A Vincentian View:
Fr. Patrick J. Griffin, CM
Do you set aside books which you say that you are going to read when you get the chance? I try to do that during the summer. There are, of course, junk novels which I select for guilty pleasure, but there are also some which I think would be interesting and educational—often books which have been recommended by people that I trust. Right now, I have five such books. I have proved my commitment to this task because I have a hard copy of one and I have downloaded the other four onto my ipad. Thus, they are ready to be read when I am ready to read. Now, I have to do it.
One book which has been on my list for a while but which I have only now begun to read—I am about half-way through—is called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. As you might guess from the title, it is about (and for) introverts, and it focuses upon that element which I consider so much a part of my character. I think of myself as a strong introvert who values quiet and its sister virtue, listening. I will not attempt to review the book with you, but I do want to direct our thoughts to these elements of silence and attention.
The story of Martha and Mary, which we heard in one of our recent Sunday Gospels, draws my mind to this topic and its lessons. Do you think that Martha was an extrovert and Mary was an introvert? Do you think that Martha preferred action and decision-making, while Mary looked more to settling down and reflecting? I do not want to caricature either, but this is one of the ways in which their personalities strike me.
Mary easily emerges as the listener in this story—she has frequently been portrayed as such. Jesus is a guest in the home of the two sisters. Mary places herself at the feet of Jesus and opens her mind and heart to his words. Martha has other concerns:
As they continued their journey [Jesus] entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” (Lk 10:38-42)
The idea of sitting at the feet of another in the Hebrew world signified the superiority of the one who was speaking. Among the lessons from this story is that sometimes it is too easy to be caught up with legitimate responsibilities involving one’s home or one’s community. The house does have to be kept orderly, meals must be cooked, and bills must be paid; one must also prepare for one’s work. There are a thousand practical matters to which we always need to attend. But time must also be made for respectful and attentive listening to one another, for thinking about the life which we lead, and for welcoming others into our midst.
We must give some indication that the other is worth listening to and that time is set aside for him/her (without watching the clock and needing to be finished within a short period of time) and in an appropriate place without distractions (phones, knocks on the door, TV shows). The other becomes the most important speaker in the world for the host. One wonders with what attitude Mary thought of Jesus and what care she brought to everything which he said. We know, of course that the work of Martha was important and unavoidable, but it should never overwhelm the choice to be Mary for one another. One could say that Martha was carrying out the tasks of hospitality, but one could say no less of Mary. One does not invite a guest and then ignore her/his presence.
In one of the documents of the Church, there is a helpful paragraph on being attentive to one another:
“Listening is one of the principle ministries . . . above all for those who feel isolated and in need of attention. In fact, listening means accepting the other unconditionally, giving him or her space in one’s own heart. For this listening conveys affection and understanding, declares that the other is appreciated, and that his or her presence and opinion are taken into consideration.” (Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, The Service of Authority and Obedience, 20a)
The silence which we offer in a dialogue is not empty, but an openness which prepares to receive the richness of the other as this can be shared. We affirm the value of each other. It is a gift of love.
Quiet and listening are ways in which we connect to the introvert who is part of each of us. The ability to give heed strengthens our prayer, our growth, our communities, and those whom we serve. We seek this blessing of accompaniment at the feet of the Lord and one another. It is one of the lessons which Mary teaches today.