Today’s Gospel excerpt contains so much wisdom and real life: Martha and Mary are sisters, two good Jewish women, both of them close friends of Jesus. Anticipating his very welcome visit, they had been busy for hours, if not days, preparing for his arrival. When he got there, Mary sensed that his desire was not merely to eat & drink and converse and laugh with them, which he most certainly loved to do, but rather to teach them more about God and truly human life. Martha, with her eye on the roasting lamb, the vegetables, the wine and the desserts, missed the point and could not understand why her sister was abandoning her in the kitchen, indulging herself in the frivolous act of conversation with Jesus, something that was the prerogative and privilege of men, not women, anyway. Jesus did not avoid the issue. He said to Martha, risking offending her, Martha, you’re worried about getting a meal on the table, but what you don’t see is that there is only one thing that is really important. Your sister understands that; she has chosen the better thing to do, and it wouldn’t be right for me to stop her.
One scripture commentator explains that what Jesus was saying was, I came into your home, Martha, not chiefly to eat but to feed you by my teachings. Of the two of you, Mary is actually the better host because she is doing what all of my followers should do: she’s listening to my words.
Hospitality was a virtue and a social phenomenon very important to Jesus. But hospitality can be misunderstood. The way we give to others has to take into serious consideration how the receiver feels about what is being given. For example, one person’s sole need and desire may be for food and drink and pleasant chatter; and genuine hospitality would provide exactly that. Someone else has the need to talk and to express the thoughts of his or her heart and to unburden self of a problem that has been kept closed up and festering. Yet another is looking for advice or consolation or confirmation and needs to hear compassionate, heartfelt words of acceptance and understanding.
Many times in my life I have been in the company of persons who needed to be heard, no matter what I was prepared and eager to offer. I recall one such occasion some years ago when I knew that my role was to be quiet and listen patiently to the long tale of family issues that my table guest was pouring out non-stop. I was looking for a break in his desperate monologue so that I could interject something I thought might be of help to him. I remember mentally absenting myself from the situation for just a few seconds and inviting the Spirit of Wisdom to be the director and the go-between. The response I got was simply to keep listening attentively and respectfully.
And suddenly, in a brief pause, I said to my guest, “You know, you remind me of Mary, Jesus’ mother. She stood by her son and watched every step of his painful execution, knowing that he was completely innocent, knowing that he was the very love of God made human among us. And she could do nothing, absolutely nothing, to help him or to save him.” I said that somehow that terrible ordeal of theirs resolved itself, not only positively, but powerfully, becoming a source of life and peace for everyone. I added that he was following in Mary’s footsteps and that he would have to be confident that the good and loving and right thing would win out in the end.
Hospitality is like selecting and giving a gift: we don’t give what we like; we give what we think the other person would like. Granted: that’s a lot easier to do when it’s a tie or a shirt or a piece of jewelry in question; a lot harder to do when the gift is unselfish, compassionate, patient, sensitive interaction with the other person.
Life is an endless series of new beginnings.
I think it would be appropriate if on this first day of the new year, following, as it does, last Sunday’s feast of the Holy Family, we directed our thoughts and prayers to the primacy, the preeminence, of family life. I know of nothing more important than constant, increasingly patient and unselfish attention to the multiple relationships that make up our families.
The definition of family not too many years ago was, with very few exceptions or variations, a social unit consisting of a married couple – male and female — and their children, whether natural or adopted. Today, to name only two variations, we have same-sex partners/parents and blended families (with children from two different sets of parents). Whether these models will endure into the distant future or be ultimately rejected by society remains to be seen. But they are here now, no matter who may disapprove of them.
I’m no anthropologist, but I am at least aware that around this earth there are ancient traditions in which there is a wide variety of family structures that have thrived for centuries. I think of tribes for whom the family is as wide as the tribe itself – where the raising of children is the corporate effort of the entire village. I think of the time-honored tradition of polygamy, in which a single male fathers children by many females.
It was only a few days ago that I mentioned here a man who, in a sort of surrender to the inevitable, told me that in his family there are now “unmarried spouses,” by which he meant, of course, adults – his children — living together with someone of the opposite sex but without benefit of a wedding or a license from either the church or the state.
What are we to say or do or think about these phenomena that for so many of us go against the grain? I am of the opinion that we should suspend judgment and assume that the persons involved in them are acting in good conscience and are practicing all the virtues that make a traditional marriage what it is meant to be. By that I mean that they are living in true and faithful love and are caring well for their children physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Basically and essentially, it is love and fidelity that make a good marriage and a good family. You and I have both known too many perfectly legal and validly sacramental marriages that are empty shells and more of an obstacle to the persons involved than they are a source of life and joy. That undeniable fact is what makes me impatient with our Catholic Church’s condemnation of divorce without exception. Sometimes a marriage becomes so sick and dysfunctional that it is a constant source of toxicity to all whom it touches. I can’t imagine Jesus wanting such a situation to exist when it could be easily and honorably ended.
But, to widen the scope of this New Year’s Day message, I’ll state the obvious and say that all of us can look back with regret at our failure to do at times what we should have done. There’s no point in pining over that, and it well may be true that we did the best we could at the time or that some pressure or distraction or ignorance kept us from acting differently and better.
If you are open to a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution, I’d suggest that it be simply to listen — not just hear the sound of another’s voice, but really listen – listen to the mind and heart from which it comes,listen to this other person with respectful attention, expecting to hear something worth hearing – and acknowledging that with gratitude.
2016 will be a banner year if a change in us makes someone close to us a happier, freer person. That would be only a joy for all concerned!
For many years of my adult life I was not at all concerned about something that came to my attention much later on: that I was not a good listener. I simply was not aware that I had a problem in that regard. But at some point along the way I learned that listening intently with open ears and open mind is an extremely important element in human relationships — and that I had yet to develop that skill.
Forty years ago, on a typical day off, I’d spend the evening in the home of my widowed mother. Sitting comfortably in the living room in what used to be my father’s TV chair, I would, all at the same time, read TIME Magazine, watch TV, talk on the phone, and listen – I use the word loosely — to news about the family that Mother was trying to share with me from across the room. How often that scenario ended with her saying sweetly, “Dick, dear, I know you didn’t hear a word I said; but that’s alright. I’ll tell you again later.”
And then, long after, I realized that, if we did to our computers and word processors what some of us do to our minds, they would be of no use to us. We foolishly take in data simultaneously from a half dozen sources and think we can adequately process it and store it securely, while the truth is that we can’t. When we don’t really listen, when we don’t turn to the person who is speaking to us and give our undivided attention (the way David Frost used to), we are depriving ourselves of the gift that person is offering and hurting him or her with the response that we don’t consider the message worth our time or energy.
One of the most valuable gifts we can give to persons in our lives is to listen to them and to give clear signs that we are eager to hear and to understand what they are saying, to let them know that we very much want to receive their message. If you think of the persons that make you feel best about yourself, I believe that you will find that they all are good listeners.
Prayer is primarily listening to the Spirit of God. Great people of every station in life listen with their whole hearts and minds to God.
They ask for wisdom and understanding, and then they listen.
They ask for direction and faith, and they listen.
They ask for a loving, forgiving heart, and they listen.
They build that listening into their lives by taking some time each day to be alone and more conscious of the presence of God in them. The aloneness can be in the cocoon of one’s car or of an empty room at home. They learn not to forget or ignore the constant presence of the Divine Spirit within them wherever they are, whatever they are doing.
The readings of today’s liturgy are an excellent case in point. In the first, a boy, David by name, is told that he will be a powerful instrument of God for the good of the people; however, he must first learn to discern the divine message and to prepare to listen to it.
And in the Gospel we heard about the beginnings of Christian discipleship: young people, rugged people of the earth and the sea, called by Jesus and daring to listen to this man who will turn their lives upside down and assure them that in return they will gain far more than what they are asked to give.
It is actually quite simple. But living as we do, in a sandstorm of words and images that seem never to stop or to slow down, we, maybe more than people at any other time in history, have to commit ourselves, with firm intention and determination, to become good listeners.