Mary, Martha, and cancer

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Cancer can change the way you hear this week's gospel reading about Martha and Mary and debate between action and reflection.

By guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart 

Every time I hear the story about Martha and Mary, I wonder, was Martha too obsessed with cooking and cleaning? Was she jealous of Mary's time with Jesus? Was Mary inconsiderate of Martha? Was Mary just unwilling to leave Jesus' company? Did Luke spin the whole thing just to give us his point of view?

It's such a temptation to simply say we need a balance--Mary's contemplation with Martha's action-and it's always easier said than done. Yes, yes, being too busy and frazzled prevents us from reflecting on the meaning of our lives. And being too lazy and unproductive is irresponsible and selfish. But sometimes we don't have a choice--the circumstances of our lives force us into one extreme or the other.

I often think of a new mother or a single parent with two jobs trying to make ends meet. Do they really need a lecture about "too much Martha, not enough Mary" in their lives?

Before my cancer overtook my life, I was definitely in Martha mode. I easily worked 60-70 hours each week, pioneering a new urban youth leadership ministry called Tomorrow's Present and finding the money to pay for it.

When I wasn't teaching teenagers directly, I was busy crafting grant proposals, writing articles, or doing outside workshops to bring in funds, just so I could continue the teaching of teenagers. Deadlines and bills dictated my priorities. There was good reason to be anxious and worried about many things.

When did I have time to reflect? I slipped in my Mary moments while I was swimming laps or when I was traveling.

Then last summer, a series of surgical procedures punctuated my life with lots of Mary moments. After each operation, I needed to take time to recuperate. That meant sleeping more, resting more, and taking medications that slowed everything down. I was just too tired for any Martha concerns.

I was quickly plunged into Mary land. A dear friend of mine who visited me often, brought me food, and took care of me on and off commented that he was worried about my possible addiction. "To these drugs?" I asked. "No," he replied. "To all that TV!" After a while, I knew what time it was by what TV show was on!

But at some point, I would declare myself recovered, and I would throw myself back into the ministry, because I had fallen so far behind and there was so much to do. I was working on a study guide; I had financial reports to prepare and major events to plan. I was still doing weekly training sessions for a group of teens. If I worked at a frantic Martha pace, I could catch up before the next surgery.

But then after each procedure, I would be knocked back down into Mary time, forced again to sit back, rest, think about my life and my newly discovered disease, and wonder what it meant for me and my family.

Sometimes, the best we can do is to find those opportunities to squeeze Mary time into a Martha lifestyle.

By late August, it was clear that my cancer was terminal. There wasn't much else for medical science to do. My life expectancy was six months, or maybe a year, if one last treatment option in September showed some success. It didn't. And I was thrust into a month of painful recovery time. Lots of physical pain.

For the entire month of October, there was not one Martha moment. All Mary, all the time. My only goal was to get through the day and its pain. I took a lot of meds and a lot of naps.

The full recovery process lasted until the end of the year. By January, I started to feel almost normal again. I was blessed with four terrific months we never thought I would have, and they were four months of the perfect balance of Martha and Mary time! I was thrilled to still be around to take care of the Martha stuff, yet I had enough general fatigue to necessitate lots of Mary breaks as well. It was an enjoyable, productive, and deeply spiritual time for me, my family, and my friends. A real gift.

By mid May, the pain began to increase, and I spent a few frantic Martha weeks of making lists, organizing Tomorrow's Present for our new director, and packing the things I would bring with me to my new home since I could no longer manage to live by myself.

And now, things are so different.

There's something about Mary. I feel like a spectator, simply watching my body respond to this cancer take-over. It's been quite an adjustment. Everything takes longer, but these days, what's the hurry?

I can still indulge in some Martha activity; I'm really lucky that way. Last week, I finished a grant proposal. This week, I am doing the financial report for the fiscal year. I will finish a lesson plan next week.

My goals are very loosey-goosey. I work when I have the energy; there's no stress if I realize I can't accomplish something. I do it because I still can. I do it because I would probably be bored if I didn't. I do it because I still love the ministry of Tomorrow's Present.

I do it because I have always enjoyed the Martha action, as well as the insights of Mary reflection.

I'm not sure how Luke would spin my attempts at the Martha-Mary balance, but perhaps he has always over-simplified things by insisting there is "need of only one thing." Sometimes we do have to make a choice. And sometimes that choice is taken away from us.


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better. Her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.