Mary and Martha Together

This little story of Mary and Martha where Martha does all the work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus has been interpreted as referring to the relationship between action and contemplation since the early church. In his book Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought Giles Constable has a long essay on the interpretations from Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late second century through the late Middle Ages. In the Gospel story, there is sone hint of sibling rivalry, especially on Martha’s part. According to Constable’s essay, this rivalry continues through many of the countless interpreters of the story with some arguing that Mary has chosen the “best part” and that the contemplative life is superior while others champion Martha because of her fruitful charitable work.

By and large, though, a preponderance of thinkers over these centuries argue for a complementarity between the two sisters and the ways of life they are said to represent. Sometimes it is a complementarity between different lifestyles, but more usually it is a complementarity within each person. That is, each person should have elements of both Mary and Martha. This embrace of both sisters is called “the mixed life.” It is worth noting that our patron St. Gregory the Great is among the many who affirmed the mixed life, even though he had a personal yearning for the contemplative way.

There is an amusing story from the Desert Monastics that illustrates the need for both sisters. A pilgrim came to a monastery to visit. The monks asked him if he could help with their chores, but the pilgrim said that he had chosen the “better part” of Mary and did not work. Hours passed while this pilgrim spent time in reading and contemplation and finally he became hungry. He asked the monks when dinner was going to be served and was told that the monks had eaten some time ago. The pilgrim asked why he was not invited to eat with them and was told that he didn’t need earthly food because he had chosen the “better part.” I think this pilgrim learned his lesson.

This way of framing the issue of an active way and a contemplative way seems to owe more to the Greek tradition than it does to the Jewish tradition out of which the Gospels emerge. Origen and Clement certainly draw on Greek thought in this matter. However, Jesus was a person who had done many thought-provoking things and said many things that were even more thought-provoking and mysterious. Might a sensitive woman like Mary have felt moved to sit and just listen to Jesus and ponder what he says? This is precisely what Mary, the Mother of Jesus, did when confronted with the mysteries surrounding her son’s birth. (Lk. 2: 19) And then Jesus himself, faced with the mystery of his own unique calling, spent many times alone in prolonged prayer, sitting at the feet of his heavenly Abba so to speak. Jesus and his mother would have seen such prayerful pondering modeled many times in the Psalms, such as: “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory because your love is better than life,” and “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help.” (Ps. 63: 2–3, 6–7)

Often in his epistles, St. Paul demonstrated the fruits of pondering the mystery of the Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascus. In Colossians, for example, he says: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Col. 1: 15–16) It wasn’t a matter of logic but one of intuitive contemplation that led Paul to realize that the One who called him out of his persecutory mania was not only the forgiving victim on the Cross but also the One who participated in creating the world, something only God can do. But there is more. Paul’s prayerful pondering brought him to this even deeper insight: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1: 19–20) Paul’s contemplative insight deepened his sense that Jesus was so filled with God as to be God and, more important by far, this God was devoted to a costly reconciliation where he absorbed the rage on the part of Paul as well as that of the rest of us.

Jesus clearly led a mixed life of action and contemplation, and it is noteworthy that his mother, Mary, was held up as a model of the mixed life by many medieval writers, since Mary not only pondered the mystery of her son’s birth but had to take care of him day after day. Paul himself is clearly yet another model of the mixed life. Although we tend to consider St. Gregory’s to be a contemplative monastery, there is much work we all need to do to minister to each other and our numerous guests. With that said, Mary of Bethany had been pretty well knocked off the map since the later Middle Ages until a number of people in recent decades began to realize that their activism needed to be tempered by sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is true enough that we should respond to Jesus by doing as the Good Samaritan did, but we also need to respond to Jesus by taking time to open our hearts in silence to Him as did Mary of Bethany.

In the Arms of Mary, in the Arms of Christ

madonnaThe image of Mary holding her Child is arguably the defining image of the Christmas season. Its tenderness is comforting in a world where violence against the most vulnerable dominates the news. Vulnerability, such as that of a newborn baby tends to arouse either a gentle wish to nurture and protect, or it sets off an urge to take advantage of weakness in hard-hearted fashion as Herod did. We see both of these tendencies happening in the world about us and it is possible that we struggle between them within ourselves. If we let ourselves get caught up in the frantic conflicts occurring today, any weaknesses we see in our opponents become targets for increased aggression.

It takes a quiet, contemplative attitude to relax and let the tender, nurturing attitude take over, even in relation to our opponents. Like Mary, we need to ponder the birth of Jesus in our hearts. Mary could hardly have doubted that the baby was as human as any other baby as she suckled him at her breast, laid him down to sleep, and heard him cry when he woke up hungry. But as the famous song asks: Did Mary know that “when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God?” Although a young parent knows that the day could come when the child takes care of the parent during helpless old age as the parent takes care of the helpless child, could she have known that the child she delivered “will soon deliver you?”

The mysterious annunciation was another contemplative moment for Mary as she had to be still and listen to what the angel was telling her, hard to believe as it was. That the child would be “great and the Son of the Most High” could have meant many things without necessarily meaning that the child was God. But conceiving the child without ever having “known man” would have made it clear that the child was not ordinary. Did she have to know or suspect that the child was God before she would hold him, kiss him, bathe him, and feed him? Surely not. The child needed her care and that was all the reason she needed.

When the child had grown, he would say that whoever fed a hungry person or clothed one who was naked did that the same to him. Mary actually did these things for Jesus himself, because she would have done them for anyone, which is how it should be.

And yes, the child she bore did come to hold her in his arms. Eastern Orthodox icons of the Dormition of Mary illustrate this insight when the soul of Mary, as she dies in the arms of the disciples, has turned into a baby girl held in the arms of Jesus.

Any time we hold a vulnerable person tenderly, we hold the vulnerable Jesus, who in turn holds us in his divine arms as we experience our own vulnerability during the challenges in our lives.

The Five Kinds of Prayer (5): Adoration

abyssAdoration is the one form of prayer where are not concerned with ourselves but with God alone.  When we praise another person just for being that person, we are expressing an appreciation that transcends any tangible benefits we may have received or ever will receive from the one we are praising.  Likewise, the highest praise we can offer God is to praise God just for being God.  Praise is an ecstatic liberation from all self-preoccupation.
Praise is an ecstatic rocketing into God’s Desire; mimetic Desire at its most glorious. Nothing could be further from mimetic rivalry than praise. Praise has nothing to do with wanting what other people want except for wanting God for Godself. As thanksgiving moves towards praise, praise continues what thanksgiving started: it removes mimetic rivalry, all competition with everybody. Once thanksgiving is plunged into praise, gratitude and joy blend into one. Praise is the great unifier that brings all of us together
Since adoration is so totally centered on God, there is very little we can do on our own to praise God.  Praise is not a commodity we can pull out of our inner selves at will.  We can only open ourselves up to a flow of praise that comes from without but penetrates deeply within us and flows back out of us to God.  Praise is a gift from God; it is the water welling up within us unto Eternal Life.
Praise may be as exciting as blaring trumpets or as silent as the still small voice the prophet Elijah heard.  In fact, we praise God most deeply in silence.  When we are silently directing our attention to the God, we can gently lay our preoccupations to one side and simply enjoy God’s presence.  In silence, we come to appreciate more deeply the Person God is. Since praise transcends words and dissolves them, praise takes us far beyond rational thought. In doing this, praise is moving into contemplation where we rest in God for the sake of resting in God with no thought about what God will get out of it, let alone what we will get out of it.
Just as the praise of lovers for each other turns into babbling, baby talk, so does praise of God as we is shouted out in Psalm 148:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!

Next thing we know, all of creation gets into the act of praising the Creator:

Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!

The mountains and hills and stormy winds and sea monsters all join in. When all of creation, including earthly rulers, are praising God, any covetous desires for anything vanishes.
Most important, praise is the light of God on earth.  In Heaven God is praised continuously, so when we offer praise, we are anticipating life in Heaven.  Praise is not an escape from earthly life but an enrichment of it. Praise gives us the strength to face life with the conviction that God will bring all creation into God’s eternal glory.  No matter how much we fear the ways we can destroy God’s world, the praise we allow to flow through our hearts and our bodies remains a light that no darkness can overcome.

This series begins with The Five Kinds of Prayer (1): Petitionary Prayer

Renouncing Resentment

buddingTree1Since resentment keeps us locked into the groups and individuals who feel have hurt us, it behooves us to let go of our resentments, as I suggested at the end of my post “Resentment: the Glue that Keeps us Stuck Together.” As everyone who has tried it knows, letting go of resentments is one of the greatest challenges in life. Concentrating on letting go of our resentments is counter-productive as this technique keeps us focused on the very thing we are trying to get rid of. It is like the childhood game: Try to get through one minute without thinking of strawberry shortcake. Obviously, all one can think of for the next minute is strawberry shortcake.

The thing to do is think of something else, and/or think of the sources of our resentments in a new way. At the end of my last post, I gave an example of the latter by bringing in St. Paul’s recurring admonition to think of others and their needs ahead of our own. We can often gain a degree of sympathy of the people we resent if we see some of the brokenness they suffer and see our own brokenness mirrored in them. (It is this mirroring effect that often makes us wish to escape this truth through projecting it on to others.) The something else that is most effective for redirecting focus is, at least for a Christian like me, Jesus the Forgiving Victim. The emphasis here is on “forgiving victim.” Far too many Christians have used the memory of Jesus’ death as a cause for resentment with tragic results.

Actually, thinking isn’t really the way to handle resentment because resentment isn’t a matter of thought; it’s a much more visceral phenomenon. It isn’t that we decide to be resentful because it’s a nice thing to do and we can decide to stop being resentful at the drop of a wish. Resentment is something that grabs us before we know it has grabbed us and resentment does not loosen its hold on us easily. It is as if resentment, like a virus infecting one’s body, has its own blind urge for survival no matter what damage it does to anything else. So, when I talk about redirecting attention to Jesus the Forgiving Victim and to the people we resent in the light of Jesus who has forgiven them as much as He has forgiven us, I mean that we have to undergo a revolution of the whole, embodied person. I didn’t say that we should initiate the revolution; I said we should undergo it. That is, we have to let go in a very deep way so that the Desire of the Forgiving Victim can become our visceral desire, a desire much deeper than the desire of resentment which is locked into the same resentful desire of other people.

Basic spiritual practices such as liturgical prayer, deep reading of scripture and meditation (contemplative prayer) are, or should be, practiced at this same deep visceral level so that they can open us up to being filled with the Desire of the Forgiving Victim. Praying with others is a means of being in a group that gains cohesion by praying without resentment rather than persecution, which breeds resentment. The more solitary practice of meditation is still made in solidarity with others, thus seeking to relate us to God and other people without resentment. In a short blog post, renouncing resentment sounds like a simple matter. Well, it is simple, but it takes years of devoted practice.

Each time we allow the Forgiving Victim to remove any resentment we harbor, we glimpse a bit more of the new Heaven and the new Earth coming down from Heaven into the midst of our lives.

[I discuss spiritual practices in reference to the Rule of St. Benedict in my book Tools for Peace]

Mary and Martha at the Feet of Jesus


The story of Mary and Martha of Bethany in Luke’s Gospel has often been interpreted as comparing the active life to the contemplative life. Many writers have suggested that the active life is good but the contemplative life is better. Those of you who have been following my blog where I have been developing the thought of René Girard and his colleagues will likely become a bit suspicious of a possible rivalry between the two sisters and a deeper suspicion of an interpretation that seems to foster rivalry between Christians who feel called to either a contemplative or active vocation, or a combination of both.

In placing this story directly after the parable of the Good Samaritan, it seems likely that Luke does not intend to put action and contemplation in conflict in any way. Instead, Luke is drawing a hidden harmony between the two. If God really is totally beyond rivalry of any kind, then God is not a rival with our neighbor for our affections and concern.

The many stories of sibling rivalry in the Bible incline us to look for it here, but in this case, we only half-find it. Martha is upset with Mary, but Mary shows no signs of being upset with Martha. Those who interpret this story as contrasting the active and contemplative lives take Jesus’ gentle reproach of Martha as indicating that she is distracted from him by her busywork. But if Jesus is not offended by Martha’s attention to work instead of him since Jesus does not put himself in rivalry with such work, then the words mean something else. I suggest that Jesus is pointing out that Martha is not distracted from Jesus by her work; she is distracted from her work by resentment of her sister. Mary, for her (better) part shows no sign of being distracted by Martha.

In his book Beneath the Veil of Strange Verses, Jeremiah Alberg suggests that Mary and Martha “represent two ways of reading the Gospel or two ways of listening to the Lord.” Martha represents us when we are offended by Jesus because he “does not help us with our projects, and that he does not command others to do the same.” In short, Martha is offended that Jesus does not “support” her. Mary, on the other hand, represents us when we sit at Jesus’ feet without offense, without asking to be “supported.” When we do that, we are held up by Jesus whether we realize it or not.

It isn’t a matter of being active or contemplative; it’s a matter of being focused on Jesus without resentment because Jesus has no resentment. In any case, the wisest commentators on this story suggest the Mary has need of Martha and Martha has need of Mary and a mixed life of action and contemplation is best. In the preceding parable, it was the Samaritan who was focused on Jesus through his focus on the victim while the priest and the Levite were focused on their standing in the community. If we are focused on Jesus, we will be attentive to our neighbor without rivalry or resentment, which will set us at Jesus’ feet.