Relationship is More Important than Attention by Archbishop William Goh
By Archbishop William Goh’s Reflection on Oct 9, 2018
Scripture readings: Galatians 1:13-24; Psalm 139; Luke 10:38-42
In CatholicNews on Sunday October 28, 2018
WE are by vocation apostles rather than contemplatives. We like to “do” rather than to simply “be”. Why? Because doing makes us feel that we are useful and that we are alive. It gives us a sense of self-respect, importance, independence and dignity. When we can contribute to society, we feel also that we do not owe society our existence. So “doing” gives us meaning. After all, man is created with a will to exist and to live. We fear death and so we seek to create and perpetuate ourselves. This, of course, is a sharing of God’s procreative power and His image and likeness.
The problem comes when we try to build ourselves and make ourselves the centre of the universe. Instead of using work as a means to express our love for humanity by building a better world, we use it as a means to seek attention. When that happens, we become egoistic, like St Paul before his conversion and Martha in today’s incident. She became judgmental, irritable and proud. Worst of all, she had a self-proclaimed martyr complex, lamenting her suffering whereas Mary was having a good time. She even became domineering, accusing Jesus of being indifferent to her plight and wanting Jesus to tell her sister to help her.
Jesus of course was not inconsiderate or blind to her predicament. As the evangelist remarked, Martha “was distracted with all the serving”. But the truth is that it was not the situation that was causing Martha to suffer but her disposition towards the whole event. She failed to examine deep within herself and recognise her real motive for serving the Lord. If she were truly doing it for the Lord in love, then she would not have minded whether she was the only one doing the work or not. She wanted the attention of Jesus and His praises. Instead, the attention seemed to be given to the undeserving sister, Mary, who did nothing! Egotism is the offspring of the sin of envy.
Martha mistook relationship for attention. What we most need in life is not attention or admiration from people. Those who are not capable of relationship, or are afraid of relationships, tend to replace these with work that gets attention from people. But fame, popularity and attention are not the same as relationship. This explains why even celebrities, who get all the attention from their fans, commit suicide, because they are deeply lonely people. What they really want is relationship, which they do not have. Indeed, one of the greatest regrets among the dying is that they did not have time for relationships.
They spent their whole life working, making money and a name for themselves, but their emotional life was sadly lacking. They know there is a vacuum in their hearts. They leave this world not having been truly loved or having loved. What matters at the end of the day is love and relationships. Money, success and fame cannot make one happy even though one might have all the attention. Only the love and attention of our loved ones can satisfy our hearts. Those who love and make time for relationships are those who truly live a full life. What is needed is not what we can do for Jesus but what Jesus can do for us. Or rather, what is needed in strengthening our relationships is not so much “doing”, but “being” with and for each other.
We cannot replace “being” with “doing”. We cannot substitute relationship for work. What is primary is “being with” before one starts “doing”. Martha had to learn to be like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him and be strengthened by His love before beginning to serve Him. Contemplation therefore must precede action. Otherwise what we do becomes self-serving, ambitious and often done in an impatient, hurried and insensitive manner; more like getting a job done purely out of obligation or duty rather than truly an expression of love. In this context, Mary truly, as Jesus said, “has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.” Yes, if Martha was worried and “fret(ed) about so many things”, it was because she lacked the one thing, namely, the love and wisdom of the Lord. Without Christ, she lived her life in deep anxiety and fear.
St Paul learned that as well, for after his encounter with Jesus, he did not set out immediately for mission but left for Arabia to spend time in prayer and meditation. This was of course something St Paul was not used to doing as he was an active man who was always on the move and doing something to earn the merits of God. But through that intimacy with Christ, he came to realise that unless his mission was nurtured by His love and wisdom, he would not be able to proclaim Christ effectively.
Truly, intimacy with the Lord must be the source of our strength to do good. From the love of God in us flows all our actions, otherwise it becomes competition and domination. Intimacy is the root of vocation; otherwise it becomes only our ambition. Many confuse vocation with self-fulfilment. The latter is the product of self-transcendence and not a goal in itself. Those of us who are apparently serving God, the poor and society, should examine our motives regularly; otherwise we will fall into the same frustration as Martha in service. Many who are giving service to the Church often become jaded and resentful because they did not receive the due recognition and appreciation they consciously or unconsciously expected.
What matters at the end of the day is love and relationships. Money, success and fame cannot make one happy even though one might have all the attention. Only the love and attention of our loved ones can satisfy our hearts. Those who love and make time for relationships are those who truly live a full life.
Intimacy presupposes that we are ready to spend time in prayer, listening to the Lord so that we can purify our motives in serving Him. Like the psalmist we need to pray for discernment and guidance. “Guide me, Lord, along the everlasting way. 0 Lord, you have probed me and you know me; you know when I sit and when I stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. My journeys and my rest you scrutinise, with all my ways you are familiar.” It is not enough to serve, but we must serve with love, in love and for the love of God and our neighbours. The moment we become anxious as to whether people appreciate our services or not, then it is clear that our motive for service is imperfect and self-centred.
Martha had to learn to be like Mary, to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him and be strengthened by His love before beginning to serve Him. Contemplation therefore must precede action. Otherwise what we do becomes self-serving, ambitious and often done in an impatient, hurried and insensitive manner; more like getting a job done purely out of obligation or duty rather than truly an expression of love.
Let us go back to the one thing, that which is absolutely essential for ministry – a deep intimacy arising from a fervent life of prayer and contemplation. Without prayer, in vain is our ministry. Without intimacy with the Lord, we will lose our centre, zeal and focus. If we are focused on the Lord, then a clear indication is the experience of peace, joy and confidence in our ministry, regardless of our success. We know that what is of utmost importance is our fidelity, not success.
Lest we misinterpret the message of Jesus, we must realise that Martha was not criticised for her efforts in wanting to make Jesus’ stay comfortable. Surely, Jesus was very appreciative of the hospitality she tried to give Him. In the same vein, God also wants us to work for Him. It is not enough to pray and stay at the feet of the Lord the whole day. Sitting at the feet of Jesus must be our priority but this does not exclude using the gifts He gave us for the service of the Church and the world. We make room for Jesus not just in our hearts but in our relationships with others, in our homes, offices and in the people we meet each day. It is not enough to give hospitality to Jesus for He too is found in the poor, the abandoned, the sick and the lonely. The Lord wants us to find Him in them as well. Of course, before we can become a real Martha in the world, we must first become Mary. We are with Jesus so that we can be for others and be His apostles.