These bright warm sultry days of summer are perfect for grilling dinner on the backyard deck, and hanging out around the pool, and slowly sipping ice-cold beverages in the shade. You won’t get much done that would by any stretch of the imagination be considered productive, unless extreme inactivity is a marketable skill. These are the dog days of summer, which I recently discovered, are so named after the dog star Sirius, which rises and sets with the sun between 3 July and 11 August as seen from countries bordering the Mediterranean. Some might think we came up with the idea ourselves, observing that dogs will refuse to do much in this soul-sapping weather but lie in the shade, dreaming of ice-cold beverages, and wishing they had opposable thumbs. So these days you either get invited by friends to their backyard barbecues and pool parties, or you invite them to yours. Either way, the main objective is to beat the heat … to beat the heat, and relax. The two main objectives are to beat the heat, and relax … and enjoy the company of friends. I’m sure few people would need to explain their objectives. Just tell them the dog days are here. And if they ask, tell them to google it.
Hospitality is learned behavior which covers a broad range of courtesies that hosts extend to their guests, either as etiquette or entertainment. We learn primarily from watching others how to welcome guests and make them feel at home. I remember as a teenager arguing with myself about the uselessness of social interaction. I have since outgrown that phase. But part of me argued, and quite convincingly too, that I should be willing to pay to get whatever I needed done if I needed it badly enough. That was before I had to get a job. And in my teenage mind, insincere pleasantries and idle chit-chat and fake invitations to return any favors made no sense at all. Eventually I learned the importance of making friends, and playing nice, and treating others with kindness and respect if I wanted them to like me. And after years of learning from experts, it comes a little easier. I still on occasion argue with myself, but it’s manageable.
Lately, I’ve noticed how some hosts will invite friends over to beat the heat, and relax, and enjoy their company, but unfortunately will spend more time somewhere else than with their guests. I don’t know where else they had to go, and what else they had to do. I just know they are nowhere to be found. The guests end up enjoying food and drink, and visiting with each other. But it feels awkward when the host is missing in action. They might have been worried with the details of hospitality, but they failed to actually be present to their guests. A good host is able to do both well—be attentive to the details, and be present to their guests. Jesus told Martha in today’s gospel that she was anxious and worried about many things. Attending to the details of hospitality is important of course, especially in a culture that valued kindness to weary travelers and pilgrims. But Jesus expected something else from his hosts. That “better part” Mary had chosen was that she was present to her guest. And Jesus wasn’t subtle about it at all. A free meal just isn’t as enjoyable when your host isn’t around to enjoy it with you.
When we set time aside to spend with the Lord, whether here in church at mass, or at home when we pull back from the busyness of life for some quiet personal prayer and reflection, it is never easy to clear our minds and hearts, and focus. It is a challenge for me sometimes, despite that I’m up here and should be deep in prayer all the while. Yes, our minds will wander. It happens. But there’s a big difference between our minds wandering involuntarily and when we actually put some effort into getting distracted, when we put effort into being virtually someplace else other than here. When we’re more focused on what we’re going to do when we get out of mass, our experience of prayer is a chore. And at mass for instance, we need volunteers to attend to many details of the liturgy—like how much bread and wine to set out for communion, how to pronounce obscure Aramaic and Hebrew names in the readings, what to do if someone passes out in the assembly, what the next song will be so we ease right into it, when to get up and prepare the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when to walk to the front to collect the offerings … so many details. That’s one reason why we need so many volunteers. Mass is something we all do, not just the priest. And to all who are willing to lend a hand, I am most grateful. Plus, it’s not so easy for them either. Some will tell me they occasionally come to another mass when they’re not serving in any capacity, so they can actually pray. So when it is someone else’s job to worry about the pesky details of mass, the rest of us should be able to focus on what’s going on, and maybe actually get something out of it to help with living our Christian lives outside this building.
And another thing about distractions. I often remind our liturgical ministers that everyone at mass—from the priest to the altar server, from the ushers to the ministers of Holy Communion, from the musicians to the readers to everyone in the assembly—we all have one role and responsibility, to help the church to pray well. So if anything we do prevents the church from praying well, we neglect our role, and instead become an obstacle to the church at prayer! If the reader is distracted and stumbles on every fifth or sixth word, no one will be paying attention to the reading. If our musicians and choir consistently hit the wrong note or lose their place in the song, church music becomes a painful experience. If the ushers are constantly shuffling in back, or walking up and down the aisles to seat people during the readings or the homily, if people keep going to the bathroom during times of quiet prayer (outside of emergencies of course), it becomes difficult to focus on spending time with God in prayer. And Jesus would be telling us just what he told Martha, “You are anxious and worried about many things.” Now is not the time to be anxious and worried about many things. Instead, do as Mary did. Sit at the Master’s feet and visit awhile, willingly, attentively. Everything else can wait. And when people consistently leave before mass ends, it proves that our hearts were somewhere else all along.
So when I take the time at home for personal reflection and prayer, it is best to dedicate a specific room, a specific chair in that room, a specific time of day when I am able to focus, when I will not be daydreaming of something to eat, when I will not be drifting off to sleep. So when I invite the Lord into my heart as my guest, I might actually mean it. That means I’m not also checking Facebook, or expecting a phone call, or watching TV. If I was visiting with a friend who was doing just that, I would walk away. We know it’s just not right. So how can we justify doing the same exact thing to God? “There is need of only one thing.” The many other little things can wait. Try it at home this week. Try it at this mass. You might figure out what Jesus was talking about.
Rolo B. Castillo © 2013