One of Vincent’s instructions to the Daughters of Charity involved the decision on what to do when the obligation for prayer and the obligation for service collided. We can find his guidance in several forms, for example:
If the good pleasure of God were that you should go on a Sunday to nurse a sick person instead of going to Mass, even though that’s a matter of obligation, you should do it. That’s called leaving God for God. (CCD X, p. 76)
That expression “leaving God for God” finds application in many kinds of circumstances. Vincent gives it other formulations:
To leave God only for God, that is to say, to leave one work of God to perform another, either of greater obligation or greater merit, is not to leave God. (CCD IX, p. 252)
This instruction finds an interesting application for me when I consider the story of the sisters Martha and Mary hosting Jesus in their home. Martha takes up the responsibility of hospitality with the providing of a meal. Mary takes up another side of that hospitality with her attention to their guest, Jesus. The story seems to suggest that Martha chose poorly and should have taken her place at Jesus’ feet alongside her sister. But, I do not think that is the point. If Martha had done that, there would be no common meal and the blessing of table fellowship.
No, I think the point is that Martha tries to give precedence to the physical part of the welcome of Jesus without giving sufficient attention to the interpersonal part. Mary has taken up that task. Martha is dissatisfied and voices her concern to Jesus. Jesus puts matters in perspective. Both sisters have roles in their welcoming him into their home. The preparation of the table cannot be ignored, nor can the personal attention to the guest. Most of us would agree that we cannot ignore those invited into our homes, and so Mary has indeed chosen the better part–with due consideration given to the part that Martha plays.
Returning to Vincent’s instructions regarding “leaving God for God,” I think that it has this wider application. Sometimes the service of those who are poor will draw us away from the community and prayer. And sometimes our need to pray with the community will draw us away from our direct service. Both are parts of our lives and have importance. We must choose carefully and wisely when we consider the summons that one may have over the other at a given time. The “better part” gives impetus to our decisions.