“Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”
This simple and yet elegant phrase came from the lips of one of the greatest saints of the modern age: St. Pio of Pietrelcina, known better as Padre Pio. A man of great wonders (his life was filled with miracles both physical and spiritual), he was also a spiritual guide to many great men and women, including the future Pope John Paul II. He is an example of holiness tested under strain and pain, and he drew close to his Lord, and in drawing near to the fount of salvation, reached his Heavenly reward.
And so, we see his motto, his advice for success: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” It sounds so simple. Dangerously simple. So simple that the first reaction is to brush off the advice, to see it as too simple to be of any use, or maybe too impossible in its simplicity. We need signs, we need rituals. We need offerings, and sacrifices, and motions and preachings. And yes, we do. We need all of that.
But above all, we need to pray and hope, and then not worry.
The phrase makes sense. If we really pray to God, laying our needs at His feet, and really hope in His providence, assenting to His Will, then we shouldn’t worry. We can only do so much; God takes care of the rest.
We often find ourselves worrying about many things. We are all Martha sometimes. You know the story (Luke 10:38–42). Jesus was in the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, his good friends (this is the Lazarus that Jesus would later raise from the dead). Jesus was teaching in the house, as was His way, and the disciples sat at His feet. Among those at the Lord’s feet was Mary, who sat not just with the other disciples, but “beside the Lord,” showing a desire on Mary’s part to not only hear Jesus, but to draw close to Him. Perhaps she had some question to ask of the Master, something that was bothering her. He would help her, she knew, and she loved Him. I speak not of romantic love. I speak of that love that transcends romance, agape in the Greek. Mary was laying herself at the Lord’s feet, both literally and symbolically. We too, like Mary, must lay ourselves at the Lord’s feet, not literally lying down in our local church, but emptying ourselves before the Lord, so that He might take us and fill us with His love and grace.
There was also Martha, who apparently invited Jesus and the disciples into the house. She was the hostess, and it was her job to make sure the Lord and His guests were comfortable. There was food to be had, and mats to be laid out, and drinks to be poured, and a table to be set, and the floor to be swept, and this thing and that thing and you can almost imagine Martha going into a private room and yelling into a pillow. Except you can’t imagine it, really, because that would have required Martha to take a break from her necessary work around the house, which she could not do because there sat the Master, the Lord. She had to make things perfect. No second chances.
She was, in a word, anxious.
All that work to do, and Mary wasn’t helping her. Mary was just sitting at Jesus’ feet, not a care in the world. Over to the congregation clicked Martha (if first century Palestinian women could click), and she, in a fit of frustration (for which she no doubt felt exceptionally embarrassed later), demanded that Jesus tell Mary to come help her. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me” (Luke 10:40). Luke, clearly in sympathy for the poor woman, notes carefully that Martha was “burdened with much serving.” It’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation. Luke is not saying Martha did the right thing; he is saying why she did what she did.
Here we can reflect on how we are like Martha. I assume most of those reading this blog do good deeds (very few people adhere to Martin Luther’s belief that the best deed done by the best man with the best intentions is venially sinful). We know that doing good is, well, a good thing to do. Charity is part of the Christian life. Did not Jesus help the poor, the sick, the crippled, the possessed, and the spiritually starving? Did He not send out His Apostles to do good throughout the world? He must understand how good our good deeds are, how righteous our desires are. Martha was serving, as she was called to do. She is all of us who do things for others. The fact that she was “burdened” with the serving, however, is telling. She may have started her good deed (opening her house to Jesus and His disciples) out of love, but now charity has become a burden. Now she regrets her open arms. Now she begins to think she cannot do the good needed of her. She begins to doubt her own ability and even her willingness to continue her charity. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a “dark night” of the soul, wherein a man or woman no longer feels the presence of God in response to his or her prayers. God feels distant in such circumstances, and Martha no doubt felt that distance, even when Jesus was under her own roof.
So Martha asked the question, a question we could see ourselves asking: “God, why didn’t you let me get that job? Why can’t my husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend listen to me? How am I supposed to pay off all this debt, Lord, and take care of my family? What are you calling me to do with my life? Why?” We ask and ask the questions of God, expecting a straightforward answer. We want booming thunder and the fire and wind, like some epic Cecil B. DeMille picture. But we won’t get it, or at least not likely. That’s not how God talks to us. He speaks in the quiet, the stillness in which Elijah heard Him (1 Kings 19:11–13), and so He spoke to Martha (and to us) a line so quoted and so misunderstood:
“The Lord said to her in reply, ‘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’” (Luke 10: 41–42).
The Lord did not yell at Martha, or reprimand her for interrupting His teaching. Nor did he smite her, as one might expect of one who stands before the power of God. No, Christ spoke in a quiet voice. Many people focus on how Jesus extolled Mary’s piety; few remember Martha. Jesus did not tell her that she should never do the work she had done, serving and helping, performing works of charity, etc. These are good things. However, Martha had missed the point of the works. The good one does should have as its end the glory of God, and we should seek through our good works to draw closer to God. Mary drew as close as she could to Jesus, while Martha distanced herself, enveloping herself in worries rather than seeing the glory before her eyes. She was so concerned with preparing for the Lord that she ignored Him when He came. But there He was, in her house. What had Christ told those who complained about His disciples’ tendency to party? “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Something similar could be said to Martha: Why do you struggle to prepare yourself for Christ when He is already with you? Should you not embrace Him, and hear what He has to say? In that sense, Mary chose the better part. “It will not be taken from her” because she had drawn herself into life in Christ, which is life eternal.
Don’t worry like Martha. Pray and hope like Mary. It’s telling in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life that this story of Martha and Mary comes right after the parable of the Good Samaritan, which extols doing good deeds (as Martha was doing) and right before Jesus’ teaching concerning prayer (reflective of Mary’s spirituality). The story of Martha and Mary stands as a bridge between these two events in Jesus’ life. Prayer and hope should run through us like blood in our veins. Worry? No, instead pray and hope. For as Christ said: “I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9–10).