When I tell people that I wrote a book about introverts and church life, their mental Bibles often flip open to Mary and Martha. Martha is the quintessential extrovert, scurrying about to keep all the plates spinning, her attention darting from one task to another. Mary is the archetypal introvert, sitting quietly and lost in thoughtfulness, unaware of the urgent duties of the moment. But while it is tempting to read the story as a biblical forerunner to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I think the scene poses a different issue: What is the nature of true hospitality?

Conversations about hospitality often turn around a person’s eagerness to invite others into their home and their skill in serving food and drink. If that is the proper definition, then Martha is close — but her hospitality is mismanaged. Perhaps a Martha Stewart party book would advise her to prepare food in advance so she wouldn’t be so stressed when Jesus arrives. But we must take our definition of hospitality deeper. We have all been in settings in which delightful aromas wafted yet the air somehow smelled of unwelcome. Comfortable chairs, massive amounts of food, and overflowing glasses are not necessarily synonymous with hospitality.

Martha is “distracted by many things,” observes Jesus, and my guess is that Martha has made a common mistake: she has focused on the trappings of hospitality but has missed its heart. Carving a turkey is not as valuable as carving out real space for others, to help them feel at home with us and not just give them a chair at our dinner table. “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus says, and I think the better part is him.

True hospitality is about receiving people. Martha has focused on filling Jesus’ cup, but Mary seeks to have her cup filled by him. More specifically, what Mary chooses to do, as Luke tells us, is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he says. Here is a picture of true hospitality: a host listening to her guest. Mary’s interests are beautifully simple; she focuses her attention on Jesus, directing her energies toward him and opening up space to receive him. Hospitality that does not include listening is not true hospitality.

Martha Minds

Mary’s example of hospitality resonates with those of us on the introverted side of the spectrum. For many of us, the more “traditional” definition of hospitality is unappealing, because our homes are our sanctuaries. Our overstimulating world divides us from ourselves, and we feel like we leave pieces wherever we go. Thus we flee to our homes, our safe-harbors where we can be remade. Inviting someone into that space sometimes feels impossible — a task that would force us into scurrying around like Martha, rather than sitting quietly to receive as Mary. Admittedly, we can be territorial about our physical spaces, but despite unfriendly appearances we do so not to reject others but to re-emerge filled with energy to offer to our work and relationships.

As we shift our understanding of hospitality from the more obvious, exterior actions like welcoming someone into our home to something that encompasses the broader and, perhaps, more biblical practices represented by Mary’s rapt attention at the feet of Jesus, something freeing happens. Because focused, open listening is a form of hospitality that introverts can get behind. Generally, we process silently, chewing on information in the privacy of our minds. We may prefer to perch on the fringes than to sit in the center. Listening is our default. Listening, we introverts think, is something that I can do. Even as I say that, however, I wonder whether listening, for prideful human beings (introverted or extroverted), is ever truly natural. I wonder if we excel in the outward trappings of listening while missing the heart of it.

In addition to writing and spiritual direction, I work as a hospice chaplain. Entering a stranger’s home is an anxious experience, but most of my visits present no surprises. The most disturbing occasions have come when I enter the home of a compulsive hoarder. On the outside the house looks ordinary, even beautiful, but the inside is teeming with decade-old piles of papers, boxes, clothes, old exercise equipment, kitschy collections, and what can only be described as junk. The person answering the door cracks it open a few inches, because he literally can’t open it any farther.  I follow him through the channels that cut through the hallway, careful to put one foot directly in front of the other, weaving my way on a perilous journey to the patient’s room. When it’s bad enough, we have to declare a fire hazard and remove the patient from their home.

Over the years, as a pastor, chaplain, and spiritual director, I have built an impressive listening façade, yet I have a suspicion that my inner life is cluttered and crowded, with little space to truly host others. You would never know it by appearances. I have a shiny listening welcome mat.  I can follow all the rules for active listening: the eye contact, the responsive sounds, the paraphrasing, the occasional empathic interjections. But my mind can be so far off. I so easily hoard the contents of my inner world. I so easily become Martha, washing and stacking my serving dishes in neat rows while Jesus is in the other room, waiting for me to welcome him into my interior space.  

True hospitality begins on the inside, which is exactly where we introverts confront how we, too, “are distracted by many things.” Our distractions are not so easily seen on our quiet exteriors, yet we may be more preoccupied than Martha. Admittedly, our internal worlds give birth to some of our greatest gifts, like insight, creativity, and spiritual depth. Neurological studies have demonstrated that the brains of introverts have more blood flow and more natural activities than extroverted brains, and thus we need less outward stimulation. We have busy brains, or as my pastor friend says, “It’s never quiet in my head!” While our extroverted friends have consistently been pigeonholed as Martha-types, we quieter introverts may truly be the ones with "Martha minds."

Despite the great (and often underappreciated) gifts that introversion brings, our inner worlds can bend in on themselves and close us to others. You would never be able to tell from my quiet countenance that I have a loud, constant cacophony of voices in my head. I have even named the personalities who talk in there. There is the Professor, who shares whimsical insights; the Preacher, who waxes eloquent; the Comedian, who makes witty rejoinders; the Parent, who scolds me more than I would like; and the Boxer, who wants to fight all of them. Henri Nouwen was on track when he said that our inner lives are like banana trees filled with monkeys jumping and down.

My inner conversation is a compelling and terrifying thing. It’s a world I relish, yet it can become so loud as to drown out the voices of the people and the needs right in front of me. For we introverts then, and probably a fair number of extroverts, truly welcoming people will involve clearing space in our heads so that there is room for others. We need to learn how to turn down the internal volume and discern which voices needed to be silenced. In doing so, our gifts for hospitality (holy listening) will begin to prevail over our perceived weaknesses (our need for privacy). Then we will be on our way to offering the same sort of sanctuary to others that our homes provide for us.

Adam S. McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2009). He is a Presbyterian pastor, spiritual director, and hospice chaplain. He is writing a second book for IVP called The Listening Life. He lives in Claremont, California.

Publication date: June 5, 2012