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.