By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published August 4, 2016
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”
It is an old, large stately building, and it stands on the corner of Bloomfield and Watsessing Avenues in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Called the Job Haines Home, it’s a home for the aged. My high school bus passed it every day on its way to Newark. There is a bench that used to be at the bus stop in front of the Job Haines home. I used to look at that too, as the bus passed, and wondered about it. It was an oddly shaped bench, in the shape of a V, so that two people who would sit on it would have their backs at an angle to each other. And there was a sign above the bench, which read “Come Ye Apart and Rest Awhile.”
As often as I looked out the bus window at the bench and the sign, I never put the two together until I gave it some thought last week. I have a long personal history of missing the obvious, not really seeing what lies right in front of me or, in the case of the bench, outside my bus window.
The Martha and Mary story in the Gospel seems to have Jesus making a clear preference for Mary’s sitting at his feet and listening to him. And in the process he chides Martha for fretting anxiously over many things.
I suppose there are commentaries that use this Gospel fragment to support the notion that the contemplative life has an edge on the active life. But I do not think it is that easy to separate these two facets of being in the world. They both co-exist within each of us, and it seems to me better to highlight their benefits rather than to separate them to assess which is a clearer way of responding to God’s presence. They really cannot be separated. They are at play and at tension within us, moving us from one mode of experiencing life to another.
I cannot remember people ever sitting on that bench. I do not know why. Maybe all those times I passed it coincided with the recent arrival of a bus or perhaps people found the bench too awkward, too uncomfortable.
But it is, for me, an image to ponder. In the background, far behind the bench, stands the old age home, a place where life has slowed down and where old folks can take it easy, think back on their lives and hopefully ponder more deeply the warm mysteries of the wisdom they have accrued over the years and the love that came their way.
And those who are driving past the big home, on their way to work or to attend to some business in the city of Newark? Hopefully they will look at the bench and try to make some room in their lives to slow down and take it easy. They can accept the invitation to step apart and savor what gifts can be given through stillness.
But perhaps, like me, it may take a long time to for them to ponder what they, too, must see through their car or bus window every day: an odd-looking bench with words above, an invitation to come apart from our normally busy selves, and find a place of rest and recollection. But that is OK. The bench and the invitation are offered for a lifetime. It is as if the wisdom that created them knew that we all would sooner or later look back to an old memory and accept the beckoning to sit apart and dream, ponder or simply wait in hope for that last ride that will take us home.
A few days ago, I was driving with Augustine. It was nearing evening and he said that it was a special time of the day for him, as he thought about the roads and highways and the millions of people driving home from a hard day’s work, heading home to their families, to rest, to take it easy.
I was struck by the beauty of that image. It offers a way for us to take to heart the need we all have for having in our lives a place apart, a place to go to be still, to rest, to be at ease.
The evening of life will, sooner or later, come to us all. Our wheels will stop turning, and we will have finally arrived at the place that has no more stops along the route of life. That place may be a Job Haines home, or a house, or a monastery, or a bench set apart from the rush of life. And it will be there in the evening that we can learn that life has yet more riches to share, riches to be had only when we no longer have the strength to actively strive for a living.
Wisdom rarely comes to the young. It seems to avoid the heavily trafficked roads and seasons of life. It comes when we are still, and it seems to favor an arrival late in the day when our hearts have the time and space for it.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at www.HolySpiritMonasteryGifts.com.