MARTHA AND MARY: The prayer of action and the prayer of contemplation


Welcoming The poor, feeding the hungry and quenching the thirst of the thirsty are all well and good but if we don’t sit and listen to them and the many things the Holy Spirit often teaches us through them or contemplate the Holy Spirit within them, then we neglect the better part. Like Martha and Mary did with Jesus, when we open our doors to either the stranger or those whom we know, we open it to Christ. In fact, many years ago when I enjoyed a stay as a guest in a Benedictine monastic community I read St.Benedict and he had this to say “when you open the door to someone you are opening it to Christ”.

We have heard it before about Martha and Mary how They both emphasise the two different spiritual lives of action and contemplation. Many people want to separate these two and say “well your either a Martha or a Mary, a Monk or a layperson” and such a mentality is often used by us as a barrier or a means to excuse ourselves of contemplation giving over this call to a life of spiritual perfection to monastics only. But the two ( action and contemplation ) are not Separate and it is not a case of either your this or that but both are lives we are all called to no matter our vocation. I have no doubt Martha was a contemplative as well as a woman of action, it is just that in this particular scene in the Gospel setting of Luke that she has neglected the better part. What happened Martha happens us all whether we be monastic or lay person, that is, she simply in the moment put too much emphasis on welcoming Jesus and if we dare to speculate a little, worried about the cleanliness of the house perhaps and worried about how people viewed her. Take an example of being welcomed into someone’s home. I’ve had this done to me many times where the person has welcomed me, fed me but then goes off and overdoes things and forgets that I’m actually there waiting for them to listen to me or for some kind of discussion and I’ve often felt ignored even though that was not my hosts intention. But it happens and here it happens to Jesus where Martha and those of us tend to ignore Jesus whilst thinking we are doing him a service.

It is true that sometimes there can be too much emphasis on action to the point where we neglect the prayer of contemplation. And whilst both are prayers allow me to reiterate the better part of contemplation. Why is it that contemplation is the better part. Is it not good to feed the hungry and better to do this than contemplate God and pray? The problem with that mentality would be that without friendship with God and an awareness of ourselves, our good well intentioned charitable deeds often go in vain and are done out of self interest and we become fishermen of good compliments and feelings rather than seeing people for who they really are, we see only what we can get out of them, if it be a compliment or a good feeling and in our blindness end up giving only to receive. However, When we put God first in our lives and lay down the foundation of contemplating God, and becoming aware of ourselves only then will our charity mean something not only to Christ himself but to us also. First we must come to know of God, then we come to Love him, then we come to serve him having first known and loved him. Its a sequence of events. I once had a guy tell me he knew of a friend who was very charitable and yet was irreligious. I replied that well unless our charity is done in Christ it is done in vain and self interest.

How is it out of self interest? What if an irreligious man gives away all his money to the poor and decides to live it up in the ghetto, was that out of self interest? Well obviously the deed is good but the part you didn’t see was where he patted himself on the back, closes his eyes at night and imagines himself being made a Saint, hero or remembered when he is dead and gone. He has just given away his money and made another kind of investment and That’s the part we Miss or fail to see. In fact sometimes we use people in order to give ourselves a good “feeling” but it’s all for self interest, not in obvious terms but in more hidden terms and when hidden all the more dangerous as we often never fail to notice this hidden trap of the Devil that is pride, because to give something to Christ in order for it to be Caritas in veritate ( that is charity in truth ) it must be totally selfless and it can only be so when we put contemplation of God first.

It all looks like a confusing digression but allow me to being it back.

Without choosing the better part of contemplating Christ and laying the foundation of a good Christian life down first, becoming aware of Gods presence in our lives and having a change of heart and awakening to the many imperfections in ourselves, our prayer of action is often ruined and becomes sullied in the eyes of Christ who alone knows the depths and intentions of all our hearts. And without action and a good balance of this and learning when it is time to contemplate and take action, our whole lives become a worried, anxious self interested mess and it’s this Jesus rebukes Martha for and it is this life of anxiety and worry that Jesus would like to spare us from here and now and he is calling us to put Him first in order to achieve the Caritas in Veritate that we need if we want live a heaven on earth here and now.

St.Martha was a Holy Woman, that’s why she is a Saint, but don’t be mistaken into thinking that she wasn’t a contemplative and never chose the better part it’s just that she like all of us, had our moment where we failed to choose the better part right there and then. What about Mary at the feet of Jesus? Well we all need a Mary in our lives who we can look to as an example to follow when we are not doing things right and we all need that, it’s why we have Saints and called to imitate their holiness and dedication to God.

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