Discerning the One Thing Needful

The Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Silence… is something that our culture wants to avoid at all costs. Some of us look for it on vacation. But on our way to that vacation, we make sure that we’re well insulated with noise, whether it’s blaring from the car stereo as we drive or plugged into our ears as we sit on the airplane. We may savor a few moments of quiet on a beach or in the woods or on a mountain, but then we eventually need a vacation from our vacation, and we rush back to get plugged in to the culture of noise.

Cellphones, Blackberries, texting, email, Facebook, television, Twitter, radio, laptops, GPS navigators, wi-fi, iPods, iPhones, iPads, iBooks—all of these are devices we employ to prevent being alone with our thoughts. Woe to that stretch of land that is not within sight of a cellphone tower!

We are a generation that has more access to incessant noise than any other in the history of humanity. This major cultural shift has largely taken hold for most of us without much in the way of introspection. And it has all happened rather quickly, too—with the exception of television and radio, all of the things I mentioned before have come into popular availability just within the past twenty-five years, most of them just in the last ten. As a result, many of us easily remember a time when such things were unavailable. And yet how often do we find ourselves saying, “I don’t know how I lived without that”?

Today let’s spend a few moments thinking about attention and how we divide and focus it. The Gospel reading which is appointed for this Great Feast of the Virgin Mary, her Dormition—that is, her falling-asleep and departure from this earthly life—bears within it two different contrasts, and both of them have to do with attention.

In the first, we hear of two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead. Martha is the classic “Type A” personality—she has to be doing something all the time. But Mary her sister just wants to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.

When we hear this familiar account, there is probably some part of us that looks at Mary and says, “Well, that’s boring.” For our culture, Martha is actually the much more attractive figure. After all, she’s doing something! Mary’s just sitting there listening to some guy talk, and it only makes sense that Martha would complain about that. But Jesus, Whose teachings will always be counter-cultural, says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

The Lord does not say to Martha that it is wrong that she be busy and working hard to serve. But clearly her attention is divided, leading her to be “anxious and troubled about many things.” Such a phrase can easily describe our culture, and probably many of us individually: “anxious and troubled about many things.” Jesus says “one thing is needful.”

I often think about the spiritual ramifications of our being anxious and troubled about many things. We are busy, busy people. I’m not really sure what all this busy-ness is supposed to be accomplishing, to be honest, except perhaps to make more money so that we can buy another device or another thing to be maintained to keep us even busier.

In recent years, I’ve noticed something that is both interesting and discouraging: People with more silence in their lives are easier to minister to. The corollary, of course, is that people with less silence are harder to minister to. It’s the ones who are constantly plugged in somewhere and cannot bear to be without some entertainment or distraction at every moment who, when they encounter spiritual experiences don’t offer criticisms but rather just this word: “Whatever.”

“Whatever” seems to be the motto of our age when it comes to what is eternal. Focusing on what will happen to us when we die or how we’re supposed to become holy people or how one succeeds in being in communion with God is not really being criticized any more. It’s just being dismissed as irrelevant. And it is. It is irrelevant to the goal of being always entertained. So many of us—and this often includes me—are so amused at every moment that we just can’t be bothered to see into eternity, to say nothing of our own souls.

It’s easy to see how constant distraction can lead to disaster in the case, for instance, of someone who gets killed in a car accident because he’s fiddling with some device. But what about other distractions and how they harm ourselves and those around us? I just read this week how police recently charged a woman for leaving her two kids in the car in a parking lot while she gambled for six hours in a suburban Philadelphia casino. Her response? “I just lost track of time.” And this is the third case like this from just this summer at that same casino. We as a culture are addicted to distraction.

One of the things that keeps us from realizing the danger that distraction puts us in is a distorted understanding of the spiritual life. We often believe that if we just make sure to “take care of” certain things—getting baptized, going to confession once in a great while, making a contribution, helping out here and there—then we’re all set for eternity. But the spiritual life is not like paying a bill, where you just write a check and mail it and everything’s fine. It’s much more like being married—in marriage, attention is everything. Status is nothing. The ring is meaningless if your attention is everywhere but your spouse.

This was the error expressed in the second part of today’s Gospel reading, where a woman cries out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the breasts that Thou didst suck!” She wasn’t wrong, of course, but she seemed to believe that the blessedness of Jesus’ mother was due to her status as His Mother. In other words, Mary’s salvation was assured because of a kind of membership she had in Jesus’ life. But the Lord says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The Virgin Mary was not blessed by virtue of being Christ’s Mother. No, it is because she heard the word of God and kept it. That was what resulted in her becoming His Mother.

Jesus Who made us and therefore knows what really works, calls us to “hear the word of God and keep it.” That is what it means to attend to the “one thing needful.” And doing so is almost impossible in a life where we are always distracted, always busy, always plugged into something.

I’d like to suggest an experiment, most especially for those of you who are most “plugged in” (which includes me). You know who you are. Go for one weekend without any wireless devices, without any television, without any computers, without anything that plays any kind of recordings, without going out somewhere to be entertained. Do this without going on vacation, so that what you get is your normal life but without distractions. Try it and ask yourself what it was like. If you’re really daring, perhaps try it for a week. You can also make a pilgrimage, which is not the same thing as a vacation, because you’re not going to be entertained.

I once mostly did it for a month almost ten years ago, while I was on a pilgrimage alone to holy places in the British Isles, and I’ll be honest that it was at first extremely hard not to have anyone to talk to most of the time—no distractions. Just life. And the wonder of the holiness of God’s creation and the places He has made holy. It changed my outlook on life. It changed my life, and it broke a number of my own addictions to distraction. I still have a lot of work to do. But if you can break even just one, arranging your life so that you are in charge and not your addictions, then perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

Even aside from my own experience, I can tell you that people whose lives are not dominated by the incessant noise of our noisy culture are more likely to see and hear God. He speaks with a “still, small voice.” Are we quiet enough to hear Him?

It doesn’t mean that we have to become Amish in order to be true Christians, but we do have to learn how to set these things aside every so often so that we can hear with undistracted ears what is so clear to those who know how to listen.

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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