Contemplating Jesus

THE BETTER PART

Posted on by Lucinda M. Vardey

For the most part, that which cannot be taken from us frequently has the lowest place in daily priorities.  Jesus seemed to know this when he visited Martha’s house.  Martha, well meaning and generous, excited to have Jesus under her roof, busied herself with preparing refreshments.  The gospel of Luke (10.38-42) says she was  “distracted” with the tasks required.  Meanwhile Martha’s sister, Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to his every word, was surely shirking her kitchen duty.    What is interesting about the way the story is told is that Martha doesn’t speak directly to Mary, asking for her help, but instead intimates that Jesus might not care that she is left to do it all alone.   Jesus responds in a familiar way, acknowledging that he knows and recognizes Martha’s foibles, that she frets and worries about “so many things, and yet few are needed.”   It must have been hard for Martha to hear that her way of welcoming Jesus – with traditional hospitality – was for him unnecessary.  But Jesus was intimating something else.   He might have been saying that now he was in her house, stay close, listen intently, receive his wisdom and the blessing of his presence. The crux of his message was clearly that busyness in matters of unimportance in the great scheme of things, are worthless, and, in many ways, impede spiritual growth.   The one thing that is needed, in the end, is what Mary had chosen: contemplation, attentiveness and receptivity.

True contemplation is not a distraction, it is, as Thomas Merton wrote in his history of Cistercian monks, “the primary, essential and immediate end to which all our observances are subordinated.   Everything in our life tends to protect us from the turmoil of the world and of our passions, to guarantee us solitude of the spirit, the heart and the will…” * Yet, however vital to monastic life, contemplation and the practice of silence still requires to live side by side with the material.  Someone has to pay the bills, feed the residents and the farm animals, fetch the water, chop the wood and reply to e mails.  

The Martha and Mary story has, though, over time, served as a powerful template for religious imagination. In St. Teresa of Avila’s 16th century treatise, Interior Castle (which she composed as spiritual guidance for her fellow Carmelite nuns) she warned of getting distracted and taking “an un-trodden path” in serving God.  “Martha and Mary must work together when they offer the Lord lodging,” she wrote, “and must have Him ever with them, and they must not entertain Him badly and give Him nothing to eat   And how can Mary give Him anything seated as she is at His feet, unless her sister helps her?” **  St. Teresa’s suggestion, borne from the original story of not just receiving from the Lord and doing nothing else — nor just doing it all and having not a moment for reflection — served as a foundation for the Christian concept of the necessary balance between both  contemplation and action.   But Jesus emphasized that what Mary was doing was “the better part,” and that part could not be taken from her. Martha had, by grumbling, lost her place where it most mattered, in her heart.   It wasn’t so much about what Mary and Martha were actually doing, but how much love they were putting into the doing, as Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was famous for emphasizing.

The 14th century Beguine, Beatrice of Nazareth, likened the mystical state of a loving soul  as both bride (à la Mary) and housewife (à la Martha).   The soul as bride “feels another manner of love, a closer state and a higher knowledge.”  Everything that needs to be done for love for the bride is small and easy.  The housewife carries a “peace and orderliness” to her duties, runs her household wisely and well and keeps everything in order securely and with a measure of foresight.  Both bride and housewife are love itself (à la Jesus)  “Love rules in her, with sovereignty and power, working and resting going about its business, interiorly and exteriorly.”  ***

 *  Merton: Prologue to “Waters of Silo”  p. xxvii
** p. 231 translated by E. Allison Peers.
*** From A Study of Beatrice of Nazareth’s “Of Seven Manners of Holy Loving”  written and translated by Katrien Vander Straeten.

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