Luke 10:41-42

And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

At the start of the retreat a couple weeks ago, each of us met with a spiritual director. I had many plans for that weekend—I carried a tote bag, armed with pens and notepad and Bible, ready to delve into the books I had just started. But as we spoke, and I talked of everything I wanted to do, I began to understand I was completely missing the point of retreat.

Instead, I had one duty: Relax.

“Leave the books in your room,” she said. “Sit outside on the patio, and just be.”

I was restless at first. It was only an hour to start—Mass was soon approaching—but I sat in that chair, and looked out at the mountains. I didn’t know how to quiet that nagging voice in my head. It told me this was a waste of time. It said reading is certainly peaceful, anyway. It picked up on every shuffling footstep or the (enviable) turning of someone else’s book pages. But I sat there anyway.

I won’t lie and say I felt a flood of peace, because I didn’t. But that was the first sign that I’d made a wrong turn somewhere. In all my studying and learning, I’d forgotten the most basic of connecting to God: prayer.

The recollection of Martha and Mary reminded me of that the following week. I almost laughed in the middle of the Gospel reading. “Tell her to help me,” Martha demands. There she is, bustling around to make sure the house is clean, and that Jesus has something good to eat, completely overlooking that the Son of God sits at her kitchen table.

I don’t know if Martha ever got it. Probably not, if she’s anything like the rest of us. Maybe she sat down, but was distracted by everything still to be done; maybe she didn’t get that far, vowing to spend time with her company after completing one last chore.

I almost got it in the final hours of the retreat. The silence broke at lunch time Sunday, and people began to sit and talk to one another. But I took my Philly steak sandwich, sat at the designated “silent retreat” table, and simply watched. There was no official departure time or closing ceremony. We just ate lunch, and left. But I sat there, almost in tears, because I wasted so much time trying to relax and could’ve used more time to actually do it.

Perhaps Martha shared the same feeling after Jesus left, realizing she hadn’t spent enough time in his company.

But it’s not the end. Those fleeting retreat days have passed, but I can still spend time in His presence. My spiritual director left me with homework—in the middle of each day, take time to be with Him. Find a quiet place in the office, or a bench outside. Just five minutes. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes it’s already 5:00 and I’m ready to go home. But those days that I remember? I take time to breathe, clear my mind the best I can, and thank Him. It’s a small act, but one that brings me one step closer to living as Mary more than Martha.

I’ll likely always be a Martha. I think a little of both is okay. But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t take time to appreciate why you’re working so hard to begin with.

Summer Days

Summer is often our busiest time—the sun is out, the winter coats are shed, and we plan vacations and beach days and trips to the local ice cream shop. The summer anticipation hasn’t changed much from our schooldays, though now we have to work through “summer break” rather than lounge at the pool or the boardwalk all day.

So, naturally, I signed up for a retreat in the middle of July.

I know what my schedule gets like. I overburden myself, desperate to get everything into those few precious months of real warmth. A single weekend of prayer isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a good break from the constant bustle.

The weekend hasn’t even arrived, and it’s already getting in the way of my usually-busy schedule:
I’ve said “no” to an end-of-year party, one that’s sure to have BBQ and good company.
I’ve rescheduled a hibachi dinner with friends, again, that we’ve been trying to plan for six months.
I’ve refused a freelance job that would’ve given me some nice pocket change for my summer travels.

But this is why I need a retreat.

It’s not exactly a convenient time. Mentally, I’m already on next weekend, which includes more travel and even more planning. We get busy with life, so a little help getting back to the important things is much appreciated. So I refocus. I gathered my study materials, packing the prayer journal, notebook, and Bible into a designated tote. I tucked a rosary into my overnight bag. Even these small acts started to center me, and the excitement of real study and prayer bubbled back. I love this stuff. I love God. I can take some time from my summer to spend time with Him.

I’ll disconnect. I’ll leave the phone in my room, then camp out in the retreat center’s library or take a stroll around the grounds. I’ll finally break into my Jewish-Christian history book, taking notes on practically everything. Maybe I’ll even outline the book I’ve been wanting to write, once I clear my mind. The retreat center has a pool, so I’m not completely disconnected from summer. In fact, sitting outside and reading was once one of my favorite things to do. Maybe I’ll get back to those basics, the simple things that brought the most joy. (Will there be ice cream? Time will tell.)

For now, I’m signing off!

The Anxious Disciple

When I first attended Mass at my local parish, I liked the pastor right away. I couldn’t explain why. He was serious and quiet, unlike the other priests I’d come to know. After Mass, he didn’t chat up everyone but simply shook their hands and thanked them for coming. As much as I need someone outgoing to counterbalance my introversion, I felt something of a kindred spirit. Of course, this means we barely spoke, not saying I wouldn’t have liked to.

This week, he announced that he’s stepping down as pastor. Among other unnamed health issues, he notes in his parish letter that he struggles with anxiety and depression. As soon as I knew that, everything made so much more sense: The notecards for the homily. The quiet, post-Mass handshake. The eloquently-written emails, compared to the quiet in-person nature.

It should’ve been obvious to me, but it’s often difficult to see in others the struggles you have yourself. Nothing would’ve changed, because I know me. I’d continue to offer a slight smile as I enter through a side door, even with flute in hand to play that Mass. I’d still sit at a different table for the few social events I’ve attended, because I don’t know how to talk to people like myself—more so those in some kind of authority position.

But I can do the same thing he’s done all these years: Send an email. Introduce myself, albeit a little late, though he’ll understand why it took so long. I’ve always believed in the positivity of our struggles, even if they don’t make sense at the time. By admitting our faults, others are strengthened in knowing they’re not alone. I never felt that strength much from the side of one who’s struggling, but know it now as the faithful disciple. Nothing speaks of the glorious power of God as a 30-year priest struggling with the same things I have to face myself.

When I was in Italy, my fellow pilgrims encouraged me to write a devotional. We came up with all sorts of atypical, off-the-wall ideas, but in the end kept it simple: Aiding others through my own struggles. Our weaknesses are not sinful or shameful; it’s because of them that we learn to trust God. And by sharing these experiences, others can learn and grow, too.

Honestly, I haven’t gotten very far with that. Partly because it’s a daunting task, but mostly because it means stirring up those feelings. It’s easy to bury our supposed sins, thinking no one else feels or experiences this. But through Monsignor’s resignation, I’ve remembered brainstorming across the Italian countryside. I remembered my fellow pilgrim’s excitement over having a well-read convert in their midst. And, despite my continued reluctance, I remembered that I have work to do.

I read the resignation letter several times. The more I did, the more I understood the depths of his sacrifice. Even more, I understood the overwhelming impact he had on his parish, despite his supposed weakness. Maybe, before he leaves, this quiet convert—who often hides behind a hymnal or her flute—can call on God’s strength to thank him. And maybe answer her own sacred calling, too.