Martha, Mary, and Mind-Tripping

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Column by Father Jonathan Dickson

As I write this article I am also preparing a homily for Sunday July 21st, the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.  The Gospel for this Sunday is the rather well-known story of Martha and Mary (Lk: 10:38-42).  In the story Jesus enters the village where Martha and Mary live. Martha busies herself with serving, while Mary sits at the feet of the Lord listening to him.  According to Jesus, “Mary has chosen” the better part.  This “part” I would suggest is one that is “receptive” in its nature and is an important part of the spiritual life.  However, before discussing this further, I would like to setup the context for what it means to be “receptive” by shortly telling you how I imagine this story.

When I see this story unfolding, I see Mary not simply listening to Jesus, but rather gazing upon him with awe and wonder.  Mary is the receptive one.  She seems to recognize that there is something transcendent about the nature of Jesus and she responds in the only way she sees proper, by stopping and embracing the moment.  Martha on the other hand could be seen as the archetype for the “reactive” one.  Sure, she recognizes that something important is going on, but her response is one of hyperactivity.  These two dispositions, one reactive and the other receptive, are worth examining.  The spiritual writer Martin Laird argues that a big part of the spiritual life is a movement from a reactive disposition to a receptive disposition.  And, of course, prayer plays an important role in this.  

I think it is reasonable to say that this Gospel, when read in the context of modernity, challenges us to consider our own receptive or reactive natures.  And so, I would like to consider the challenges to receptivity and our tendency to be reactive.  A reactive disposition negatively impacts our internal harmony and the harmony we long to share with those around us.  The causes of this exceed this short article, and so I would like to focus on what I think is one of the primary issues in dealing with our reactive nature, what Laird calls “mind-tripping.”  Laird who teaches at Villanova says:

Undergraduates always know what I mean by “mind-tripping” and “inner-videos.”  These terms describe the way a certain thought or train of thoughts quickly steals our attention and sets off a cycle of inner chatter and commentary.  This inner chatter is something like a video that constantly plays in the mind only to be rewound and played again and again and again and again.  For some it might be a predominantly visual sequence of distractions, for others predominantly aural, or a combination of both.  The insidious thing about these videos is that they have a way of cultivating a psychological identification with them.  We identify so thoroughly with this chatter that when we attempt to look within, we are actually looking at these videos and we think “this is my inner life.”

This fairly lengthy quote points to a reality that I have recognized to be very true in my own spiritual life.  And I would guess that many of you struggle with the same thing whether you are conscious of it or not.  My culture, social setting, family background, upbringing, life experiences, etc. all inform who I am.  However, certain experiences impact me more and unfortunately for many of us, these are the negative experiences.  And these can have varying degrees of trauma.  It could be anything from an abusive relationship to something as simple as a time when I felt rejected.  Over the course of time, I interiorize these experiences which are manifold and they begin to define me.  My life then becomes a product of these experiences, and the inner-video starts.  Each experience adds another frame leaving my relationship with myself and others forced into the film.  

When someone leaves us, breaks our heart, betrays us, or rejects us, other people we encounter can become a projection of this inner chatter and we become more likely to force the future of this potential relationship into the inner video that is already playing in our head.  Or, the inner video becomes so intense that we have trouble finding peace, we lose sleep, we are restless, or even worse, we begin to self-medicate through the abuse of alcohol or other substances.  We are no longer ourselves, rather we are the product of our inner videos.  By the way, these videos can have positive origins as well.  I could be a great athlete, musician, scholar, or student, and suddenly I find myself defined through this title.  Regardless of the nature of this inner video, my relationship with myself and others is now only seen through the film as the video continues to roll on.

The good news is that this video does not have to define me.  And now we are back to Mary.  Maybe, just maybe, Martha was so ingrained with the social norms of her time that it would have been impossible for her to quit serving and pause for a moment.  Maybe, Martha as I already mention is the archetype of reactivity.  Mary, on the other hand recognized that all that she could possibly do at this moment is be receptive.  Through prayer we can actually begin to address these inner videos and embrace a receptive nature.  Many spiritual writers, Laird included, suggest finding a “prayer word”.  Distractions in prayer are common and often they are a product of this inner chatter.  When I pray I select a word that has meaning to me like, “Lord”, or “Jesus Christ” or “Abide”.  Whatever the word is (and this will be between you and God) it draws me back into the quiet and away from the chatter.  I do not necessarily repeat it over and over again as in the familiar “Jesus Prayer,” rather I draw the word from my heart whenever distraction comes.

With practice this word can bring the exercise of contemplation into my daily life.  I am in the grocery store, for example, and the person in front of me reminds me of something that stirs up a bad memory.  This memory trips the video and this person makes my blood boil.  I leave the checkout and get home and now the video is at full stream.  Everyone from my kids to my spouse to my dog are seen as characters in this distorted video.  At this point, the evening is bound to end badly.  While this a simple example, it can become a much larger reality that leads to all sorts of separation.  Friendships break up, marriages end, and people turn to the bottle.

Contemplation and receptivity can thwart all of this.  The practice allows me to recognize the inner video and eventually I simply shut it off with my prayer word.  Then, through this same practice I become more and more receptive of my true self and therefore receptive of others.  A bad report card becomes a chance to find out what is really going on inside my son or daughter.  A spouse comes home from work angry and it can actually become an opportunity for deeper intimacy.  All this is possible when we begin to lead lives of receptivity.  Like Mary, we choose to embrace the person or situation first, and we stand in awe of the all the humanity in it. All these situations, bad and good, are overflowing with humanity.  And we can stand in awe of this humanity because we first stand in awe at the One who became human. 

Father Jonathan Dickson is the Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of Victory Parish in State College and Chaplain at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg.