Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Mass of First Profession of Sister Maria Sagrario, OCD

November 25, 2021
Carmel of the Most Holy Trinity
Arlington, Texas

Hosea 2:16, 21-22
Ephesians 1:3-14
Luke 10:38-42

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” These are the words that Jesus speaks to Martha in the Gospel of Luke. They are the words that He speaks to Martha in the presence of her sister Mary, of her brother Lazarus, and of the Apostles.

These are the words that Jesus speaks to Sister Maria Sagrario and again to her Carmelite sisters in our presence as the Church in our proclamation of the Gospel of Luke at the celebration of the Eucharist. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

A cursory reading of this selection of the Gospel of Luke might suggest that Jesus is making a stark distinction between the active life of service and the passive life of contemplation as represented by Martha and Mary. Such a reading also might suggest that Jesus is indicating that the futility of hard work is a part of this fallen world and that the better part of restful contemplation with Him comes later, in heaven, after the drudgery of this life marred by original sin. These are not uncommon misinterpretations, even in the history of Carmel. The great Carmelite scholar, Bishop Guy Gaucher notes regarding the life of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, “Over her years at Carmel, Thérèse would read the following sentence painted on the wall of the stairway leading to her cell, ‘Today, a little work, tomorrow eternal rest.’”

Yet, it is Saint Thérèse, who in articulating her mission, and her understanding of the mission of Carmel, proclaims with bold confidence in Christ, “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.” This hardly conveys the lesson intended by the author of the graffiti on the wall of the Carmel in Lisieux. About this fresh and eternal insight of Saint Thérèse, Guy Gaucher writes in the book entitled The Passion of Thérèse of Lisieux, “Let us leave aside the revolution that Thérèse has introduced into the traditional idea of heaven as a place of rest. As we have said, for her it was to be rather a place of the greatest possible action, which would end only at the Parousia.” When we reconsider the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel in light of this insight of Saint Thérèse, we are spared the facile misinterpretations about which I referred earlier.

Saint Thérèse helps us understand this Gospel, and the vocation and life of a Carmelite, with an even more direct and clear understanding of this Gospel passage. As Saint Thérèse wrote under obedience in her Story of a Soul, “Dear Mother, this is my prayer. I ask Jesus to draw me into the flames of His love, to unite me so closely to Him that He live and act in me… No doubt she (Thérèse’s soul) will remain at Jesus’ feet as did Mary Magdalene, and she will listen to His sweet and burning words. Appearing to do nothing, she will give much more than Martha who torments herself with many things and wants her sister to imitate her. It is not Martha’s works that Jesus finds fault with…It is only the restlessness of His ardent hostess that He willed to correct.” “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

This is the vocation that Sister Maria Sagrario and her Carmelite sisters have received from Jesus. Theirs is a vocation to be fully attentive to Jesus in contemplation and discipleship. The world, and even parts of the Church in contemporary times, too easily confuses contemplation with passivity and narcissistic introspection. Yet, the proclamation of today’s Gospel puts the truth to that error. Mary stands (or rather sits) as the example of discipleship. Her posture of sitting at the feet of Jesus would clearly have been understood by those present as the posture of discipleship before one’s teacher — a posture that would never have been presumed to have been taken by a woman, such is the universality of the call and mission of Jesus. Mary too can assume the position of a disciple, receiving His Word (the better part), the Truth, which will not be taken away from her.

The story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel is placed between the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ instruction of His disciples of how to pray, beginning with the words “Our Father.” The parable of the Good Samaritan was introduced with the great commandment that has two parts: love of God and love of neighbor. The parable shows how one fulfills the commandment to love God and neighbor through service to the one most in need. The story of Jesus in the house of Mary and Martha shows that one cannot fulfill the commandment to love God and neighbor without choosing the better part of sitting at the feet of Jesus as a disciple who loves Him with a full and grateful heart because He has loved her first. Love of God and neighbor is not born of the restlessness of Martha nor of our own human initiative and merit. The same holds even more true for the vocation and discipleship of a Carmelite. It is love initiated by Jesus that links service to the poor and prayer — a love that is received and expressed at Jesus’ feet.

This is the point that evil tempts us to overlook, to omit, and to ignore: the loving centrality and gratefully untrammeled focus upon Jesus as exemplified by Mary in today’s Gospel reading. Again, Saint Thérèse helps us now as part of her doing good in heaven. Writing to her sister Celine on August 18, 1894, she describes the contemplative heart of the Carmelite’s vocation: “We are not idlers, squanderers, either. Jesus has defended us using the person of the Magdalene. He was at table, Martha was serving, Lazarus was eating with Him and His disciples. As for Mary, she was not thinking of taking any food but of pleasing Him whom she loved…It is really the same for us Carmelites, the most fervent Christians, priests, find that we are exaggerated, that vessels of our lives, with the ointments enclosed within them. What does it matter if our vessels be broken since Jesus is consoled and since, despite itself, the world is obliged to smell the perfumes that are exhaled and serve to purify the empoisoned air the world never ceases to breathe in?” The vocation of the Carmelite is given by Christ not just for the Carmelite but for the salvation of sinners — especially priests. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Or as Saint Thérèse most succinctly put it, “Everything is a grace.”

Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians, “In Him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in Him, were sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession, to the praise of His glory.” The big picture of the Epistle to the Ephesians includes the final destination, that is the fullest of joy in the company of friends and relatives, and even God Himself. The beginning and the end, heaven and this world, are united in Jesus — the Alpha and the Omega. The redemption literally means that one is brought back to one’s rightful place. For a Carmelite, that rightful place is the position of discipleship of love next to Mary at the foot of Jesus the teacher, her Redeemer, and her Crucified Spouse. The vocation of the Carmelite at her rightful place is through love and prayer to bring back sinners in the world to their rightful place at Jesus’ feet.

Hosea speaks of God returning Israel to the wilderness, where the first love of God for Israel had been experienced by Israel and celebrated before Israel turned to infidelity with false gods. “Therefore, I will allure her now; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak persuasively to her.” On this day of first profession, Sister Maria Sagrario, as her sisters have done before her, hears the voice of her Divine Spouse calling her, alluring her into the wilderness of Carmel, and speaking through the prophet Hosea about His love and gifts for her, “I will betroth you to me forever: I will betroth you to me with justice and with judgment, with loyalty and with compassion, I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.” The qualities of a spouse of Christ are justice and judgment, loyalty and compassion. These are accepted by her not simply for herself but in reparation for so many who are hostile or indifferent to these gifts and squander their lives in dissolute living, the vapid pain of idolatry. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

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