Thoroughly Alive

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Martha: The Faulty Idealist

I suspect that Martha was an idealist. Yes, that Martha, the busy one. (Doesn't that painting of her above look like a disgruntled idealist?) We all know that Mary was, resting so quietly there at the feet of her one, great Love. But Martha, I think, was too. She began in love. She was an idealist so absorbed in her own dazzling schemes for how to prove her love to God, that she forgot to actually love Him. I feel for Martha. Mostly, because I have become her of late.

I had a bit of a meltdown the other day. Many people have called me calm, and I suppose I generally am, but oh, the deeps roil beneath. And when the storm within me has grown great, my calm becomes a brooding, a silent, pervasive unhappiness that touches every surface of my life. I don’t mean to be moody. Truly. But oh, I am. And after days of enduring my furrowed brows, someone close to me recently challenged my sadness.

I rather exploded. How can I be happy, I demanded, when my life and my own self are so different than what I desire? How can I smile and and take life easy when I bear ceaseless guilt over the ideals I fail at every day? The quiet I cannot keep, the beauty I fall just short of creating, the love I yearn for, the peace I cannot seem to grasp? I’m an idealist, I huffed. I have to reach toward perfection.

Yours or God’s?

That question halted me. Slammed me to a stop, like a fast train breaking from high speed, sparks leaping, wheels nearly hurtling off the tracks. That question dissolved my defenses, my anger. I saw in an instant that God had never demanded of me what I was demanding of myself. That I was living literally as an ingrate, one incapable of gratitude because my eyes were fixed on my own idea of perfection. I could not see God’s goodness because my eyes were fixed on my own, and all the world’s badness. I sat down, the fury gone, grief coming like a hard rain in its place. When the storm had finished, I felt clean.

But also confused. What then, did it mean to be an idealist? For two days I mulled this.

Last night, I took a long, solitary walk up the old dirt paths of Mt. Herman. He’s a rugged old mountain, slopes scarred by long-forgotten fires, crags set amidst the eager, bushy little oaks that took the place of the fallen pines. The sky breathed hard with wind and winter, a shifting flood of blues as I scuffed down the path breathing hard myself. To walk was to pray, each step a pounding back toward God.

My mind was free as it hadn’t been for weeks. I was conscious, not of the peace I lacked, but of the stillness present in every atom of the earth around me. I saw, not the inside of my hot, scheming mind, but the curve of the mountain and the shivered beauty of the naked trees and the gold-bladed grass beneath them. I lifted my eyes not in frustration at my lack but to watch where the falling sun had caught a whirl of mist and spun it into gold. The lace of it threaded the darkness, spun and danced against the purple of the storm. Eyes fixed upon that gold, I finally understood.

There is only one ideal worth holding. To love God, to be loved by him is the single work to which I am called.

I became Martha because I built an idol. I formed an image of an ideal self living an ideal life and I set it up in the center of my heart. Before I knew what I had done, my eyes were fixed upon it instead of God. Love of God began it; I hungered to become like Him. But I forgot my frailty. Forgot my fallenness. I thought that my own perfection would sate my hunger to know and touch and be the Beauty my heart desired. But I am an impossible goddess to please. My imperfect efforts could not satisfy my imperfect heart. Only a God could do that. With Martha, faulty idealist that she was, I became busy, worried, and yes, angry about so many things that I forgot Love and then thought Love had forgotten me.

But ah, with that gold in my eyes my heart lifted itself to my lover God, and the wind helped it fly as I promised to be Mary once again.

Harder, faster, I walked up the mountain, eyes fixed upon the storm and spun gold. I fixed the eyes of my heart on God, I reached for his beauty instead of reaching to prove my own. Finally, I looked to him instead of myself. I turned all faculties of mind and soul to the sight and memory of him. I forgot my own failing as his beauty came into view. I turned from the hopeless waste of my desert heart to see his city, golden on the horizon. I set my journey for it. I saw a figure, a gentle figure waiting just ahead to walk the long way with me.

And I remembered. It was love of God's beauty that first made me yearn to live beauty myself. The  splendor of God's earth sparked my hunger for a spirit able to see. The love of God's  voice at play, at sweet, echoing play within me began my need for silence. Every ideal I've ever held began with God. You, lover Lord, really are the first and the last. The one who inspires and the one who fulfills. You are the end of all desires as well as their birth. You are the silence and you are the song that fills it. You are the great Ideal, now with us forever.

I reached the zenith of the hill and sat in the dry grass as the gold began to fade. The earth settled into silence around me. Cold soaked my skin and brightened my eyes. I was finally, utterly still. And I was Martha no more.

Sarah Clarkson6 Comments