“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Lk.10:41-42) The one thing that is most needful in our lives is Jesus Christ. We need Him more than any other thing or person in the universe. When Jesus is at the center of our lives and first among our priorities, then we have everything! This is why Jesus taught that we could gain the whole world—all its riches, pleasures and glory—but forfeit our souls for all eternity. (Mk.8:35-36)
While Jesus was certainly teaching Martha to put Him first, the “one thing needful” may also refer to the fact that we can really only be present at one moment in time. We can only really do one thing at a time well, or participate in one conversation attentively. Our task is to be attentive and present in each moment—focused on the one thing that God has placed in front of us. In this way, with an awareness of Jesus’ presence in our life, each moment has the potential to intersect with eternity. We can literally participate in the Kingdom in a “now, but not yet” manner through our communion with God in the presence of each moment, attentive to the one thing God has placed in front of us. This is vital for our salvation, since the only time and place that we can encounter God is in each moment, and only if we are present in it. This is why the ceaseless remembrance of God and watchfulness are held in such high esteem in the teachings of the holy Fathers of our Church.
I would like to offer five helpful ways to keep Jesus on the throne of our hearts and minds and remember to be present and attentive to each moment and each activity. First, each of us should have a prayer rule. We refer to it as a rule of prayer, because we want it to become a consistent habit in our life; we want it to be foundational. Ideally, this rule of prayer would consist of both morning and evening prayer routines. They don’t need to be long periods of prayer; however, they do need to be consistent. Most Orthodox prayer books contain both morning and evening prayers. Many people choose to do the Small Compline as their evening prayers instead of the more generic evening prayers. An important addition to the prayers in a prayer book is the recitation of the Jesus Prayer with a prayer rope. The exact number or length of time should be worked out with one’s spiritual father. By starting and ending each day with a set routine of prayer, we show God and ourselves that He is first in our life. We receive much grace from this show of love and commitment. This also aids us greatly in our cultivation of the remembrance of God and watchfulness over our thoughts throughout the day.
Secondly, it is imperative to our spiritual health to spend time daily reading the holy Bible. We should read the daily readings that follow the church calendar, and we should be regularly working our way through a book of the Bible. Just listen to the emphatic teaching of St. John Chrysostom regarding reading the Bible, and he lived in the fourth century long before the invention of the printing press:
I do not cease entreating you to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures. Do not let anyone say to me those vain words, worthy of heavy condemnation, ‘I cannot leave the courthouse, I administer the business of the city, I practice a craft, I have a wife, I am raising children, I am in charge of a household, I am a man of the world; reading the Scriptures is not for me, but for those who have been set apart, who have settled on the mountaintops, who keep this way of life continuously.’ What are you saying? That attending the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by a multitude of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them. They do not need the help of the divine Scriptures as much as those do who are involved in many occupations.
The Holy Scriptures are divinely inspired. They are the most authoritative writings we have in our Holy Tradition. We are on the front lines of spiritual warfare, but without the protection of the monastery. We are in the greatest need of the full armor of God and this includes the “sword of truth,” the Bible, and all its aids and remedies. The entirety of the Bible points to Jesus Christ, the “one thing needful.” When we study the Scriptures daily, we cannot help but imprint His presence and the powerful truths contained therein upon our minds and our hearts as we go through our daily lives.
A third aid is to read the Saints of the day. Each day of the year, there is at least one Saint we celebrate. We celebrate their lives by remembering their biographies and applying their virtues, their commitment and their faith to our lives. Just as they imitated Jesus Christ, we too are called to imitate them. The Saints come from every walk of life. They each have their own unique personalities. This is extremely helpful for us when trying to identify with their examples and their situations.
Another way to keep Christ first in our lives is to be readers of good, trustworthy spiritual books. By trustworthy, I am referring to the writings of the holy Fathers, of the Saints and of reputable elders and theologians. We should always have a book of this sort on our nightstand. Each day, we should devote at least a little time to this type of reading. Also important is the practical application of their teaching. We do not simply want to be hearers or readers of the word; we also want to be doers of the word. Orthodox theology and the expression of this theology into everyday action are equally important and necessary. Just as in prayer, it’s not the quantity that ultimately matters, but the quality and consistency that matters most.
Finally, if we want Jesus to remain at the center of our lives, we must keep the Church, His Body, also at the center of our lives. This has always been important, but even more so recently due to the explosion of new demands for our time. Work, the gym, sports, entertainment, travel, hobbies, our households, social media, and many other things are trying to claw their way to the top of our priority list. As our society becomes increasingly secular, its message to us is to compartmentalize God and, therefore, His Church. The Services, fasting, the holy sacraments and fellowship with and service to our brothers and sisters all become optional. The temptation is to no longer see God as our Father and the Church as our mother. We forget that we are ill, and that the Church, as a hospital, is our only hope. Under secularism, we are urged to become so busy that we forget the important for the urgent, resulting in our forgetfulness of Christ as our Head and His Church as a part of our own body, our own flesh and blood. In historically Orthodox Christian villages, there was a reason why the Church was at the center of the village square. The life of the Church was at the center of the life of the village and all its households. For us to keep the Church at the center of our life, we have to fight against the current, go against the flow and be intentional and resolute in this purpose. It cannot be accidental.
The truth is, we have to say no to some pretty great things in order to make room for the Church, but the same can be said regarding our relationship with Jesus Christ. If He is going to remain the “one needful thing” in our lives, we are going to have to say no to the competition if there is going to be enough room in our hearts for the One that most belongs there.