Orthodox America


  The One Thing Needful


    The "hectic pace of modern life" is an all too familiar expression whose truth is evidenced by stress-related illnesses, congested streets, crowded appointment calendars, long lists tacked onto kitchen bulletin boards of "things to do today." We sometimes feel we are running around in circles, and indeed, our schedules seem to lead us along a course of never-ending 'busy-ness". In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ taught that there is but one thing needful in life, and that is to know Him.

       The Gospel readings appointed for the feasts of the Mother of God begin with the passage describing Christ's visit to the home of Mary and Martha, sisters of His friend Lazarus. While Martha occupied herself in the kitchen, preparing something for their Guest to eat, Mary sat at the Master's feet, listening to His words. Anxious not to keep their Guest waiting, Martha asks the Lord to send Mary to help her out. Instead the Lord responds with a gentle rebuke:

Martha, Martha thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:41-42). 

      We have a natural tendency, on hearing this passage, to take the side of Martha. After all, she was selflessly working, serving her "neighbor," while Mary sat idly, listening to Him talk. Like Martha, we are unable to correctly prioritize our "musts". St. John Cassian, in commenting on this passage, writes that in His words to Martha, "the Lord locates the primary good not in activity, however praiseworthy, however abundantly fruitful, but in the truly simple and unified contemplation of Himself."

      The lesson here is particularly important for us here in the West where we were governed so long by the Protestant work ethic that it has even carried over into our forms of relaxation. We always have to be "doing" some thing, accomplishing something. This tends also to be true in our spiritual life. We concentrate on works, fasting, giving alms, teaching Sunday school, visiting the sick, building churches, and all manner of good deeds. This is all beneficial to the soul, when undertaken for the sake of Christ, but it is a long and circuitous route to the one thing needful, which is most readily acquired through prayer.

      But here, too, our propensity for "works" often interferes. We satisfy ourselves with the 'act' of attending church services, of saying our daily prayers as if fulfilling some obligation. Prayer is a gift, it is ---or should be  -- our personal encounter with the living God. Prayer, St. Seraphim teaches, is the most powerful means for drawing the Spirit of God into our hearts, "and is most easily practiced by everyone." However, it has such power only if we give it quality time and attention, repelling distracting thoughts as if they were arrows aimed to wound us

      We also come into direct contact with Christ through the Eucharist-His very Body and Blood. Yet how many of us take time to prepare ourselves properly--with fasting, prayer and confession--to enter into this communion as often as we are granted the opportunity? There is now a return to the practice of communing more regularly, but here, too, there is danger of its becoming something one "does," a habit, whereas it should be approached with great fear and trembling. When communing Pelagia Ivanovna, the fool for-Christ of Diveyevo, the local priest discerned her true spiritual nature by her attitude towards the Holy Mysteries: "She partakes...with such veneration, humility, fear and trepidation, that she seems to glow with some inner light; her spiritual elation is such that it makes me shudder to see her being transformed this way." 

    In one of our first issues we printed Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov's exhortation, "Christians! You must know Christ!" The saints knew Christ (St. John of Kronstadt's diary was fittingly titled My Life in Christ); they were "God-bearers," that is what made them the "salt of the earth." We Christians of the last times are losing this saltiness; we are preoccupied with "a million things to do," whereas, "To cling always to God and to the things of God-this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade, and certainly dangerous" (Abba Moses of Scete). In the Soviet Union, where there is today such interest in religion, Orthodox writer Zoya Krakhmalnikova has voiced concern over the fact that people discuss Christianity, they talk about Christ, but they do not strive to know Christ. To know Christ is to acquire the Holy Spirit, it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We must put this at the very top of our list of priorities. It is the one thing, the ONLY thing absolutely needful.

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