The Bethany icon and a lesson in hospitality

Bethany scene
Design by Sr. M. Angelica Ballan, pddm
For today's liturgy, we are presented with the scene of Mary and Mary who welcome the Lord into their house at Bethany. Mary ‘sat and listened’. This was the usual posture of a disciple of any teacher in the ancient world. However the disciples were usually male, so Mary must have been quietly breaking the rule that reserved study for males, not females. Maybe this was also a fact which irked Martha. She was not merely asking for help. She was also demanding that Mary keep to the traditional way of behaving.

For years I used to think that this Gospel was something like the Enneagram or the Myer Briggs personality tests: "Am I ‘a Mary?" or "Am I a ‘Martha?".  Yep, I was convinced, I was a ‘Martha’, running around all the time doing bits and pieces. Making sure everyone has what they need, trying to anticipate what is happening next to make sure everything is ready. Martha was the micro-manager per excellence! However, after a decent number of years in religious life, I have come to understand that, even in a somewhat contemplative order, I have to be both ‘Mary’ and ‘Martha’. The two women had complementary personalities and the Lord does not undermine this fact in the Gospel.  However, it still wasn’t as easy as that. I still had too much Martha and not enough Mary. I was still suffering from ‘Martha syndrome’ instead of asking for a huge infusion of trust and faith in the work of the Lord who was inviting me every day in every situation to learn from Him. This was the ‘better part’ which He was talking about in the Gospel, the ‘better part’ which brings the fullness of life. The ‘Mary Solution’ is simply to sit at the feet of the Master with the heart of a disciple. 

In fact, our Founder, Blessed James Alberione insisted greatly on the Bethany scene as an inspiration for the way of life of the Disciples of the Divine Master. In the introduction to our Rule of Life we read that the family of Bethany presented in the gospel narrative of Luke (10:38-42) and of John (11:1-44; 12:1-3) has always been dear to Fr. Alberione as the icon relevant to our charism, to the point of being inspired to write and present us with the Bethany Prayer (see below).The house of the family of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary, his dear friends, was always open to Jesus Master. They not only relieved every material preoccupation, they also offered him hours of serenity. Jesus dwelt with the family of Bethany not only as a friend to be welcomed, but as the Teacher to be heard, as the better part to be chosen and which shall not be taken away (cf Lk 10:39-42). He is the Lord of the house who reveals himself to his own as the Resurrection and the life (cf Jn 11:25) and who demands of his true disciples unlimited faith, tested hope and boundless charity.

This is re-echoed in article 4 of our Rule which recalls the humble beginnings:“In the emerging Pauline Family, the community of sisters grows in a spirit of adoration and of service. It is characterized by heroic faith, assiduous labour and reciprocal love, lived in joy, silence, and habitual
recollection. This lifestyle has its origins in the Gospel which inspired the Bethany Prayer.

"Come, Jesus Master, deign to accept the hospitality we offer you in our heart.
We want to prepare for you the comfort and the reparation which you found in Bethany, with your two holy disciples, Martha and Mary. In the joy of welcoming you, we pray that you may grant to us in our contemplative life that intimacy which Mary enjoyed, and the acceptance of our active life in the spirit of the faithful and hard-working Martha. Cherish and sanctify our Congregation, as you loved and sanctified the family of Bethany. In the friendly hospitality of that house you spent your last days on earth, preparing for us the gifts of the Eucharist, of the priesthood, of your own life. Jesus Master, Way and Truth, and Life, grant that we may correspond to this great love by sanctifying our apostolates: Eucharistic service, priestly service and liturgical service, for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity. Amen."

Many of our houses around the world which offer hospitality are named ‘Bethany’. But what does it mean to offer hospitality? Again our Rule reminds us: “We offer the treasure of our femininity in response to him who has first loved us, we freely make a public vow of chastity to God by which we embrace celibacy for the Kingdom of God for our entire life. We therefore renounce matrimony and the constitution of our own family in order to serve the Church with an undivided heart and present her sense of hospitality, celebration and adoration.”

Yes, this calls for the stillness of Mary, “we appreciate silence as a precious gift which prepares the way for an authentic relationship with God and among ourselves. In listening we offer hospitality to the Lord and to our neighbour and learn the art of true communication.”(RL 60). This space is a sacred space for the self and I have come to appreciate its great value. Yes, I’m still too much of a Martha, those of you who know me can vouch for that. However I like to think that I walk the way of being somewhat more balanced, to have more Mary within me. Luckily enough, I even have my religious profession name to remind me!