Friday 29 July 2011

Are you a Mary or a Martha?

I'm naturally more of a Mary, but God in his wisdom has given me a more Martha-like role to play. 

I grew up a creature of the intellect and spirit, and managed to reach my late twenties without knowing how to change a baby's nappy, bake a cake, or even keep a houseplant alive. I was good with animals -- always had been -- but not much good at anything else that didn't involve brain-work. I was thoroughly undomesticated.

The first meal I ever made for the man who became my husband was a green pepper sandwich. Yes, you read that right. He was utterly bemused, not sure whether I was absolutely hopeless in the kitchen, or whether thinly sliced green-pepper on granary bread was a sophisticated delicacy that he'd yet to come across. I was 21 and had no idea how to make a sandwich. None. But I had some bread, and a green pepper in my fridge, and a green-pepper sandwich seemed perfectly logical to me at the time. And no, there was no butter on it.

I was the woman who would break out into a sweat if she saw someone approaching her with a baby, lest they try to encourage me to actually hold it. Holding a baby always resulted in the baby screaming and me handing the baby back with a grimace as pronounced as the one on the tiny wailing face in my arms.

I was most comfortable in international academic conferences, in late-night intellectual debates over port in smoky MCRs, in later years in boardrooms, thriving on competing and winning in a male-dominated industry. I'm not sure if I was the nicest person, though, nor whether I was even a little bit happy. 

I said earlier that as a child I'd been a creature of the intellect and of the spirit. This was true until my teens when a lack of spiritual formation lead that aspect of my life to become sidelined by all the things that the world (and my nearest and dearest) told me were important: academic success, a good career, and subliminally the message was that if I was clever and successful then I'd be lovable as well. I was profoundly religious as a young child, particularly in the years after my first communion. I think my family found it a little embarrassing, and hoped I'd get over this stage quickly. I was told that I shouldn't practise saying Mass as I couldn't be a priest, but if I wanted to be religious I could be a nun. When I asked what this entailed, I got a woolly answer ("um, don't know... lots of praying") which didn't appeal to the 9 year old me. I've often wondered if things would have been different if I'd had some spiritual formation at that stage in my life. God only knows.

Oh I rebelled against the high-achieving expectations -- who didn't in their late teens? But the "rebellion" was of the pre-scripted kind. Nihilism, despair, feminism, drugs and rock-and-roll ... a gentle roll down the slope of agnosticism. I wore black, I pierced my nose, I shaved my head, I wore combat boots. Oooh, how very rebellious I was! I read Lautréamont and Jerzy Kosiński and was convinced that mankind was evil and doomed. I thought religion was the opiate of the masses. I thought I was so much cleverer than everyone else. I didn't realise quite what a silly sheep I was.

My conversion came not as a thunderbolt, but as a whisper. A gentle call: persistent, loving. Somehow we began going to Mass, at first occasionally, then more regularly. By the time we were married we were properly back in the fold, but still heading towards the Church's living beating heart, still making up time for all the years we strayed, still learning all the catechisis we missed. 

And now? Well we still have several thousand books in the house, most of which are still in boxes from our last move. My life circles around four lovely little people and my husband through whom I've gained an insight into God's unconditional love; five chickens, three rabbits, two cats, a pair of fancy mice and another pair of fancy rats, and two tanks of tropical fish complete the household. I feed and nurture all of  these creatures; God has given me the job of looking after them. I've actually become a reasonably good cook -- cakes, soups, stews, jam, bread -- I can tackle it, and it will taste good, unlike that green pepper sandwich of twenty years ago. I can more or less keep order in our home, grow a fair bit of our own food, wrangle a sewing machine well enough to whizz up angel costumes when required or, more prosaically, mend clothes. My intellect and education are being put to better use than I ever could have imagined, educating my own children. I've often wondered why in the eyes of the world it would be OK if I had continued teaching undergraduates - other people's children - at university, but it's a "waste of all that education" when I teach my own. Funny that.

One of my uncles was very sporty and a real outdoorsman in his youth. Then in his mid-20s he was struck down with a debilitating disease that put a stop to all of his physical pursuits. A couple of decades later, I was looking through old photos with him. I asked him how he felt about not being able to mountain-climb and cycle and water-ski. He was glad, he said. He felt that his illness and disability had opened doors that he'd previously not known had existed. A world of art and music and culture more than filled the void left by his sporting activities, and he felt certain that had he not been so "unfortunate" he would never have gained the rich life that he lead. 

And so, I'm a reluctant Martha but not so reluctant that I don't rejoice in my apple harvest, dote on my chickens, gain a real creative buzz from cooking and baking, and cherish the time that I spend with my family. I've found a great joy in service - this is something utterly novel to me as it isn't something that I saw modelled as a child. Small tasks, done lovingly, give great satisfaction. In my "Martha" role I've gained more riches than I ever thought would be possible, and God has given me a happiness that I never dared to hope for in my youth. The girl who used to need 9 hours sleep is now the woman who loves it when her toddler sneaks into her bed at 6 in the morning,  giggling to himself as he takes her face in his fat little hands and plants a big wet kiss exclaiming "Mummy I LOVE you!" 

There is a part of me that longs for order and silence and peace on days that are noisy and chaotic. That longs for mental stimulation on days when laundry and nappy changes seem overwhelming. That fantasises about entering an enclosed order and living a cloistered life of prayer and contemplation. But that isn't my life, and, to be honest, I'm not sure that the reality would suit me. I still read copiously when I can, think far too much, and find as much time for personal prayer as I can in a day that rotates around the needs of others. This blog is just one escape valve for my mutterings. My life has taught me to share -- something I managed not to learn as a child -- and to put the needs of others first. Like my uncle who found new life in his changed life, I'm thriving as a Martha; God took me out of my comfort zone and threw a lifetime's worth of challenges at me, and in so doing opened up spiritual, emotional and intellectual dimensions that I'd never imagined existed. Nurturing my own babies has given me a tiny glimmer of insight into God's boundless love for us all, and family life has taken me from a lost soul who felt that she had to achieve worldly glory in order to be lovable to a contented wife and mother who is beginning to understand that her Saviour's love is boundless and unconditional.


  1. Fascinating to read about your journey in the Faith, Annie Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love your blog Annie Elizabeth and find it really inspiring. Love this post too. I am defintely a Mary by inclination but have - by God's grace - been in a Martha role for many years. Unlike you, I am not really a successful Martha, but I am faithful and do it to the best of my ability (which isn't very great). I would still rather read a good book than do anything else in the world!

  3. Beautiful post! Thanks for sharing it!