I heard recently that the word ‘hearth’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘heart’. What it means is that in Anglo-Saxon society the hearth was the heart of the house, the centre of its human activity. The hearth was the centre of the household, where people sat and talked, and sewed and mended, and it was also the place where food was cooked in a pot hung over the fire. The hearth was the place where men and women and children would be together at the end of the day, where stories would be told and important affairs discussed. The hearth, of course, is not so much the lounge room with the gas fire and the comfy chairs, as the kitchen, where people can be both busy and relaxed at the same time, where homework and phone calls compete with potatoes to be peeled and dishes to be washed. The kitchen - at least in the house where I grew up, was where the really important business of the family happened.
Of course, we Aussies also have - or used to have - houses with verandahs, semi-public shaded areas at the front of houses where kids could play and old people could sit, where you could read the newspaper and still see what was going on in the street and pass the time of day with passers-by. The verandah was where private space intersected with community space, where different sorts of conversation happened and the business of the whole neighbourhood took priority. Front verandahs especially suit countries with warm climates like Australia, like Galilee in the first century AD, where houses were built, not with front verandahs, but with front courtyards which worked in the exact same way. Courtyards and front verandahs are places of hospitality and daydreams, where kids can fly rocket ships and old men can solve the problems of the country.
So, where does Jesus want us to sit? In the warmth of a summer’s evening Jesus sits, surrounded by men and women and kids and perhaps a dog or two, and tells stories. We know what Jesus’ stories are like, they are stories that come out of a keen observation of life, stories about farming and the natural world, about crops and wildflowers and sparrows, about sharp practices and dishonest neighbours, about the desperation of a tenant farmer who loses a sheep or an old woman sweeping her floor to find a lost coin. One of the sisters, Mary, sits and lets her imagination run freely, wondering at how God’s kingdom might be glimpsed in a buried treasure or a pearl or a crop spoiled by weeds. While Martha tries to figure out where everybody is going to sleep for the night, and makes bread, and runs next door to borrow some extra cheese and olives and dried figs.
Is our spirituality based on busyness, or on stillness? Is there even a choice? Dishes need to get washed, paypackets need to be earned, kids need to be clothed and fed, even Jesus and the men and women who follow him on the road would have been expecting dinner. To tell the truth, most of us probably relate better to Martha than to Mary. How do we hear this story, and Jesus’ valuation of Mary’s receptive listening over Martha’s busy hospitality, without feeling a bit nicked off about all the times we helped out in the kitchen or vacuumed the church or did the flowers without anybody even noticing?
As always, part of the answer probably lies in who we think God is, how busy we imagine God to be. Sometimes our prayers in church would seem to suggest a God who needs lists of things to do, a God of details or, as modern political commentators would describe it, a God who micro-manages. And of course we do believe in a God who is creatively and redemptively engaged with the earth and all its creatures, in all its minutest detail. And we understand that we ourselves for this very reason are called to a love of others that is practical and self-giving.
And yet - we also believe in a God who is the still point at the heart of chaos, the still centre of a universe that explodes into being, of swirling superheated galaxies and stars that are born, and grow old and die in unimaginable fury, the God experienced by Elijah as the sound of sheer silence at the heart of an earthquake, God made known in Jesus asleep in the bow of the boat as it is swamped by the watery chaos of the sea of Galilee. We know God to be the eternal stillness at the heart of our own agitated over-activity, the eternal truth that measures our own moral murkiness, the heart of changelessness that gathers up the fickleness and impermanence of our own lives and makes them holy.
We think that today’s story asks us to make a choice between being Martha or Mary, but maybe what we are actually being asked to do is to notice that we are both, that we need a way of bringing the two halves of our lives and our spirituality into balance. That our spiritual health depends on being able to resist choosing one over the other.
The Benedictine monks who live at New Norcia explain St Benedict’s emphasis on manual work - the Martha stuff — as being a way of sustaining the appetite of the human mind and spirit for God — a way of preparing the human heart for the work of lectio divina, divine contemplation or the listening to the word of God — chosen by Mary. And so it seems that Mary and Martha might represent two aspects of our own life, and the point might be how we can find a healthy balance between activity and stillness, between serving others and listening attentively for the sound of God’s presence in our lives. And for every one of us the balance is different, we need to find it for ourselves because our circumstances and our personalities and gifts are unique. But for every one of us there is a capacity and a need for the sort of spiritual stillness and contemplation chosen by Mary, which actually leads us into relationship with God who we know as a Trinity, the creative centre of our lives, revealed to us in Jesus, active in us in the Holy Spirit.
We each have the spiritual capacity to be drawn into the heart of the life of God, because that is where we find the balance of our own lives. And the ways that draw us into this contemplative nearness are also going to be different - we need to seek the way of prayer that best suits our personality and our lifestyle, we need to discover how we best come close to the heart of God in music or meditation, in the garden or in the bush, through reading or painting or cooking. We generally need the guidance of others in learning how to be still, and an important spiritual discipline is to seek out a spiritual companion who will listen attentively with us for the pattern of God’s presence in our lives. Like any human activity worth the effort, tuning our lives to the presence of God takes intention and discipline and a lifetime’s worth of love.
Our second reading from the letter to the Colossians also points to Jesus as the point of intersection between the unseen, unchanging character of the life of God, and the busy, changeable world of our everyday lives. Colossians makes a cosmic-sized claim - that through Jesus, God reconciles and brings together all things, the things of earth and the things of heaven. It’s a claim that our lives might somehow bring together both the everyday activity of human busyness and relationships, and the still attentiveness in which we become aware of the nearness of God.
I remember a few years ago being at Lake Tekapo in the southern highlands in New Zealand near Mount Cook. We had driven for days through the remote and mountainous country of the west coast, risking our lives on the rickety narrow single-lane bridges and gasping our way in wonder around every corner. We were blessed by clear skies and solitude and exorbitant petrol prices, and finally arrived at Lake Tekapo at the end of a long and tiring day as the sun was setting redly and magnificantly across the lake. For some unfathomable reason the cheapest place to stay in town was in the caravan park on the shores of the lake, so we boiled our billy and set up the tent with a million dollar view. Early in the morning I went down to the lake, which was mirror-perfect and crystal clear, and I looked across the water to the mountains which, even in January had snow on top, and across the lake, in fact, reflected in the lake, I also saw the little stone Church of the Good Shepherd, built on a rocky headland that juts out into the lake. And I realised that reflected in the still water of the lake I could see pine trees and mountains and sky, and the little church that reminded us that this was a place where heaven and earth had come together. And it seemed to me that the water of Lake Tekapo was like the water of the baptism font, the water in which the life of heaven and our earthly lives do come together.
The water of the baptism font is like a mirror that reflects to us who we really are. And when it gets disturbed, when it is scooped up this morning in handfuls and used to baptise Lily, then the life of heaven and the life of earth come together. Lily will be indelibly marked with the image of the risen, ascended and glorified Jesus. It is a symbolic and ritual action which reveals something invisible - the mirror of heaven is disturbed in order to reveal the mystery of who Lily really is in Jesus, in the heart of God, so that heaven can be reflected in her.
In the water of baptism we see the coming together of activity and stillness, of what we do and who we are. And the water, which is living and moving, reveals to us that the stillness of heaven is not passive or static but dynamic and active. The mirror of the font, like the mirror of Lake Tekapo, reflects the dynamic stillness of God. Our lives, of both busyness and contemplation, are centred in the same reality.
Of course, if we are really listening, Jesus’ voice is strong enough for us to hear him even in the kitchen. The saint who might best help us in Practising the heart of stillness in the middle of the busyness of our lives is the seventeenth century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence of the resurrection, who for most of his life, because, as he claimed, he had no education or special gifts, scrubbed pots in the monastery kitchen. The secret, he tells us, is to recognise that every mundane task is an opportunity to experience God’s love, an opportunity to express our love for God and for one another. Brother Lawrence’s kitchen was especially busy, in a special way the heart or hearth of the monastery because of its reputation for peace and holy conversation. The secret of our own lives, it seems to me, is to discover that same holiness in the middle of whatever it is we have to do tomorrow morning.