Call me Martha. Others certainly have.
And I have to admit, I can understand why.
I’ve always identified with two of the most famous women who ever bore the name — the modern domestic diva and the saint who pestered Jesus to make her sister Mary get up and do something. Like them, I want to get things done, and done well.
A few years ago, however, I felt too close to the Marthas. My life had reached a fever pitch, and my pursuit of perfection wasn’t helping. I was overwhelmed with work, volunteering and home projects. Burnout was just around the corner.
To try to regain my equilibrium, I signed up for a week at a Catholic retreat center. I pictured myself sitting serenely at the feet of Jesus, choosing “the better part” like Mary, sister of the biblical Martha.
But as I sat on a faded sofa in the retreat director’s apartment, I shifted restlessly. Looking around, I noticed that the sofa cushions were sagging and needed to be replaced — or at least re-covered. Like me, they had seen better days.
“Go to the kitchen and ask them to pack you a bag lunch. Then go out to the hermitage and stay there until you hear the dinner bell.”
I squinted at Sister Damian. Surrounded by morning sunlight streaming through the window behind her, she was an impenetrable silhouette. Surely she wasn’t serious. Seven hours in the middle of the woods? Alone? I had come for solitude, not banishment.
“And leave your cellphone here.”
After collecting my tuna sandwich, cookie and bottle of water from the kitchen, I headed off dutifully into the trees. If I was going to do this hermitage thing, I was going to do it right. After all, that’s what the Marthas would do.
The path to the hermitage was clearly marked, an easy quarter-mile stroll. But somehow, I managed to get lost. Near panic set in, and even worse, a sense of failure. I had already botched things. On the brink of tears, I stumbled upon a small clearing.
And there it was — the hermitage. It was spartan but homey, with a dining table and chair, a rocker, and a twin bed with a simple coverlet. An oversize floor cushion sat beside a smaller table, which held a well-used white pillar candle, matches, a few books and a guest register containing reflections from previous occupants.
I scanned the room, wondering what to do first. Clearly, I could use some nourishment after all my frantic wandering in the woods, so I opened my lunch bag. Within minutes, I had wolfed down the sandwich and cookie.
The floor looked dusty, so I found a broom and began to sweep. I straightened the coverlet and fluffed up the floor cushion. I organized the books on the table, stopping short of arranging them alphabetically — but just barely.
Next, I moved outside. After sweeping the last leaf off the porch, I stood and scanned the woods.
And six more hours to go.
Conceding defeat, I dragged the rocking chair out to the porch. I sat down tentatively and began to rock. And rock. Soon, my feet were pushing off the floorboards in a frenzy and my mind was racing.
The porch has no railing. What about building codes ?
Did the brochure say anything about bears?
If a snake slithered up behind me, would I hear it?
Should I have alphabetized the books after all?
“I know what this place needs,” I thought. “A candle. I’ll light a candle and let it be a sign to God that I’m ready to sit and listen.”
I went inside and picked up the white pillar and the matches.
Placing the candle on the porch next to the rocker, I struck a match. The wick was deep inside the pillar. The candle lit, but the flame barely glowed through the wax sides. It was time to channel the Marthas.
I have a friend who sells candles at house parties for a nationally known candle company. Although I had never attended one of her events, she had told me the secret of keeping pillar candles in tiptop shape. If the wick is too deep inside the pillar, just light the candle, let it burn until the wax softens and then pinch the rim a bit at a time, rolling it toward the center until it’s even with the wick.
And so I began. Pinch and roll. Pinch and roll. I smiled, thinking the Marthas would be proud. If scented pillar candles had been around when Lazarus was raised from the dead, surely Martha would have had one, ready to mask the lingering stench.
Now I was retreating.
But my smile quickly vanished. In my rush to pillar perfection, I had pinched and rolled the rim right into the pool of melted wax, causing a mini-tsunami that extinguished the flame and buried the wick.
I stared at the candle as it hardened into a misshapen heap of wax, its scent suspended in the crisp autumn air like incense.
From somewhere, the thought arose: Push too hard and the flame goes out.
It was not just the candle. It was me. I had been pushing too hard, trying to do everything flawlessly and at breakneck speed. I had doused the spark of my life, and I wanted it back.
I returned, humbled, to the rocking chair. Before long, the stillness and sun-dappled leaves beckoned me to unwind. I stared into the trees, just listening. Eventually, the rocking slowed to a stop, and I fell asleep.
When the dinner bell sounded, I reluctantly made my way back to the retreat center. After hours of sitting silently with my Creator, gaze unfocused, I had a hard time seeing for a little while. Or maybe I was seeing for the first time.
I’ll always be a Martha at heart, but now Mary pays me a visit from time to time. And when she does, we always light a candle together.
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership, June 27, 2017