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.
And taking the twelve, [Jesus] said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
Time and time again, Jesus’s disciples just don’t get it. “I will die,” Jesus says, “but will return on the third day.” And the disciples look at one another, scratching their heads, and say, “huh?”
It’s not like Jesus is talking in riddles. Sometimes he did, but sometimes he told them exactly what was going to happen. “I’m going to die.” Gasp! Shock!
“Not you,” Peter said. “I will protect you with my life.” Jesus may be human, but he can’t possibly die. He’s the Son of God, so he’s above such moral deeds, right?
Here’s the foundation for the disciples’ confusion: what we think, and what God thinks, doesn’t often line up. Even though Jesus plainly states “I’m coming back,” it doesn’t coincide with their preconceived notions of what death means. (Not that I can blame them.) Despite listening to Jesus’s sermons over three years, the disciples are still clueless human beings.
And that’s a beautiful thing. Because I—who don’t have the benefit of literally walking beside him—have that tendency, too. In the moment, a situation or a teaching doesn’t make sense. It’s like I’m constantly a child who needs direction, but don’t understand my parents’ teachings. So I do my own thing, which ultimately doesn’t work. And that just like the disciples, who later scatter in mass confusion when Jesus dies.
But hope is not lost for these clueless disciples. It gets better: Eventually, they get it.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. —John 20:8–9
This is their “ah ha!” moment. Jesus was dead, but Peter and John went to the tomb and saw… nothing. You can almost see the slow, steady grind of mental gears as they piece it together. It had been three days. The tomb was empty. Maybe… he came back?
Retrospect is a wonderful thing.
Consider the book of Isaiah. There are a lot of weird, confusing prophecies in there, some of which we understand now only after they’ve occurred: The pregnant virgin. The sacrificial Lamb. It’s so obvious now, but this had to be a whole lot of nonsense before Jesus came on the scene. And there’s even more in that book that’s still incomprehensible. The end times, visions of fiery judgement and a new Earth. We can speculate, but as far as I know, there hasn’t been any fiery judgement. Yet.
In the meantime, there’s a lot here, now, that we just don’t get. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as the end of the world. Like, why do we continue to make the same mistakes? Or waste time in the wrong job/relationship/situation? In those moments, we don’t see them as wrong. We think that job is the ideal, or that relationship will last forever. But once we get out of a situation, we’re not trapped by our own biased point of view. Perhaps we see it more like God does, from an omniscient perspective. Just like the disciples discovering the empty tomb, we understand what we’re seeing and wonder how in the world we missed it before.
That’s part of the learning process, and that’s God. A lot of Jesus’s preaching simply didn’t make sense, because He didn’t allow the disciples to understand it yet. If we’re born with the instinctive ability to never make a mistake, then we never learn. We’d never understand the wonder of “getting it,” or thank God for getting us out of an awkward or difficult situation. If the disciples immediately understood that Jesus was to return, there would be nothing amazing about His coming back. The learning process includes that time of hopeless, mass confusion. Because when it passes… the tomb is empty. Sometimes, we need to feel a little lost to appreciate what we’re being taught—and what we’ve been saved from.
I can’t remember when I first decided I wanted to write. I just always liked to tell stories. I enjoy world-building most of all, setting up a scene and giving my characters a place to reside. I enjoy introducing the reader to this stage, describing almost unnecessary details, down to the position of the sun in the sky, or the gritty feel of sand on bare feet.
But then it gets hard, because the characters have to do, and be, something.
I’ve been reading the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In chapter three, it discusses “the many aspects of the human person.” My issues with characterization were the first thing I thought of.
The Church’s social doctrine stops to dwell above all on the principal and indispensable dimensions of the human person… In the past there has been no lack of various reductionist conceptions of the human person, many of which are still dramatically present on the stage of modern history… The common denominator among these is the attempt to make the image of man unclear by emphasizing only one of his characteristics at the expense of all the others.
My issue with characters is the same issue we have with human beings in general: they’re reduced to a singular character trait, or function, and we don’t see beyond that. Or the fictional character has no substance. We’ve all seen stories that fall victim to the “single trait” character: this is the science geek; the brawn and no brains; the voice of reason. When I write a story, I love for my protagonist to have the “outgoing best friend” or the “platonic boy friend.” But these characters have little depth. i.e., the best friend has no personality beyond “outgoing.” What are her interest? What would cause her to not be outgoing? We do this to the people around us, too. We don’t stop to consider their inner selves.
Reducing others to a singular character traits dehumanizes them. This is the origin of stereotypes, and we base entire groups or cultures based on that one (often misplaced) trait: Asians are smart. Engineers are socially awkward. Catholics are… I don’t know. Pick one. There are a lot. We only see the surface, ignoring the deeper character—the true character—that makes them human.
The Compendium goes on to say
The Church’s social doctrine strives to indicate the different dimensions of the mystery of man, who must be approached “in the full truth of his existence, of his personal being and also of his community and social being”, with special attention so that the value of the human person may be readily perceived.
When we understand the fullness of each individual person, we understand their value. And we understand that people are complex, emotional, and real. I often think of a cashier at the supermarket. Sometimes, she doesn’t say hello. Or even make eye contact. It’s easy to label her as “rude,” but you don’t consider who she is. Maybe she got into a fight before her shift. Maybe she’s struggling with her supervisor. Or maybe she’s just shy. When you consider the depth of each person, and understand that every one us has things going on, and are feeling something at every moment, it humanizes them. They’re developed beyond that singular trait, and not only do we understand them, but we also love them.
Sometimes, when writing fiction, characters get away from me. It’s a lot like getting to know someone—I’ll pause in my writing and wonder why I just made her say something, or why she reacted the way she did. It’s not what I expected. At that moment, she almost becomes human. A good character develops a personality of her own, and it’s our duty as their creators to understand that. We can’t force them into preexisting boxes of expectation. We map out expectations of their personalities, but then let them grow. Over time, we learn even more about them based on their experiences, reactions, and relations with other characters.
We can learn a little something about real people that way, too.