:38-42) for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we find Jesus at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Martha is busy making preparations and serving the guests who are present, whereas Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him. Naturally, Martha is a little bothered by the fact that her sister Mary has left her to do all the work alone. Consequently, she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Then, something unexpected happens. Jesus says to Martha:
Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.
Sometimes people find Jesus’ words a little unsettling. Aren’t we supposed to tirelessly serve others? Love thy neighbor and all, right? And wasn’t it Mary’s place to help her sister? According to the cultural conventions of the day, women were expected to prepare food and serve at table. This was not something men would do. Yet here we find Mary sitting and listening to Jesus!
There’s often a tendency to pit Martha’s service against Mary’s listening. But there’s no reason to do that. Certainly, service is important. After all, Jesus came to serve and not be served. Nevertheless, Jesus reminds Martha that there is need of only one thing and Mary has chosen the better part. What is that one thing? Obviously, it’s Jesus. A personal relationship with him is paramount. Faith in Jesus and self-entrustment to him is the one necessary thing. If we neglect to do that, our life will end in misery and failure.
Why Should We Sit At The Master’s Feet?
In simple terms, sitting at the feet of the Master is the first step in putting everything else into proper order. Listening to Jesus has to be a priority; otherwise, we’ll soon find that we’re listening to the wrong people, absorbing harmful ideas and tenets and assimilating them as our own. There is no higher form of listening than to listen to God himself, and no greater wisdom can be obtained than that which flows from the lips of Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Mt 4:4)
Think for a moment about a plant. If its roots penetrate a soil rich in minerals and other nutrients, and if it receives the proper amount of water and sunlight, it will thrive beautifully. On the other hand, if it is deprived of a nutrient-rich soil, water or sunlight, it will wither and die. The human soul is no different. If we nourish our soul by sitting at the feet of the Master and listening to him, applying his teaching as opposed to doing nothing other than listening, we will soon grow and thrive spiritually. The virtues will take on new life and strength as we rise above the world by virtue of the power of Christ’s words.
Active vs Contemplative
There’s an ancient tradition that sees Martha as signifying the active life and Mary signifying the contemplative life. It’s often noted that before we can live an active life properly, we must first engage in prayer and meditation. Jesus himself gives us this example when he prays before engaging in the important aspects of his ministry and mission. For example, on the night before he is crucified, he goes into the garden of Gethsemane and prays to God the Father. It is in God that all things are possible. By humbly and attentively sitting at the feet of Christ our Master, we are given everything we need to meet the many challenges found in life as his disciple.
When we speak of the contemplative life, we often think of the religious—religious brothers and sisters, monks and nuns. However, the contemplative life is for all Christians, clergy, religious, and laity alike.
There’s lots of confusion about contemplation. What is it? It can be categorized in two main ways: 1) acquired contemplation and 2) infused contemplation. Each is distinctly different.
Acquired contemplation refers to meditation on the scriptures, prayer, listening for the Spirit’s guidance, etc. Acquired contemplation is something any Christian can do naturally (assisted by grace) by setting aside time for prayer and Christian meditation. Very simply, when we engage in acquired contemplation, we are intentionally focusing our attention in some way on the Tripersonal God.
Infused contemplation, on the other hand, refers to how God himself draws a person into prayer on a supernatural level. In this type of contemplation, God does the work of prayer; therefore, during infused contemplation, people feel as if God is “looking at them” and they are “looking back.” In this state, prayer is effortless. It’s often described as being held in the warm and loving embrace of God; as being caught up in God’s divine presence; feeling the Spirit vibrating with divine love in one’s heart. It’s a glance of divine love that pulls us into divine love; it’s a peaceful and extraordinary inflow of God into the soul. There’s often a powerful sense of the presence of God as love itself. Often, one comes to know or understand things about himself and God in an intuitive, powerful way. For example, infused contemplation often leaves one with a profound feeling of humility in which our creatureliness and dependence on God is unveiled with dazzling clarity.
Infused contemplation, as the Catechism teaches, is a grace from God that can be accepted only in humility. Although we can prepare to receive this gift by living the life of faith and virtue, it is God alone who gives it. Ultimately, there is nothing we can do ourselves to initiate it. It’s God’s work. There is no technique to learn; no psychological state one must strive to achieve; no meditative function that can bring it about. Infused contemplation can occur at any time and in any place. God alone draws the person into it. Notice how different this is from secular meditation in which people learn specific techniques, such as calming the mind or concentrating on one’s breathing, while focusing their attention inwardly on oneself. Infused contemplation is entirely different: it’s supernatural and otherworldly in that it is God who initiates it, with the senses and intellect concentrated on him.
Infused contemplation is for everyone, but few achieve it here below for various reasons such as lack of faith or a lukewarm faith, a lax conscience, moral and/or spiritual indifference, preoccupation with worldly things, mortal sin, etc. Nevertheless, God can grant it to anyone at his pleasure. Additionally, since it is a work of grace, we cannot “earn” it as one might earn his daily wages.
Why Is It Essential To Sit At The Master’s Feet?
It’s essential to sit at Jesus’ feet and attentively listen to him because he is Truth incarnate. Vatican II noted that it is “only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22 § 1, qtd CCC 359). Jesus is not only the fullness of revelation about God; he is the fullness of revelation about man himself.
It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (Jn 6:63)
If you do not sit at the Master’s feet and apply what you hear, you will soon find that your beliefs, attitudes and behavior has become disordered, out-of-sync with what is really true and thus in conflict with God. The teaching of the Church on faith and morals will become obscured in your mind and heart. The truth about human nature will be darkened, confused. Sin will be increased and the will weakened further. We often hear the maxim: nature abhors a vacuum. If a void is created where the revelation of God and his truth should be, it will be filled with the distortions and errors of today’s relativistic and secular human culture.
Let’s take relativism for example. What is it? It’s the notion that there is no such thing as objective moral norms and absolute truths. Relativism reduces truth to a matter of personal opinion. It’s pervasive in culture and connected to most of the immoral ailments we find there today, especially in the realm of human sexuality and religion. We can think of the rising approval rates for cohabitation, pornography, same-sex “marriage,” marriage as a social arrangement, homosexual acts, transgenderism, contraceptives, and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). The “spiritual but not religious” group is growing rapidly because of a relativistic view of religion. And more and more people see religion as purely a matter of opinion with little or no relationship to what is really true.
Let’s consider cohabitation for a moment, to pick one example among many. A relativist might say that cohabitation is a good, intelligent, normal thing to do. He will see nothing wrong with it. He will think it has its advantages over marriage, even though those “advantages” often involve intrinsically evil acts. That’s his truth. If you disagree with him, he’ll say that what is true for you is not true for him and “Please don’t try to impose your truth on me.” He’s not interested in logically examining things with a reasoned analysis. He’s uninterested in exploring the natural moral law or properly forming his conscience according to legitimate sources of moral authority. He’s more interested in resting comfortably in his individual opinion or that of a morally bankrupt culture.
Sitting at the feet of the Master, attentively listening, and applying what we hear from his lips is essential in countering the many disastrous pitfalls of today’s degenerate culture. It’s absolutely critical to living the life of the gospel in holiness. It’s a vital component of building virtue and understanding your real purpose and end. It really boils down to this: do you want to belong to God or to the devil? That’s the real question. The stakes are indeed high.
How Do We Sit At Jesus’ Feet?
There are many different ways in which we can sit at the feet of Jesus and listen. Here are a few of the most important ways:
Prayer: prayer is foundational. Set aside time for prayer to Jesus each day and stick to it. Since prayer is foundational, the Holy Mass is foundational because it is the highest form of Christian prayer. It is within the context of the Holy Mass that we receive the Eucharist, which is the glorified and risen Lord himself under the signs of bread and wine. When the Eucharist is received in a state of grace (and one MUST be a Catholic (normally) in a state of grace to receive it, otherwise one commits mortal sin), the most intimate earthly encounter with Christ ever possible becomes a reality.
Work on faith literacy: read and meditate on scripture, study the Catechism, the works of the saints, and papal encyclicals. Spend some time on a good Catholic, educational website that is faithful to Church teaching. Purchase some educational videos from a reputable Catholic source. The bottom line is, catechesis must be ongoing in your life. One is never finished learning from Christ, nor can one ever acquire every wisdom.
Form your conscience: educate your conscience according to the belief and teaching of the Church. It is vital that you take an active, committed role in forming your conscience according to legitimate sources of moral authority. The highest of these authorities is the Spirit-guided Church Christ himself founded. When listening to the Church, one hears the voice of Christ.
Why Was Mary’s Choice The Better Part?
That question is best answered in asking another question. What type of knowledge is most important? Intellectual knowledge about things of the world or faith-based knowledge of God and his created order? Would you rather be wise in worldly things, such as dealing cleverly in business or personal finance, or wise in the divine and heavenly things of God? In the end, it is the latter that really matters.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying there’s anything at all wrong with knowledge of secular things like business or finance or mathematics or plumbing, etc. These things are important. What I am saying, is that your life will never be in order until your priorities are correctly ordered. Sitting at the feet of the Master has to be a priority. It has to become your focus.
It’s the better part because, in sitting at the feet of Jesus and attentively listening with an open heart and a committed will, you’re seated in the presence of God, the almighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe. You’re in the presence of the only One who can give the correct answers to all the important questions.
You’re in the presence of the One who died for you.
You’re in the presence of the one and only Divine Person who can save you: Jesus Christ.
Is sitting at the feet of the Master the better part?
Yes. Everything hinges on it. You will not be whole until you go, kneel before him, listen attentively with all your mind, heart and soul, and act on his divine words.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.