“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. There is one need: Mary has chosen the better portion, and it will not be taken from her.” In the evangelist Luke’s story, Mary was “sitting at the LORD’s feet and listening to his word” (Luke 10:38-42).
What is the one thing needful? Or is there one In the context of Luke’s story, what is necessary is not serving food, but placing oneself close to Christ and “listening to his word.” To be “in Christ Jesus” means, among other things, that one draws near to God and “listens to his word.” To be a disciple of Christ, first and foremost, one must be attentive to his word; for “Christ is the Teacher; the rest are learners (disciples).”
The one thing necessary is not “being a Christian” in the exterior sense of belonging to a church, or calling oneself “a Christian.” It is not necessary that one be an active member of a religious community, of the priesthood, of an institutional church. According to the passage in St. Luke’s gospel, one must draw near and listen to Christ. Period All the rest can be a distraction, acts of avoidance, trying to “game God,” if you will.
But is the evangelist Luke right to say this? If there is truly “one thing needful” for a human being to do, what is it? “What must I do to be saved?” “How does one enter into life?” “LORD, what would you have me do?” Are these good questions, or misleading ones?
The word that resounds in my mind, as I ask such questions, returns again and again to the simple, straight-forward words of Jesus, for one: “Seek and you will find…” Seek, and do not pretend to find, do not assume you have found, but keep seeking. Seek what? “Seek first the reign of God, and his righteousness,” as Matthew has Jesus speak in the famous “Sermon on the Mount” (MT chapters 5-7). In the background one hears the prophets: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” In a phrase: seek the presence of God.
To seek to enter into the divine presence is, I submit, one way of expressing the one thing needful for every human being to become truly happy and fulfilled. Because we are bodily creatures, we must also seek shelter, food, clothing, companionship. As Matthew also lets his version of Christ tell us, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Seek first his reign, his way of righteousness, and all of these other things will be added to you.” Or not, perhaps. What does it mean to “seek God’s kingdom, God’s reign”? Not what the chattering voices in churches often tell us: to be members of the church; to put donations in the plate; to “build the city of God;” to work to establish some organization, community, way of life on earth. These are all secondary—as secondary as the churches are themselves. Secondary at best. What does it mean to “seek the Kingdom?” It means to seek to enter into the Presence—“not tomorrow, not today, but now,” borrowing a phrase from Dr. M. L. King, who was speaking then of social action. I am speaking of pre-social action, non-social action: spiritual action.
And what does it mean to seek to enter into the Presence? This seeking is the one thing necessary, the one thing needful. Not church attendance, not giving money, not spending all of one’s time and resources “doing good for others,” however good and beautiful and needful such actions are. Most necessary because utterly foundational for a human life is that a man, woman, or child turn his or her inner heart in the direction of that which is called “God.” Or one can call it “nirvana,” or “inner peace.” All such experiences can be truly clarified only by one who engages in the activity. Do not begin with speculation, and surely not with arguing about that which one ought to seek with the inner heart. Just do it. Whether you begin by calling it “You,” or “God,” or “Peace,” or “holy Mother,” truly does not matter. “Spirit,” “YHWH,” “Krishna,” “Tao.” It does not matter, for it is not confined or limited in any way, and not by any name we little ones wish to give it. Be wary of anyone who tells you, “You must do it my way, using my words.” Baloney. It knows no barriers, no formulations, no doctrinal fixations.
The Christianity of the churches (especially the Protestant and Catholic churches, but probably Orthodox churches as well) have for too long been content to play church, to “get people involved,” to try to organize for action in some way, or just to get folks to “attend the services.” All of these promotions by the churches are secondary at best, and often another form of distraction, a derailment from a genuine life. “For what does it profit a human being to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?” What does it profit one to get involved in churchy activities (including liturgies, sacramental, committees, etc) if one neglects to “sit at the LORD’s feet and listen to His word”? What gain is there in any exterior activities called “religious” unless one first and foremost keeps seeking to redirect the heart within: in a phrase, to seek God?
What does it mean to seek God? What does it mean to “seek to enter into the divine Presence?” First of all, it means to let go of the exterior—all things and persons—and to move the mind in silence towards that which is not seen, felt, heard, known. “The Tao that can be expressed is not the Tao,” and the god that can be imagined or even imaged in one’s mind is not truly God, or that which simply is. The God one imagines is not God. To seek God is to become simply present to that which presents itself now: a voice out of a flaming fire, as to Moses “the man of God”; a still small voice, as to Elijah the prophet; “the drawing of this Love and the voice of this calling…”
Ever begin afresh. That which one seeks is like the sun of Herakleitos: it is “new every day.” And what is most necessary, what is seeking the divine Presence? To keep responding to the unknown which is moving you to seek it now. Live a life, here and now, attending and stretching into the unimagined. What can be named is only a name; let it go. What can be imagined is a mere image; let it go. What you have heard said, is a mere reporting, suspend. What you remember, is fading. You—attend now. You are being drawn. Will you respond? Or do you prefer to play doctrinal, liturgical, sacramental, churchy games? Let them all go. You, attend now. For you, as you truly are, are being moved into that which truly is.
And what does this mean? It means not describing in words, but being-doing in practice: No one can fully or adequately explain to another what to be, what to do, for each is being drawn as one is, not as another is. It has its own ways, apparently, with moving each into it—into the unnamed, unspoken, into the abyss of dark stillness. Just do it. No one else can do it for you. You are a unique being, and that means that you must respond as it moves you to respond: making no excuses, clinging to nothing, hiding behind no churches (like Adam hiding from the divine Presence in the garden).
Mary responded as It presented itself to her: she sat at the the feet of Jesus and listened to his words. She was stirred, and she dropped down at his feet, enthralled by his words. This woman became utterly absorbed in what Christ was saying to her. Nothing else mattered to her at that time. She became one with Christ speaking to her. Martha was not even fully engaged in serving food, for she was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Martha was a model of the hyper-active Christian or social do-gooder. Mary is a model of genuine divine service, of true worship. “God is Spirit, and those who worship must do so in spirit and in truth.” Mary, this character in St. Luke’s brief story, is worshiping in spirit and in truth: she is being who she most truly is, doing right now what matters for her genuine life: being in the presence of the LORD, and listening. Mary and the word become one. And ever again, “the word was made flesh,” here and now in Mary, listening.
“Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” For many of us: it is so hard to listen in churches because of so much noise and commotion. “You have made this place a den of thieves,” as Christ says. Much of the training in Christianity received in the churches is precisely how not to be a true seeker of God. The training in churches is to be a busy-body among busy-bodies, embodied in the man who cannot sit still, but who looks around for someone else to watch. So much time wasted in the churches, by the churches. Better to turn the lights down low, and teach the faithful how to sit still and listen to the silent voice. Perhaps we need to suspend our ritualistic services, take out cushions, and just sit still.
And that is what I must do, and will do, right now. “The rest is silence.”
06 Feb 2019