The One Needed Thing

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday, my husband and I were chatting quietly in our living room. The baby was in bed and I was using the time to tidy the living room and get my bags packed for work the next day. My mind was busy checking off boxes on my to-do list— were my workout clothes packed? Did I have a lunch for the next day? Had we remembered to pick up the wiring we needed for our upcoming kitchen renovation? — When my husband asked me what I was giving up for Lent, I quickly rattled off that I would be forgoing Netflix so that I would make better use of my free time.

He looked me right in the eye when he asked softly “Is being more productive really what you need right now?”

I muttered something about how it would give me more time for prayer, but for the rest of the evening, I couldn’t brush the question off.

The next day, I found myself flipping through scripture and landing upon the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. I have always identified with Martha in this story— poor overburdened Martha who “was distracted with all the serving” while her sister Mary lazed about at the Lord’s feet. I imagined Martha preparing food for Jesus and the Twelve, filling their cups, washing their feet, making sure nothing got broken or tipped over. And yet, when she expressed her resentment, Jesus rebuked her saying ‘“you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.’”

In re-reading the scripture, I noticed something I never had before. Martha was distracted. She was worried, She was fretting. And this was not what Jesus wanted of her or wanted for her. In allowing herself to be swallowed by the have-tos and to-dos, Mary was not serving Jesus. Instead, she was serving herself and her own needs, avoiding the one thing He needed of her: her presence.

I flashed-back to that moment with my husband, and I felt his eyes on me. He had been desirous of my attention, of my love, and of real conversation. Rather than being fully present with him, I had instead allowed myself to be occupied by the false virtue of busy-work. I had to admit that my husband saw clearer than I that the thing distancing me from him, from our daughter, and from God, was not the single hour of TV I watch each week, but rather my willingness to emulate Martha and spend my days distracted, fretting, and worrying.

During Lent, it is easy to forget that the the reason behind our sacrifices is to draw us closer to the Lord and His cross. I, for one, have been guilty of serving my own needs under the guise of serving Jesus, such as the many years when I have given up sugar for Lent in an attempt to lose weight. Rather than pulling my focus outwards towards God, this “sacrifice” turned my focus further in on myself.

And so this Lent, I am shifting my focus. Rather than choosing something to give up in a traditional sense, I am instead choosing to take on presence: I have been running and walking without headphones, taking the opportunity to observe the beauty of God’s world while also fully inhabiting the discomfort that comes with strenuous activity. I am setting my phone aside while nursing my daughter, and trying to be fully engaged when conversing with my husband.

I have grown so used to distracting myself with chores, podcasts, and work emails, that it has been challenging to cultivate presence. I have frequently failed this Lent, fretting and worrying away my time, going through to-do lists in the back of my mind while saying my daily rosary. But I can hear Jesus calling me back to the one thing that He needs: me, sitting at His feet, listening to and loving Him.

Elissa is wife, mother, and distance runner. A Vermont native, she grew up exploring the dirt roads and trails of her hometown. Friends joke that this small town, which hosts the yearly Vermont 100 and Vermont 50 ultra races, breeds a particular kind of crazy: socializing frequently takes the form of a 10-20 mile group run. Elissa has completed three 50Ks and is enjoying her return to running after the birth of her daughter last spring. Balancing parenting, a full-time career that takes her outside the home, and postpartum fitness is an ongoing adventure. When not working or running, Elissa can be found curled up with tea and a good book in front of the wood stove. She is passionate about NFP, Theology of the Body, and regularly evangelizes on the benefits of eating whole foods while training and racing. You can connect with her on Instagram @elissa_kellner