Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

“Just as then Martha complained of Mary her sister, so to this day do actives complain of contemplatives. Wherever you find anyone, man or woman, in any body of people, religious or secular (there are no exceptions), who feel moved by God’s grace and guidance to forsake all outward activity and set about living the contemplative life and who, as I say, knows what he is about, his conscience and advisors corroborating, just as soon will you find his brothers, sisters, best friends, and sundry others, who know nothing of his inward urge, or the contemplative life itself, rise up with great complaint, and sharply reprove him, and tell him he is wasting his time. And they will recount all sorts of tales, some false and some true, describing how such men and women who have given themselves up to such a life in the past have fallen. There is never a tale of those who make good.”
The Cloud of Unknowingby an anonymous English mystic, circa 1370

8 Replies to “MARY AND MARTHA”

  1. Even contemplatives within enclosures cannot forgo all activity. They are, in fact, busy men and women.

    And I doubt whether activists could possibly be so active as to never reflect or be moved to contemplation.

    Some are drawn more one way than the other, but both exist together in my experience of being human and religious.

    The little snippet of scripture about Jesus, Mary, and Martha, shows the two women in that situation in a different light. But, I have to imagine Mary helping out at other times, and Martha finding time to pray. She was the one who, when their brother was dead, declared, "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God…." Maybe Mary told her that, but she could just as well come to that independently of her sister.

  2. Now this is why I am a big Fr. Barron fan. See how he interprets the Mary/Martha story and sees it less about the active vs contemplative and more about the the harried vs the focused.

    "The familiar story of the conflict between Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) has often been interpreted as an account of the play between the active and the contemplative life, Jesus signaling his preference for the latter over the former. But I don’t think that reading gets to the heart of it. It is rather a narrative concerning the spiritual problem of the one and the many.

    Martha complains that her sister is not helping her with the numerous and time-consuming tasks of hospitality and tells Jesus to do something about it, The Lord responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

    Martha’s problem is not that she is busy or that she is engaging in the “active” life; her problem is that she is uncentered. Her mind, quite obviously, is divided, drifting from this concern to that, from one anxiety to another; there are many things that preoccupy her. What Mary has chosen is not so much the contemplative life, but the focused life. She is anchored, rooted in the unum necessarium, as the Vulgate renders this passage.

    The implication seems to be that, were Mary to help with the many household tasks, she would not be “worried and distracted” by them, since she could relate them to the center, and that, were Martha to sit at the feet of Jesus, she would still squirm with impatience, since her spirit is divided.

    As is so often the case in the spiritual life, the issue is not what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it. Indeed, the surest sign that something is off in Martha’s soul is that she even tells God what to do.

    We find something very similar in the stories of demonic possession in the Gospels. Notice first how often the demons speak in the plural. In Mark’s account of the possessed man in the Capernaum synagogue, the unfortunate individual shrieks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24). This is a single person, but he speaks in the voice of the many, for the demonic consciousness is split, riven, uncentered. What cures the man is precisely the firm and authoritative voice of Christ — the one taming the many.

    And the same motif emerges in the account of the Gerasene demoniac a few chapters later. When Jesus asks the tormented man his name, he replies, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (Mark 5:9) — or in another even more vivid rendering, “for there are hundreds of us.” Again, the psyche of the sinner is like a tempest, all wind and confusion.

    But we see something else here: like Martha, the demoniac orders Jesus around: “Send us into the swine; let us enter them” (Mark 5:12). The great mark of the disciple is obedience, abiding by the divine command; and the great mark of the anti-disciple is trying to master God.
    Kierkegaard said that to be an integral person is to desire one thing. The saint is someone whose entire life, in all of its multifacetedness, circles like a vortex around one center of gravity: the broken heart of the divine compassion."

    I hope this finds you well.


  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    Perhaps you've seen this beauty at the Norton Simon, Heather. It's at the end of one of the galleries.

  4. Martha does not really have an issue with Mary, but with Jesus. She longed to sit at his feet, too, but Mary had left her to do all the work. The trouble was that Jesus allowed Mary to do that. He knew that the importance of Mary's listening outweighed the urgency of Martha's serving.

  5. That IS a beauty, the Mary Magdalene at the Norton. If I ever get away from my desk for five minutes, I have got to get up there, thanks…

    And Fr. Barron (a major extrovert, btw) has a good point, which goes to the fallacy that the active life necessarily means running around doing five things at once and the contemplative life necessarily means sitting still in a quiet room. There's a great anecdote about Carlo Carreto who burned his address book and lit out for the Sahara to wander about and pray for 20-odd years after which he finally went back to Italy for a visit, saw his mother, and realized that with her very active life in family, parish, community etc. she was at least the contemplative he was.

    So I like the idea of looking at Martha and Mary as being distracted vs. focused. But if that were really the point of it, or the only point, wouldn't the parable have shown Mary setting the table but still focused and Martha sitting at his knee but still distracted? The fact remains that any kind of life where you are not "busy" and overscheduled and out DOING things and effecting CHANGE and instead prefer to spend your time alone in study and reflection is viewed as just a tiny bit of an indulgence and/or waste and/or selfish and/or just plain weird…I say: focused, contemplative or whatever else you want to call it–viva Mary!…Thanks, Derek….

  6. P.S. I appreciate the plural/singular paradigm, too, and the insight that the demonic is always "many," riven, scattered. Kierkegaard also observed, "The mob is the lie." The opposite, as you say, of the saint who "wills the one thing."

  7. "What have we in this world of care

    If there's no time to sit and stare?"

  8. Being and Doing….we are to be/do a bit of both. Nouns and Verbs, Mary and Martha…


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