Pickled in prayer

Genesis 18:1-10    Luke 10:38-42                             Fr Adrian Ling

Have you ever made pickles? Do you have the patience to leave them to marinate long enough in their vinegar. I confess to a penchant for pickles, gerkhins, beetroot and especially large strong pickled onions. If my father makes  a jar of pickled onions for my brother and I, they are swiftly consumed.

Any good pickle needs to be left soaking in vinegar for several days, if it is to absorb the vinegar and be properly preserved. If we just put the shallots into vinegar for an hour a week, that would not do much good. In his address at the Testival Day Mass,  Fr George Guiver the Superior of the Monks at Mirfield compared pickling to prayer. If our only time of  prayer is for an hour a week on a Sunday, that too will have limited effect. An effective Christian needs to be soaked in prayer.

The monks at Mirfield are well pickled in prayer. They pray four times a day together, but also spend time in private prayer, in silence and stillness. But the life of the monk and the nun has to combine elements of the Mary and the Martha that we hear about in today’s gospel reading. They have to pray and they have to work to support themselves and run the monastery.There are a great variety of religious orders whose lives combine work and prayer to varying degrees. Some are more Mary than Martha, while others more Martha than Mary.

It is not everyone’s vocation to spend a life in prayer it would drive most of us potty,  and some people find it hard to comprehend how devoting a life to prayer can be a productive use of time. Well, if we consider our Christian lives to be a great effort to get close to God, then surely we want to be as close to him as much as we can. Those who are close to God have a better understanding of what it means to be a human being.

Despite the grumblings of her sister Martha, Jesus singled out Mary of Bethany for praise. He said that she had ‘chosen the better part,’ in sitting at his feet and listening to him speak. Martha was missing out on the precious teaching of Jesus, she was completely distracted by all that she had to do. You can imagine how she would have been in a great tiswas, when the great rabbi came to call, thrown into a maelstrom of cooking,  preparing nothing but the best for Jesus.

If you invite people round for a meal, you will not give them your full attention if you are preoccupied about the gravy boiling over or the roast being overcooked. Were you to worry too much about the cooking, you would miss the point of having people round, of exchanging conversation.

The example of Abraham, in the first reading, reminds us of the duty of hospitality, that we should be prepared to welcome unexpected guests. Abraham welcomed in the three guests and offered them rest and food and drink. In entertaining these strangers he was to find that he had welcomed God into his home and received many blessings.

We have to work and do our chores, but we must be careful not to get caught in busyness for its own sake, and become unaware of what God might be trying to tell us. If we just offer up cursory prayers then we are not spending our time in proper spiritual conversation with him who loves us, and is profoundly interested in us.

Jesus said Mary had chosen the better part, but he did not say that Martha was wrong, just distracted and fretting. St Teresa of Avila, a woman capable of spending long periods in prayer, was not wholly complimentary about our Lord’s praise of Mary. ‘it’s all very well him saying Mary took the better part,’ she said ‘but if Martha had done the same he’d have had no dinner on the table.’ Work can also be prayer. We might well get close to God through working in the garden or cleaning the house, so long as we let God be part of whatever we are doing. That time might well be a time of contemplation when we apply our spiritual understanding to a problem.

Jesus says that to pray we must set ourselves apart, ‘to go into our room and close the door. That means taking ourselves off as Jesus did to a place where he could be alone. We must give God as much of our attention as we can, regularly and often. The more time we can share with him, the better the pickle will be preserved.