Martha, Martha, Be Still

By Leonard Freeman

There are two primary, competing understandings of spiritual practice at Sunday worship. One view values change: new things each week to pique our interest, catch our attention, say different things. The other says that rote is precisely the point and practice.

Clergy mostly favor variety, I think. We experience the liturgy differently than everyone else, but do not often realize it. We project our experience onto parishioners’ experience, but the two are different.

We lead the service every time — often twice or more on a Sunday — week in and week out. Many parishioners see themselves as “regular” if they show up once or twice a month. Clergy can grow bored, while parishioners want liturgy to look like what they experienced the last time, so that they feel they belong and are part of things — are regular.

A deacon told me recently about how stifling it felt to look after the details in worship services week after week. He wanted to “break it open.” We had just heard the “Martha, Martha” lesson (Luke 10:38-42) the previous Sunday. I pointed out that clergy are the Marthas while parishioners are the Marys: sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words, while we scurry about doing the dishes.

The first Easter after I retired I sat in church and thought: Wow! This is terrific! I believe all this. I love the music and know the liturgy. I’m not exhausted at having just finished a dozen other services this week, and I’m not worrying about acolytes, who’s doing what, or the people I’ve got to talk to.

I got to be Mary instead of Martha, and it was good.

Which raises the rote question again: the totally, overtly (and, yes, overly) familiar, which is its own point. Eastern and earlier Anglican spiritual practice says yes to words that are so familiar as to become a mantra. We say the phrases, they wash over us, precisely so that we can go to another place — somewhere deeper, meditative, elsewhere.

The words have a rational meaning that enters our consciousness and imprints the subconscious mind. But also they become a gateway into a transcendent, spiritual place.

We forgot that in taking away the “thee/thou” lineage, dating to the 1549 prayer book, we were abandoning a mantra that generations knew and loved, which helped them connect to God.

Also, we were not particularly honest about something else when we debated whether to adopt the 1979 prayer book. A lot of people said that Rite II was really just updating language, but in fact Rite I and Rite II have very different theologies.

We moved from a Rite I transcendent God (altar against the wall, we unworthy sinners at a distance, highly individual and introspective) to Rite II’s immanent God (in the midst of us, altar in the center, redeemed people worthy to stand). We — us, the group — overshadowed individual private moments.

Along the way, not inconsequently, a form of worship faded that probably half the Episcopal churches in America had used three out of four Sundays as their main service: Morning Prayer. It is by definition a more individual prayer-and-listening format that does not require a group, but we had grown accustomed to its cadence and rhythms.

There were good reasons for the shifts, including ecumenical ones. We wanted to recapture the visceral, communal connection of sacrament. And shifting to one lectionary also solved the built-in theological split between Morning Prayer and Holy Communion congregations, God-in-creation versus Jesus-as-sacrifice. No wonder the two seemed like different worlds.

The Book of Common Prayer was a vehicle for “the same,” and I would argue that there is a very important place for the regular, the familiar, Sunday after Sunday. Let’s put away the printing presses and copying machines and save a tree or two.

Use the book.

Give the people sameness, consistency, a mantra.

Go for the rote. Give it a season, and then another season.

Leave it alone.

Stop being Martha.

And let Mary listen, and deepen, and connect with the Spirit.

The Rev. Leonard Freeman retired in 2009 after 40-plus years as a parish priest, including stints as head of communications for Trinity Church Wall Street and Washington National Cathedral. He writes the blog

Martha Martha Be Still

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