Godtalk: Balancing Values


Woman walking a tight rope

If the story of the Good Samaritan was the only parable of Jesus, it might seem that Christianity is simply a matter of helping others;  nothing there about private prayer or public worship, nothing about spiritual reading - or even listening to sermons!  And the only mention of religious leaders was not exactly flattering  

But when we read the story of Martha and Mary, the opposite impression is given.  Martha is necessarily busy in serving others, while Mary sits close to Jesus, doing nothing but loving a lot.  And it’s Mary whom Jesus commends, with the words, 'She has chosen the better part.' 

If that were all there is to Christianity it would seem that the only choice for someone who wants to love God fully is to move into a monastery.   But when we learn to appreciate the whole of the gospel, a different picture emerges.  It could be helpful to see Martha and Mary as one and the same person seen from different angles, maintaining a tension between a number of values. 

Spiritual health depends on keeping a careful balance, like walking a tightrope so as not to fall off either side.  It's not a question of choosing between Martha and Mary but of choosing both - Martha and Mary, prayer and action, living and doing, private morality and social concern.   

What is the essence of religion?  Where is God most easily found - in a church or in the kitchen?  In the monastery or in the family? At a shrine or in a sports stadium?  The God we believe in is both beyond us and with us.  In a privileged way, God is found in both - the monastic and the domestic, the Church and the world. 

A healthy spirituality holds a deep respect for both, trying to keep a proper balance between these values in everyday life.  This means always living in a kind of tension.  We have to keep a balance between this life and the next.  Which is more important?   

What kind of perspective shapes my decisions - the span of my years here on earth or the horizon of eternity?  What kind of life should I lead in this world in view of the world that will never end - eternal life beyond? 

We have to keep both realities in mind;  when Jesus says he has come so that we may have life to the full, he is referring both to life after death  and  life after birth. Being fully human means a tension between our head and our heart.  Which is more important?  What should be the ultimate basis for my decision? - Thought or feelings?  What is more valuable, insight or love?  A full humanity demands both.

Thought and feelings, prayer and action, monastic and domestic, head and heart, this life and the next - all of these are needed, like a complete set of keys for the piano if we hope to play all the various tunes demanded by the circumstances of our lives.  If those tunes are going to sound right we need the whole of our spiritual keyboard.  

Peter Knott SJ