In the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel (vv.38-42), Jesus visits the house of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. Given the description we find of their relationship to Jesus in the Gospel of John, we know that they were very dear to Our Lord, and also that they had very distinct personalities. In John 11, when Jesus comes to the family after hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Martha runs out to meet him whilst Mary stays in the house. Whilst both sisters say to Jesus ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (vv.21, 32), Martha delivers the line with an urgency and matter-of-fact-ness reminiscent of Saint Peter, backing it up immediately with a profession of faith; Mary says the same thing, but in the midst of tears, and professes her faith by falling at Jesus’ feet.
In John then, we have a picture of two sisters, both of whom love and are committed to Our Lord, but who express their faith in very different ways. In Luke 10, this distinction is clarified and shown in starker contrast, as Luke expressly says that Martha was ‘distracted with much serving’ (v.40) whilst Mary ‘sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching’ (v.39). Another parallel with the Johannine text can be seen where Mary is seated at the feet of Jesus – a position which we naturally associate with deference and/or worship. Furthermore, as Mary’s sorrowful profession to Our Lord at the time of Lazarus’ death expressed a love so sincere that Jesus Himself was moved to tears, here he states calmly to Martha that Mary has ‘chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her (v.42).’
Traditionally, and rightly, the two sisters have been seen as representing the active (Martha) and contemplative (Mary) lives, two paths that can be seen as the main ways in which we respond in gratitude to God’s saving work and love for us. In the light of Easter then, I think a good question to ask is how we might best respond to the great work of redemption achieved for us by Christ in his passion, death and resurrection. Do we take the active path, or the contemplative; can we take both; does there have to be a difference?
It is clear from both passages that it is Mary’s response that is given precedence. She is said to have chosen the better portion, and Jesus is more moved by her tears than by Martha’s insistent faithfulness. This however, is not to disparage Martha’s activity or the obvious sincerity of her devotion to Jesus; rather it is that in her tears and her silent adoration of Jesus and humble reception of His teaching, Mary displays more overtly the quality of love. At Lazarus’ death, she does not have all the right words, but she is moved to the core of her very being with grief, yet without losing her faith in Jesus or her love for Him; inside the house, she is so overwhelmed by the grace of His teaching and His person, that she cannot do anything other than sit at His feet in loving adoration.
Martha is not rebuked for her busy-ness, and in their dialogue in John 11, it seems clear that Jesus is affirming the sincerity and depth of her faith. Yet, the urgency of her desire to respond to Jesus, and the expression of that desire in activity (either of word or deed) has not left enough room for her to simply sit and adore – to open wide her heart and love for love’s sake, knowing that Jesus does not need any of our words or our works, but asks only for us to give our selves to Him. It is almost as if Martha’s activity, whilst borne out of a genuine faith (and love), is trying too hard to prove to Jesus the depths of her devotion to Him, whereas Mary knows that He knows, and is so overwhelmed by His love for her, that she can do nothing else but sit and listen.
The question then of whether we have to choose one or the other of the two paths, the two ways of responding to God’s love, is perhaps slightly misleading. For whilst it is true that there are those whose personalities will be led to an expression of their faith in activity, and others who will be inclined to contemplation, both are united by this quality of love, and it is this, not contemplation per se, that Jesus is singling out as the ‘good portion’. Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, urges them to ‘pray constantly’ (5:17) – an exhortation, in other words, to pray at all times, whatever one is doing, and which can therefore be applied equally to the contemplative or the active life.
One can indeed pray without ceasing in anything one does, if it is done out of love for God. If one is washing the dishes, or like Martha, preparing and serving a meal, this can be prayer, if it is done out of love for God – for Him, in Him, before Him. When Jesus said to Martha that she was ‘anxious and troubled about many things’ and that ‘one thing is needful’ (Luke 10:41-42), it is clear that her activity was not the problem – it is that the activity had become her preoccupation, and was being performed either for its own sake, or as a means of self-justification. The ‘one thing’ that was lacking, and which Mary displayed by sitting patiently at the feet of her Lord, was the pure love of God, and the orientation towards Him which flows from that love – this is the heart of all prayer.
Thus one does not necessarily need to make an absolute choice between activity and contemplation – it is possible to turn work into prayer, and for someone who has dedicated their life to prayer to help out with the dishes! The goal is for prayer to be so woven into one’s life that any activity or contemplation becomes an extension and manifestation of that inner life of loving orientation towards God above all else. Without this orientation, activity can become divorced from love and turn into mere busy-ness for busy-ness’ sake, and contemplation can become self-indulgent and lacking the expression of love for one’s neighbour that realises and confirms our love of God; both can also lead to self-validation and pride.
So, in the light of Easter, the one thing to remember is that however we respond to God, as long as it has its source in a sincere love of God and gratitude for all He has done for us, the way in which we express that love is only of secondary importance. The glorious variety of personalities we find amongst the saints is due to the fact that they chose that one thing necessary, and let God do the rest, working with the material that was already there. We do not need to make ourselves – we only need to love the one who loved us first, and He will help us to become the people we have always been. It is one of the great paradoxes that the less we focus on ourselves, the more those selves come out into the open; the more we lose our lives, the more we find them.