“The One Thing Needful”

Ben Quash
Peterhouse, University of Cambridge

Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
For your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely.
(Song 2:14)

We fail all the time to give due recognition to others — to allow them to be really present to us as themselves. But we also fail to make ourselves recognisable to them; to show the truth of ourselves in a way that makes us really knowable and genuinely present to them. I think of this latter withholding — the withholding of ourselves, the refusal to give others any opportunity to recognise or acknowledge us — as a form of “one-way looking.” “One-way” looking is the attempt to avoid reciprocity: to look without being looked at; to have knowledge, and even intimacy, without presence or self-offering. It is, in that sense, a form of spying.

But our calling as human creatures is not to withhold our presence from those around us. Our calling is to bestow ourselves; to seek ever-new ways of being more fully present to our brothers and sisters, and the people God gives us to share our lives with.

There is something bold to be said in all this about a theological anthropology. A scriptural view of the human being — of what the human being is for , and of what his or her vocation is — is partly that he or she is made to be a recogniser . The vocation of the human being is, amongst other things, to recognise . This seems, for example, to be a fundamental insight of Karl Rahner’s theology. All creation is oriented towards a fulfilment in God — through all levels and stages of being, from the primeval slime onwards — but it is uniquely the human being who is bestowed with the gift of consciousness, of knowledge of self. In the human being, the created order can think at last; it can think about itself. It can be present to itself, in a distinctive and higher way than through the fact that its parts are just materially lumped together. It can be present to itself in the medium of consciousness. It can also think beyond itself, towards God — and so God too becomes present to the created order in a new and higher way, through the medium of the human being. (This is almost a priestly vocation – mediating God to the world and representing the world to God in the medium of consciousness.) God through the human being, who is the priest of creation, becomes present in knowledge as well as (implicitly) in the stuff of being. We get a vivid representation of this high vocation of the human being — the vocation to be a recogniser — in the Genesis account of the naming of the animals. This naming is the human being’s role in the context of the whole creation — no other part of creation can do this. In Adam’s work of naming, we have an image of the created order recognising itself, acknowledging itself, in recognition of God and in cooperation with God.

The vocation of being acknowledgers or recognisers, therefore, draws us into close cooperation with the will of God — when we perform the role properly. When we cooperate with the will of God, we discover the work of acknowledgement (or recognition, or naming) to be a ministry of truth and love. True naming, true recognition, can only happen when we acknowledge the fullness of God’s presence in others (other beings, other people). That is another way of saying that it can only happen when we approach the other in love. Any name we give and any recognition we bestow without love will be a false or misleading name, and a misrecognition. When we do acknowledge and recognise one another in love, meanwhile, we are actually sharing in the divine life — we are more adequately reflecting the image of God, for God is himself a recogniser.

(In the Christian tradition this is shown by those passages in John’s Gospel which, more than any others in the Bible, show the trinitarian life to us. And the movement that we see is described as being like a movement of recognition, acknowledgement, love, presence. The trinitarian life is one of total mutual recognition and recognisability, total mutual acknowledgement and openness to being acknowledged; or, to put it another way, total presence. The Son truly sees the Father, and the Father truly sees the Son. Not partially, not with certain obstructions in the way, but completely. The Spirit looks into the heart of both, and knows and has access to all the riches of love and truth which are there. The Son does what he sees the Father doing; the Father receives from and is glorified by the Son. The Spirit abides in and with both, as they abide in each other. The Father is in the Son, as the Son is in the Father. The Spirit can make them known in their fullness because he lives in them and out the heart of them. Perfect presence.)

The human vocation, in the image of God, is to know even as we are known; to be utterly transparent to God; to hold back nothing from his recognition; to hide from God no longer, but to be totally present to him. This is achieved when we are conformed to the total presence of God to himself. Maybe this is concordant with what Safi articulates in his paper:

The very purpose of creation, these Sufis remind us, is for the Divine to manifest Himself in utter fullness, and for the creation to come into that intimate relationship of knowledge and adoration with the Divine.

These reflections are activated in part by a reflection on where the intense intimacy of the Song of Songs can be ‘heard’ in Christian tradition — and more particularly in the texts of the New Testament. The farewell discourses of Christ in John’s Gospel are perhaps one of those places. There is also an unusual little scene that appears only in Luke’s Gospel in which Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha, sits at the feet of Jesus listening to him, whilst her sister busies about the house:

38: Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.
39: And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.
40: But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”
41: But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things;
42: one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Maybe this Mary is the same woman who at another time anoints Jesus’s feet (or head – Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9) with incredibly costly ointment, so that the fragrance fills the whole house, and who provokes Jesus’s comment that only a certain quality of presence could evoke this extravagance — there is no other justification for it. Certainly not a utilitarian break-down of this lavish act into a calculus of ‘good works’, which could in some way (it is supposed) have substituted for it:

2: There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Laz’arus was one of those at table with him.
3: Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.
4: But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said,
5: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”
6: This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.
7: Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial.
8: The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:2-8)

What is this ‘one thing needful’? This is the question entertained, perhaps, by the Song. It presents an extraordinary intensity of relation, and (by its inclusion in the canon) it presents it as somehow a ‘lesson to be learned’. This is also true of the incident between Mary, Jesus and Martha in Luke’s Gospel, which resonates for Christians with some of the qualities of the Song. Here too is an extraordinary intensity of focus, and here too it is presented (at least to Martha, in whose place the Christian reader may well stand) as a ‘lesson to be learned’.

Some of the wonderful essays on the Song offered to the Society emphasise the difficulty and disorientation it provokes. Where are we to stand? Maybe we are not to stand anywhere at all, if to stand is to have a place of leverage on the content of the Song — to feel capable of applying it ( instrumentally ) to problems. Maybe it wants us not so much to find a place to stand as to leave us lying down, surrounded by lilies, or dreaming on our beds. Or sitting at the feet of the Lord. Where do we stand in relation to the Song? We don’t. We are disarmed, and invited to succumb — we, who are ‘anxious and troubled about many things’.

Without this intensity at the heart of our involvement with God, nothing else is worth it. Without Mary’s consuming offering of her attention, her presence, to the one who offers love and truth to her , all the worthy labour and hospitality of a Martha is a distraction. Without the Song in the canon, the one thing needful is missing.

Finding ourselves in this place, we do not (as Davis puts it) ‘have to know just what to say’. Martha may find this attitude ‘peculiar and only minimally intelligible’ — frankly impractical and useless in its failure to be goal-oriented — but it is an attitude appropriate to the kind of offering made in the Holy of Holies. ‘Seeking God for his own sake’, as Safi reminds us.

While the king was on his couch,
My nard gave forth its fragrance . . .
Ah, you are beautiful, my love;
Ah, you are beautiful;
Your eyes are doves.
Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
truly lovely.
(1:12, 15-16)


© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning