A brother came to Abba Silvanus on Mount Sinai. And when he saw the brothers working, he said to the old man: “Labour not for the meat which perisheth”: and “Mary hath chosen the best part.” [John 6:27; Luke 10:42] And the old man said to his disciple: “Call Zacharias, and put this brother in a cell where there is nothing.” And when three o’clock came, he kept looking at the door, to see when they would send someone and summon him to eat. But no one spoke to him. So he rose and went to the old man and said: “Abba, do not the brethren eat today?” And the old man said: “Yes, they have eaten already.” And the brother said: “Why did you not call me?” And the old man answered: “You are a spiritual person and do not need food. We are earthy, and since we want to eat, we work with our hands. But you have chosen the good part, reading all day, and not wanting to take earthly food.” When the brother heard this he prostrated himself in penitence and said: “Forgive me, Abba.” And the old man said: “I think Mary always needs Martha, and by Martha’s help Mary is praised.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.69
Mary Magdalene and Martha, the sisters of Lazaras, whom Christ raised from the dead according to the Gospel of John (see John 11), are often used as symbols of the famous dictum attributed to St. Benedict: ora et labora or “pray and work,” respectively.
The story referred to in the saying above goes like this:
Now it happened as they went that [Jesus] entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word.But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
At first it may appear that the unnamed brother in this saying had it right. Mary is praised for sitting at the feet of Jesus. Martha, in the meantime, is “worried and troubled about many things’ when only “one thing is needed.” What were those monks doing working when all that is really required of a person is to spend time in prayer and meditation upon the words of Christ?
Translations vary, but the insight of the desert fathers is that, while Jesus says that Mary chose the good, better, or best part that “will not be taken away from her,” Jesus actually never says that Martha’s work is bad. The fact that she let her work distract her from what was most important wasn’t a good thing, but the work itself was. In fact, according to Abba Silvanus, “Mary always needs Martha, and by Martha’s help Mary is praised.” If Martha had not “welcomed [Jesus] into her house” in the first place and taken the time to extend her hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, her sister Mary may not have had the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his word.
As human beings we truly need work, even physical work, for the health of our souls. Certainly, it is a mistake to then conclude that work is the most important thing to occupy our time, but there is much spiritual value in it if we keep it from causing us to be “worried and troubled about many things.” On the other hand, as this saying demonstrates, there is a danger in assuming that only strictly spiritual or intellectual things—like prayer and study—have any spiritual value. Our work serves the needs of others and teaches us much needed discipline and endurance. Unless, like the unnamed brother, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are “spiritual person[s] and do not need food,” then we ought to be willing to work, whatever our jobs or chores may be. After all, by means of this work we discipline our souls in such a way that we can better meditate at the feet of Jesus. Or, as Abba Silvanus put it, “Mary always needs Martha, and by Martha’s help Mary is praised.”