Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
Are you a Martha or a Mary? We tend to see this story as an either/or typology about the active and contemplative life. Jesus’ admonition to Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken from her,” is often seen as an explicit acknowledgement of the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life. Aquinas uses this exact passage in the sed contra on the superiority of the contemplative life (II-II Q.182, art. 1). Quoting Augustine, he writes,
“Not–Thou hast chosen badly but–She has chosen better. Why better? Listen–because it shall not be taken away from her. But the burden of necessity shall at length be taken from thee: whereas the sweetness of truth is eternal.”
He does go on to say that in a restricted sense, the active life is preferable due to the needs of the present life, but Aquinas is clearly speaking within the tradition when he refers to the freedom the contemplative life grants. Being free of worldly concerns, we can dedicate ourselves completely to eternal things that do not perish.
As people who lead a very active life, as all of our blog readers are, how are we to read this story? I don’t think we should read this story with an either/or mentality. It is not about being either Mary or Martha, but about recognizing that we need need our Martha tendencies to be balanced by Mary. Contemporary readers need to be both Martha and Mary.
The activities that fill this earthly life cannot be an excuse for prayer and contemplation. Nor can those living the active life lose sight of their final goal which is union with God. But the active life cannot be dismissed out of hand. In our first reading, we see an almost frenzied series of actions as Abraham and Sarah prepare a meal for their guests. Both are acting very much as Marthas and in doing so, they take an ordinary meal and sanctify it. It becomes an opportunity for God to reveal his plan for them.
Most of us don’t have a problem with activity though. For most of us, we express our faith in God and our love for Him by doing something: marching for justice, teaching, evangelizing, ministering. None of these things are bad. Indeed, they are necessary for building up the body of Christ. But in the midst of our frenzy, in the midst of creating a hospitable world for Christ to reveal himself, we may forget to attend to him, to sit at his feet, and to listen to the ways he reveals himself.
So what exactly is contemplation? One of the best ways of defining contemplation that I have heard is learning to see. It is an activity whereby we let our heart and mind be captivated by beauty and truth. The Catechism defines contemplation as “a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (2175). Rather than doing something for the Lord, we let the Lord do something for us. Contemplation is ultimately eschatological in that it looks forward to what the end of our human life is, that is, the beatific vision whereby we will see God as He is.
The way in which activity and contemplation will be balanced depends on a person’s given vocation, There are, however, certain practices that can help cultivate a contemplative disposition. One such practice is adoration. In Eucharistic adoration, we literally sit at the feet of Jesus as Mary did. We gaze at him. We listen to him. We put aside earthly cares for a little while in order to prepare ourselves for heaven, where, as Augustine says, “the contemplation of God is promised us as being the goal of all our actions and the everlasting perfection of our joys.”
Ultimately, contemplation is about love. I have learned so much about the contemplative dimension of God through being a mother. Although it is important (actually, necessary!) that I do things for my daughter, some of our most intense moments together are not when I am reading to her or feeding her or playing with her, but rather when I am silently watching her, beholding her beauty, marveling at the person she is and the gift she is. The more I have come to value those moments with my daughter, the more I crave such moments with Christ my beloved.
This is why Aquinas says that although contemplation is chiefly an act of the intellect, it has its beginnings in the affection since “it is through charity that one is urged to the contemplation of God.” The more we crave seeing the object of our love, the more we delight in Him the beloved which arouses yet a greater love. And while love demands that we do something for the beloved, sometimes what love demands is not action but being, being in the presence of the one we adore.