An archaeologist once hired some tribesmen to lead him to an archaeological site deep in the mountains. After moving for some time, the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled, the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden, the tribe members changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”
I guess today is story time with Fr. John because I have another one for you. This one is true. It is about a sixty-one-year-old farmer who decided to run a marathon. Not a twenty-six-mile marathon. A marathon in 1983 that was from Sydney, Australia, to Melbourne: 544 miles. The field of runners was packed with the young and fit, sporting the latest running shoes and shirts listing all their sponsors. Cliff Young showed up in a pair of overalls, work shirt, and work boots. Everyone thought he was there to watch the race and were shocked when he signed up to run.
Who was this old guy? He’s a nutter. There’s no way he can compete, but when the starting gun fired, Cliff started running—and everyone laughed. All the other runners took off in long strides, but Cliff more or less shuffled along. He had learned this style of running on his family’s 2,000-acre sheep farm, where he herded sheep up and down the hills. He said, “See, I grew up on a farm where we couldn’t afford horses or tractors, and the whole time I was growing up, whenever the storms would roll in, I’d have to go out and round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres. Sometimes I would have to run those sheep for two or three days. It took a long time, but I’d always catch them. I believe I can run this race.”
What happened? On the first day, all the runners, including Cliff, ran all day, and at night all the runners, except Cliff, went to bed for a six-hour sleep. Cliff just kept going without sleep, and sometime during that first night, Cliff passed all the other sleeping runners. They never caught him. Cliff ran 544 miles in five days, fifteen hours, and four minutes without sleeping to complete the race and, in doing so, knocked two days off the previous record.
There was a prize of $10,000, but Cliff hadn’t known about it when he signed up, so he promptly gave $2,000 to each of the next five runners. He said they had worked just as hard as he had.
His running style that everyone laughed at is now known as the Cliff “Young Shuffle,” and no one laughs anymore.
In his book No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote, “We cannot be happy if we expect to live all the time at the highest peak of intensity. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but balance, order, rhythm, and harmony. Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm.” (p.134)
All the other runners in that Australian race ran with great intensity for eighteen hours. They moved at such a pace that they had to stop and rest—they had to stop and allow their souls to catch up. Cliff Young moved much slower but with a certain rhythm. A more balanced pace—and his soul was able to keep pace.
Today our Gospel reading is from Luke. The Lord Jesus is in the house of Mary and Martha. Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teachings, while Martha is running around like a chicken with her head cut off. Martha becomes so frustrated with her sister not helping that she gets a bit testy with Jesus, “Jesus, I’m working my tail off here! Tell my sister to get up and help me.” Jesus responded, “Martha, Martha. You are anxious and troubled about many things. Stop for a while and let your soul catch up with you. Stop for a while and allow me to minister to you.”
Now, if we were to leave Mary and Martha and not come back to them, you might think that Mary was the one who had it all worked out and poor old Martha had much to learn, but later on, in the ministry of Jesus, we reencounter these two at the death of Lazarus, their brother.
When Lazarus becomes ill, both sisters send word for Jesus to come and save him, but when Jesus does come. It is Martha that goes to him. It is Martha who declares her faith in him. And it is she who calls him Lord, but where was Mary? Scripture says that she was “sitting in the house.” It seems that Martha has it all worked out and that Mary likes sitting around the house. So which one, Mary or Martha, chose correctly? From our gospel today, without telling Martha she was wrong, Jesus says that Mary chose the better portion, but in the story of Lazarus, it would appear that Martha chose better. Which one is right? King Solomon gives us a famous answer in the book Ecclesiastes. He writes:
To everything, there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die;
A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, And a time to heal;
A time to break down, And a time to build up;
A time to weep, And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain, And a time to lose;
A time to keep, And a time to throw away;
A time to tear, And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, And a time to speak;
A time to love, And a time to hate;
A time of war, And a time of peace.
God has made everything beautiful in its time. And so there is a time to sit at the feet of Jesus, and there is a time to put those teachings into practice. It comes down to balance.
St. Gregory the Great, in his Pastoral Rule, speaks of those great saints who spend much time in prayer, then go out and proclaim the things they have learned. Gregory wrote of these saints, men in this instance, “Holy men go forth as lightings when they come forth from the retirement of prayer to the public life of employment. They are sent, and they go, when from secrecy of inward meditation they spread forth into the wide space of active life. But after the outward works which they perform they always return to the bosom of prayer, there to revive the flame of their zeal and to glow as it were from the touch of heavenly brightness. For they would freeze too speedily amid their outward works—good though they are—did they not constantly return with anxious earnestness to the fire of prayer.” (Source)
Put another way, even the great saints of God have to stop for a while and allow their souls to catch up. You and I are no different. We must find that balance—it is different for each of us. Some can run for five days straight; others must rest more often—but we must find the balance that allows us to carry on with the mission of Christ’s Church while at the same time allowing us the time and space to receive the grace and renewal which comes from God.
In all the comings and goings of your life, allow yourself the time necessary so that your soul can catch up, and when it does, then set off once more on the journey. As Thomas Merton would encourage us, allow yourself to find the “balance and order and rhythm and harmony.” Allow yourself to enjoy the silence within the music and discover the peace of God.
Let us pray:
God, who is more than we can ever comprehend,
help us to seek you,
and you alone.
Help us to stand before all that we could do
and seek what you would do,
and do that.
Lift from us our need to achieve all that we can be
surrender to what you can be in us.
Give us ways to refrain from the busyness
that will put us on edge and off center,
give us today your peace.