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.