I have spent many years pondering Our Lord’s words to Martha in defense to the Magdalene of
Leave her alone, Mary has chosen the better portion which will not be taken from her.
What is this “better portion?” I recently read more in depth of what became of Martha, Mary and Lazarus after the Resurrection and I was indeed ignorant. However, I think Christ reserved this information for me to be seen during a time in my life where it would serve a powerful purpose. I was always drawn to the Magdalene without really knowing why; perhaps it is the fact that not only was she misunderstood by her own people and the Pharisees but even her own sister- her own flesh and blood. Yet, the One who mattered the most, the One who made her heart and the One who came to her aid and defended her, understood perfectly.
I studied more of the history of these three holy souls from my Catholic Latin Mass Missal and two separate books called A Year With the Saints and Hermitage Within that revealed how Lazarus became a bishop, Martha founded a community of virgins and Mary spent some thirty years, the rest of her life in a cave of total seclusion in Sant Baume of France. How did I not know this? The best part is how my Spiritual Director and prior Carmelite Confessor shared with me how he had the privilege of seeing this cave in person. He explained how there is a beautiful altar now placed inside where many pilgrims can pay homage to Mary and pray.
Of course I did not know of Lazarus becoming a bishop; (although I am not surprised) I was equally surprised about Martha’s endeavor. I’m not sure why I always pictured her as a housewife rather than a celibate, probably because many of my friends who are married say they relate to her in being “troubled and anxious about many things” in regards to cooking and cleaning, but this was certainly a personal epiphany of mine to see her found a community of virgins for Christ! Not that I am trying to come across as lazy – as she essentially accused her sister of being – but I related more to the Magdalene who simply wanted to sit at Our Lord’s feet and listen to His sweet voice and just gaze at Him.
As most of you know, I too entered a community of virgins in 2017- the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph- and something that was constantly read to the novices as written by Our Holy Mother Teresa was that the house of Carmel needs to be a house of Martha and Mary Magdalene. These two beloved women were both found at the foot of the cross and they are indeed both needed in the cloister walls of Our Lady’s house of Carmel. “Choir nuns” were known as the Magdalene’s (the nuns who spent the most time in front of the Blessed Sacrament reciting the eight hours of the Divine Office daily) and the “Lay sisters” were known as the Martha’s who are not bound to reciting the liturgy of the hours, but essentially support the Divine Office by allowing the choir nuns who are bound to remain in the choir.
There is usually only a total of three Lay sisters per foundation and they are in charge of the cooking and taking care of the livestock. These sisters must be strong physically as their vocation entails a lot of labor: milking cows, chopping wood for the monastery furnace and so much more. Lay sisters really are the pillars of the community, if not for the Martha’s, the Mary’s certainly would not be able to remain at the feet of Christ; the Lay sisters make this possible. I made a most eye opening discovery in Carmel: before my departure I had already finished my one year canonical novitiate (spiritual boot-camp really) and was at least four months overdue for my first vows and my heart- without knowing it- seemed to be in constant search of this “better portion”, the life and spirituality of Mary Magdalene.
What I found most peculiar was before my entrance into Carmel, many learned Catholics, Carmelite nuns and priests would tell me the better portion was in fact the cloistered life; apparently the Magdalene is often called “the first Carmelite”. This statement never really made much sense to me before I discovered what she actually did, as Carmel does not usually consist of life without a community, the exact opposite in fact. It’s really Martha and her community of virgins who fit that description much better. Mary is not discalced; her vocation is more ancient in the roots of Carmel. I finally understand that she is indeed the first Carmelite because her life as an anchorite stems forth long before the reform of John and Teresa, it goes all the way back to the prophet Elijah: the first ever Carmelite Father and Founder who also lived in a cave.
I was so impressed by the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph: the strict observance of the rule and the constitutions written by Saint Albert and Teresa, the discipline and mortification practiced by the sisters and the constant (and I mean constant) charity practiced. In fact each nun was always called “your charity”; It really became our identity and it was a most beautiful and ancient custom practiced by Our Holy Mother Teresa and her daughters. As with Our Lord and Our Queen and Mother, we can picture calling Them “Your Majesty”. Being called “your charity” almost makes a Carmelite feel like royalty, like a princess or daughter of a King. But even though I was surrounded by such charity and discipline which often left me utterly edified, I couldn’t find the life of the Magdalene.
To be sure I saw her in the two hours of mental prayer everyday, the Holy Sacrifice of the Latin Mass and during the Divine Office but she often got drowned out in the two hours of daily recreation, the constant skits and plays (this part is not an exaggeration) and speakroom visits with the public that often left me feeling like I was a caged animal in a circus where outsiders acted like cloistered nuns were a group of penguins (Carmelites do look like penguins) that could ride on a unicycle in habits. I mean really, we are nuns, not zoo animals! Almost every speakroom visit consisted of me leaving with a feeling of dread, relief that it was over, even an hour or so following of recovery and thanking Our Lady it was over. Nothing was worse in Carmel than a last minute “being called” to the speakroom for a visit.
I often experienced a growing sense of irritation like we were called to entertain visitors and “put on a show” (literally, often times- as we would bring skits to the speakroom) and overtime I felt that this defeated the purpose of the enclosure. I entered the silence of the cloister to leave the world behind, not to keep conversing with it and others outside of the enclosure walls, regardless of the cloister grill that separated us from the public. It took a long time to decipher why I felt this way, I only understood it after I left Carmel of JMJ to see the obvious reason, but the more I experienced community life the more seclusion I wanted. Of course then, I knew nothing of Mary’s chosen path… or “better portion”?
These occasions felt like turmoil to me, either from a recreation or a speakroom visit or a play…it all seemed to create chaos within and I started pulling away from God out of the annoyance I felt from all these “active” occurrences. I won’t share too many examples, but one very important and meaningful event shed some light on what really appears now to have been the “tip of the iceberg”. Our Mother Prioress’ parents were visiting and very last minute the novices were asked to perform a play we acted out some months before for them in the speakroom. That meant costumes and music; if this were to have happened back in high-school where I performed in drama classes, plays and musicals I would have been “pumped” so to speak, as I was never the shy type (in fact I always talked the most in any public setting). But let me be clear, just because I speak does not mean I like to, I simply do this to bring joy to others even if it means I feel myself “burning out” as my energy begins to decline. I can typically only express my true self … in writing.
I learned a valuable lesson over the years; an introvert has nothing to do with being shy. Being an introvert means one gets their energy from being alone. While people laugh and typically say “oh no, you’re an extrovert”, (which only means you get your energy from being around people) it was actually my turn to laugh, as I would look to God and say “does anybody really know me?” A lot of people “think” they do or “think” they know me better than I know myself. This is where I relate to the Magdalene the most- unknown and misunderstood- even in some cases from friends and family. The truth is, besides Jesus and Mary and only two people I can count, I have not been able to show my true face to anyone.
It’s honestly as though I am constantly being prepared to perform in a skit when I speak to others, it can be extremely exhausting. So, when Mother asked us to perform this play again, such a feeling of resentment broke out inside of me, a kind of rebellion of “enough is enough” and I found myself not understanding why not only did we look like circus animals but I even felt like one. I never realized until then that my life seemed to have become a play, always acting, always pretending and always feeling pressured to put on a show – not just literally with the skits – but in my everyday life as I was a part of a community- pretending to be happy and acting like everything was fine.
Below are photos taken from my past high-school plays and musicals from 2012, you can certainly say they prepared me for the constant Carmelite skits:
Right before my scene came on for Mother’s parents, I found myself sitting in front of a statue of the Woman who was holding my entire prayer life together, Our Lady. I looked at Her and showed only Her my grief, a grief I had been hiding under my phony facade as I faced away from the nuns and sat on a little bench in the cloister outside the speakroom as all the sisters (whom I love) were really in their element and putting on their happy faces, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I have often become accustomed to hiding my pain and putting on a smile but I couldn’t find it in me to do so during that moment; I felt fake and hypocritical. I was growing tired of acting (literally) like I liked all these community events when in fact…I hated them.
I knew hate was a strong word for a religious but I have always been the honest type and I have come to see how important childlike simplicity is to Our Lord and Our Lady; I couldn’t hide how I really felt from Them. I knew this was important to Mother in performing at our best for her parents but I felt numb, I simply didn’t care and I was overcome by a sadness I couldn’t shake. My scene came on which consisted of a solo I needed to sing and I did an absolute horrible job. I have always been an all or nothing type of soul and my heart just wasn’t in it; Mother could definitely tell. I started to resent more than ever that I have the type of personality and temperament that either lightens up a room or darkens it, there is simply never a medium. This has been my greatest blessing, but also my greatest curse and I saw it first hand that night during my performance.
Our Lord often has us experience something for ourselves so we can be sure it’s actually not what we wanted, so we never have any regrets of “what if?” later down the road. Let us think about that for a moment… this is truly a wonderful design of God’s. He gives us what we think we want and when we realize it wasn’t really what we thought it was, we can in turn give it back to God and let Him fill our hands with the greater gift. One of the many differences between us and Our Lord is He likes the process whereas we like the outcome. That is perhaps the most striking statement we can sink our teeth into and meditate on. We humans are typically so impatient and want everything now, Our Lord (who is “capital P” for Patience Itself) works slowly but His great work of restoration in our souls take time. Think of the big Cathedrals, Notre Dame in particular. Such extravagant and exquisite work that paid so much attention to detail did not happen over night, it couldn’t happen over night.
Without a strong base, (probably the most important part of the building, even though we never see it) the brilliant Cathedral would topple in a short time. Our Lord wants the Cathedral of our souls to last a life time and to remain standing even amidst the earthquakes (the temptations). I have been so astounded, so amazed in how Our Lady has laid the groundwork in my own life to lead me to Her Son. I will end with the “process” Our Lord has designed for me that led me to desire a true life of solitude. I once had a conversation with a priest where he said
You know when God closes a door? Then He closes another door, then another door, then a another door…before He opens the right one.
These constant closed doors have been my greatest battles, but I suspect they have all been a part of Divine Providence and to expand my heart to embrace the cross, the life of the Magdalene.
I was accepted into the Franciscans of the Immaculate, a missionary order and right when I was going to enter, this poor community came under attack by the Holy See and was closed down. Door closed. Missionary life opened my heart to the very idea of religious life and ultimately led me to the Poor Clare’s of the Immaculate, a cloistered order in Italy. I was accepted and just as I was set to enter- my Spiritual Director at the time strongly believed it was not God’s will to enter THAT particular cloister, so believing God spoke through him, I obeyed. Door closed. The Poor Clare’s prepared me for the Carmel of Jesus, Mary And Joseph. I received my acceptance into Carmel and I entered; I fell in love with the Carmelite customs, but community life was what truly prepared me for the call I never dreamed possible- at least not in these “modern times”. But then again, I have always been traditional in just about every way possible.
The door closed with community life. These frequent opened and closed doors are a beautiful symbol, because as soon as I departed Carmel, my current Spiritual Director and Carmelite Confessor sent me a Novena to the Sacred Heart. This Novena is specifically made for:
I beg Thee to open every door which will allow me to find the precious pearl of my own calling in life and to embrace it with a generous heart; please steer me away from any path which would lead me away from my true vocation, and if necessary, close those doors before me.
We always hear about that simple and easy to understand concept of Our Lord living outside of time (I am being sarcastic in case you missed that) and all these doors with different religious orders closed before I even began this Novena. I believe firmly that Jesus and Mary began closing these doors because living outside of time, They knew one day I would make this Novena. The part I love the most is how I started this nine day series of prayers not at all knowing what feast day I would finish it on: my all time favorite Carmelite Saint and Father, John of the Cross. He himself drew the famous map that would lead to the very top of the mountain of Carmel. Sometimes God works in very mysterious ways, other times He makes things pretty obvious.
Of course after all these years it only makes sense why Christ and His Mother have taken Their time with me because I never would have believed without all those experiences and unexpected “closed doors” that living like the Magdalene (minus the cave, hopefully a secluded hermitage with indoor plumbing in my case) is still a vocation loved, needed and desired to be had in the very heart of the Catholic Church by Christ Our Lord. It almost seems like a fairy tale, but this process overtime has taught me the most valuable lesson of all: once a soul becomes accustomed to conversing with Jesus and Mary alone, conversing with men pales in comparison. I think in this society of noise we have been the ones to drown out the sweet voice of God (which often comes in a whisper). Our Lord doesn’t shout, He is not going to compete with the chaos of the world to get our attention. It’s not that He doesn’t want to, but Our Lord is a Gentleman; He doesn’t force Himself upon us. Even if not all are called in the literal sense to live like Mary Magdalene, let us all strive to at least live in the spirit of her and seek this “better portion” in the very center of our souls and create a hermitage or cave within for Christ the King and Mary the Queen. Let us learn to love silence, for everything lies in that!