When my prayer life comes to a standstill and dryness overcomes my soul, I turn to an old prayerbook I brought to Canada over 20 years ago. The book is old and small, leather-bound with yellowed, thin pages, some of them falling out, others already missing and several sticking together so much that I have to separate them with pincers.
Between its pages survived several small holy pictures - mementos of First Communions and first Masses long past. If I open it in the middle and hold it upside down, grains of ashes saved over many Ash Wednesdays fall out quietly on my desk - just a sprinkle, but enough to bring back the memory of the solemn reminder that I too will become ash.
The prayerbook belonged to my mother and, before her, to my grandmother. The page with the date of its printing is missing, so I cannot know if it had also been used by my great-grandmother, about whose piety and devotion I have heard so much.
Its history reflected ours. I know that it was saved from the ruined great-grandma's family house, located on the line of fire coming from the trenches of the First World War armies.
I heard stories of days spent in the cellar of the collapsed house, the noise of missiles above, leftover carrots eaten day in and day out, and countless rosaries and litanies to Our Lady repeated over and over. No one died.
Then it was included in the belongings of my family as they were deported from their house by German soldiers during the Second World War. Considering that the deportation took place at 5 a.m. and they were given 15 minutes to pack, how important this little black book must have been to whoever grabbed it from the bed stand.
'Mary has chosen the better part.'
This prayer book is, however, not only a sacred memento of my Polish family's faith and history. It is not just a reminder of my own personal obligation and pledge to the Holy Catholic Church. It is one of the best composed prayerbooks I know, with everything I need for days of joy, days of sorrow, for gratitude and contrition, and also for the days of spiritual gloom or dryness.
Above all, it has a simple catechism with basic prayers, commandments, including those of the Church, lists of virtues and grave sins, and, at the end, a list of "merciful deeds towards the body and soul." To this latter category, I turn when neither heart nor mind moves me towards God. It becomes my prayer.
In our secularized world, we often forget that "accepting a traveller under one's roof" is a merciful deed, an obligation for a Catholic, along with burying the dead, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and praying for those dead and alive.
We also forget that there are many shades and hues to what we do. A cup of coffee handed (with a warm smile and genuine consideration) to someone in distress may, in God's eyes, have much greater value than an expensive dinner, if it is offered to impress or for gain.
Giving a favourite, nice piece of clothing is not the same as getting rid of old, shapeless stuff we had bought by accident and would never wear ourselves.
We can see that God's special blessing follows the fulfillment of merciful deeds. In some cases, this blessing is tangible, even miraculous: Abraham, who shows perfect hospitality to the three men who come to his tent is rewarded with the impossible - his aged wife, Sarah, becomes a mother.
Martha and Mary offered their house to a persecuted Jesus and it became the only friendly place for him. The consequence? Their brother, Lazarus, is resurrected.
The contrite prostitute, who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and poured on his head the most expensive oil available, was given the most incredible gift of all: forgiveness of her many sins and recovery of human dignity.
As always, God ask us to keep a balance in our lives. There is time for "doing" and time for contemplation of God, time for serving and time for listening to God in silence.
It is easy to be drawn into charitable activity to the point when it becomes the sense and centre of life, with God and even the human object of this activity pushed aside, or even removed from it. There is also a hidden danger of pride in charitable workaholism which may creep in, like a worm, into a healthy-looking apple.
It seems that these were the dangers of which Jesus is warning Martha, the perfect hostess, always busy and demanding "the best" for her guest, Martha, who was blaming her sister Mary, who simply sat and listened to Jesus.
"Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."