Martha, Mary and the toothbrush test

This article was published in the September to December 2017 issue of Rapport magazine.

Sally Dakin reflects on finding the balance of activity and rest and choosing to be ‘present to the presence of God.’

Martha or Mary?

It’s easy to read the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) as an either/or story – rather like Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), or the numerous either/or references to the wise and the foolish in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. But perhaps we could read it as a both/and story, as a pointer to the continuum between two extremes, represented by Martha and Mary?

We can probably think of our own examples of life at the extremes – as Martha, frantically busy and short-staffed at work, or trying to juggle last-minute logistics at home, or both. Or as Mary, on a quiet day or retreat, having the time not only to reflect long and deep on a Bible reading, and to spend time thinking and praying over it as we walk in the woods or along the beach, but also having time to do nothing, to let our minds wander, to watch the clouds, to wait for the kingfisher …

However, we’re not really designed to operate at the extremes, risking ‘burn-out’ at one end or ‘rust-out’ at the other. Like elastic bands, we’re designed to live a stretchy life – neither stretched to breaking point at one extreme, nor wasted in the stationery cupboard at the other.

Martha and Mary

So what might this both/and spirituality look like? Perhaps it would help to re-read the story of Martha and Mary, and prayerfully reflect on these two women and what they represent. We might ‘compare and contrast’ them, listing words to describe each, then trying to summarise what each represents – typically doing/being or active/passive or action/contemplation. Or we might take a more creative approach, in search of their connectedness (after all, they’re siblings). How might we draw them or paint them? How might we describe them – in poetry or in music? How might we choreograph their dance or direct their film? What might happen next in the story?

Or we might dare to write ourselves into the story, Ignatian-style and see what happens when we encounter Jesus.

The toothbrush test

For me, every day begins with the toothbrush test. My electric toothbrush has a two-minute programme, with little bleeps at 30 second intervals; I’m supposed to spend 30 seconds on each quarter of my mouth. When I first got this toothbrush, I thoroughly enjoyed the systematic approach, and paid careful attention to the bleeps. But now that the novelty has worn off, I find it really hard to focus on the programme – because most mornings I am almost immediately distracted by my thoughts and plans, and by a sense of urgency about getting on with the day.

So the toothbrush test alerts me to my mental and spiritual state, and reminds me that I have a choice: will I choose to begin the day in Mary mode, focussed on the present, or in Martha mode, focussed on the future?

Most of my days do begin, well before toothbrush time, on the Mary side. But even my prayer time can become too busy: too many readings to get through, too many lists to pray through. Although I struggle to really listen, Jesus still speaks, and I usually take something with me as I go – what used to be called a ‘golden nugget’ of Scripture, to return to through the day. And that’s an important way of integrating Mary and Martha, as we recall God’s word to us, and choose to reconnect with him, all through the day.

The lunchtime test

In practice, though, the busyness often takes over. Like Martha, I feel I must ‘get on’, I must ‘get things done’: I feel under pressure, but if I’m honest, the pressure is largely self-generated, as I try to meet the unexamined demands and expectations which I put upon myself. In fact, I behave as if I believe in ‘salvation by works’, in self-justification.

And this is where the lunchtime test comes in: can I resist the temptation to look back over the morning and make a mental list of what I’ve achieved? The dangers are two-fold: on a ‘good’ day, I can feel very pleased with myself; on a ‘bad’ day, I feel I’ve somehow failed. I am learning instead to simply remind myself that I am ‘saved by grace’, and to enjoy the forgiveness and freedom this brings – the freedom which meant that Mary could choose to stop and listen to Jesus.

Intentionally slowing down

The more we experience the reality of God’s grace, the less busy we’ll need to be. In fact Stephen Cherry, author of Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for Ministry, invites people to wear a wristband saying, ‘I’m not busy’ (see http://www.notbusy.co.uk), and to deliberately do nothing for at least ten minutes each day. As we practise this discipline, we are refusing to be ruled by our own need to achieve, or by others’ demands and expectations. So when we find ourselves rushing about, we can deliberately choose to slow down. And when we find ourselves sitting with shoulders hunched and face tense, we can practise simply breathing out and letting go: dropping our shoulders and relaxing our smile, and choosing (like Mary) to be ‘present to the presence of God’ (as John Pritchard defines prayer).

Being in the ‘now’

For many of us, we need first to re-learn the art of being present to the present – something that both the mindfulness movement and centring prayer can help us with. As Anthony Bloom suggests, ‘I think we must do exercises in stopping time and in standing in the present, in this ‘now’ which is my present and which is also the intersection of eternity with time.’ So this ‘now’ is the place between the past, which has gone, and the future, which hasn’t yet arrived; it’s the place where God says, ‘I am.’

The ten second rule

As well as the story in Luke 10, we also read about Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus in John 11 and John 12. It’s interesting to speculate on the unfolding dynamics of the sisters’ relationship with Jesus and with each other; in John 12 we read that while Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, ‘Martha served.’ Martha seems much calmer, more focussed, less distracted. It’s as if they’ve both found a way of relating to Him together, but distinctively; most importantly, both of them can stay focussed on Him and listen to Him.

Learning to listen:
integrating Martha and Mary

I think this listening to Jesus is key to the integration of Martha and Mary – but it’s got to work in everyday life. I’ve found Clare De Graaf’s 10-Second Rule very helpful here, as I decide what to do next: ‘Just do the next thing you’re reasonably certain Jesus wants you to do.’ And do it quickly, before you change your mind or rationalise your way out of it. Obviously, in order to know what Jesus wants me to do, I need to ‘stay tuned’ to His Spirit, sensitive to his promptings, constantly listening out for that ‘still, small voice’ – and then responding in trust and obedience.

The three S’s

Finally, we do need to take time out, both regularly and irregularly, to stop completely and listen to God, just as Jesus did. But we each need to discover the ideal conditions for us to do this: the right combination of Stillness, Silence and Solitude (as discussed by Tony Horsfall in Rhythms of Grace). For some, it’s easier to listen to God while out walking than sitting still at home; for others, music might be more helpful than complete silence; and for others, the companionable quiet of a meditation group may work better than solitude. In reality we often have to manage with less-than-ideal conditions, but just as Jesus understood the circumstances of Martha and Mary, so He understands ours – and He longs to speak to us both inside and outside the situations we find ourselves in, today and every day.

For me, every day starts with the toothbrush test, and a new opportunity to choose to live in the present, not just listening to the Lord like Mary, but learning to serve Him like Martha.

Sally Dakin

Meditation on Scripture
Imaginative (Ignation-style) meditation

  • Choose a passage, perhaps a story about Jesus from the Gospels.
  • Read the story slowly and carefully.
  • Close your eyes, and let the story unfold in your imagination.
  • As it unfolds, imagine that you are there. Use all your senses. What can you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, touch? How are people dressed? What’s the emotional atmosphere? Where are you in relation to the key characters?
  • Let the story continue in your mind. As things are said, how do you react? How do people around you react? As action takes place, how do you respond to it? All the time keep asking yourself how you feel. Let the story’s action draw you in so that you get caught up within it.
  • Gradually let the story reach its conclusion. Then let yourself simply be still with God. Enjoy the moment and the space. Turn what you’ve experienced into prayerful conversation with God.