Sunday Reflection: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 21, 2013) (Contemplatives in Action)


Mary and Martha: Contemplative and Action

Mary and Martha: Contemplative and Action

Today is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time and today’s Gospel is the fascinating story of Mary and Martha from the Gospel of Luke.

“Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”

This story deeply troubled me when I was a child and well into my adulthood.  Growing up in a middle class family in the United States, a strong work ethic was ingrained into my being as long as I can remember.  As such, I very much sympathized with Martha in the story as the one who is doing all of the work; cleaning, preparing the meal and serving it, while lazy Mary isn’t doing anything to help out.  I was taken aback by Jesus’ rebuke of Martha; it seems so unfair to criticize Martha, the one putting food on the table rather telling Mary to help out.

It was only recently that I have begun to understand the true message of Jesus’ message. He is not necessarily criticizing Martha, but he was praising Mary in an effort to emphasize the balance between contemplation and action.  As St. Theresa of Avila writes:

“It is a great favor which the Lord grants to these souls, for it unites the active life with the contemplative. At such times they serve the Lord in both these ways at once; the will, while in contemplation, is working without knowing how it does so; the other two faculties are serving Him as Martha did. Thus Martha and Mary work together.” — St. Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, Chapter 31

Ignatian Spirituality places a strong emphasis on being a “contemplative in action”. These two concepts are deeply intertwined but as today’s Gospel points out, the order is important.  The first step in being a contemplative in action is the contemplative Mary.  This means stopping our activities and reflecting and listening to God.  Without this pause to deepen our relationship with God and understand his will, there is a risk that our activities become aimless as opposed to furthering the will of God.  This contemplation phase is important, which is why I believe it is important for everyone to take time to spend with God, not only in daily prayer, but also with extended retreats.

The way in which activity and contemplation will be balanced depends on a person’s given vocation and personality.  There are, however, certain practices that can help cultivate a contemplative disposition.  These practices will vary by individual makeup but they could include silently watching a sunrise, daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, meditating with eyes closed or gazing at a sleeping infant.   All of these practices help us quiet our minds and opening ourselves to let God speak to us.

After drawing closer to God during contemplation and discerning God’s will, the next phase is action.  During the action phase we carry out the will of God within our daily vocations, whether it be a parent, religious life, firefighter, farmer, doctor, attorney, factor worker or whatever vocation we are called to do at that point in our lives.  The important thing to recognize is that our action phase is not an end in itself, but as part of God’s overall plan for us.  The cycle of contemplation and action inform each other and give us greater zest for life.  As Andy Otto writes:

“Contemplation allows us to renew our active lives (work, play, relationships) so that all we do does not become mindless action but rather glorifies God. Then the cycle repeats. Your activity leads you again into a time of stopping, resting, reflecting, and then returning to activity with greater zeal and purpose. Being a contemplative in action means that your active life feeds your contemplative life and your contemplative life informs your active life. That is what contemplation in action means, and the cycle never ends.” 

Ultimately, the synthesis of contemplation and contemplation is perpetuating the love of God to others.  During contemplation, we remove our distractions and open ourselves up and allow God to speak to our innermost desires and deepen our relationship with him.  Action is the manifestation of God’s love as we work to bring about the Kingdom of God by serving our neighbor in whatever activity we are doing at that moment.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog ( explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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3 Responses to Sunday Reflection: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 21, 2013) (Contemplatives in Action)

  1. claire46 says:

    I find fascinating that such a passage has a way of working on us, on me, year in and year out, and I find new things in it all the time. I did see the contemplative in action as well.
    I’d like to leave a quote from Herbert Alphonso SJ found in a book [Placed with Christ the Son, Gujarat 1993, 39-52]. In Chap 3 of this book, Alphonso wrote:
    “Where are we to begin then, with prayer or with action? This is of slight significance: we may begin where we will, for we must both pray and be engaged in activity. What is of crucial importance is that in and through both of these we work at growing “inner freedom”, that in both spiritual activities we surrender ourselves generously to the action of the Holy Spirit. Purified gradually, in action and in prayer, by an active asceticism and by interior trials, we shall succeed in being always increasingly moved and directed by God’s light and strength. Our “contemplation in action” then will not be the passing effect of a theoretical conviction founded on the objective principles of faith, but a growing inner living and experience through the presence, action and power of the Spirit and His gifts…” For, like all other objective tensions at the heart of the Christian mystery …, this one of “prayer and action” is resolved not by a neat theory from the outside, as it were, but from within by the subjective experiential process of growing inner freedom, which is the experiential process of spiritual growth and maturing. …”

  2. Lynda says:

    Thank you William for this post and thank you Claire for the quote. This passage evokes new thoughts each time I meditate on it. One thing that stood out for me today is that Martha didn’t seem to ask Mary directly to help but she asked Jesus to ask her. I am puzzled by that. Perhaps she did ask and Mary didn’t get up to help but that was just not recorded in the story. We must also remember that Martha declared that Jesus was the Messiah when she met him when he came at the time of Lazarus’ death. Martha was a woman of faith as well as Mary. There is indeed a lot to ponder in these few verses.

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