Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mary's Active Participation

A few weeks ago, the Holy Father was  quoted as making remarks that seem to indicate that he feels that the “doing of charitable deeds” is the only path to God, and that people who devote themselves to the contemplative life risk “losing themselves along the way”, and that those who “choose the path of penance and fasting” are Pelagians.

I have only read a brief summary of the Holy Father’s remarks, and decided not to dig any further. Who knows whether he was quoted adequately and accurately? It is not my purpose here to argue with the Pope!

However, I was a little disturbed by the thoughts and doubts the report aroused in me, and so I turned to my old favorite, The Cloud of Unknowing, for reassurance about the value of the contemplative life. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from that book (my emphases):

What I am describing here is the contemplative work of the spirit. It is this which gives God the greatest delight. For when you fix your love on him, forgetting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and hasten to assist you in every way – though the devils will rage and ceaselessly conspire to thwart you. Your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you many not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work; and of course, your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together. (p. 48)

Yes, contemplative work – work which accomplishes a great deal! And yet this work is often discounted by more “active” types. In fact, it happened in my parish just last Sunday as the priest gave his homily. I love this priest and appreciate his no-nonsense statement of the truths of the Church. He does not pull punches.

But last night, I was a bit disappointed. The Gospel was Luke 10:38-42, in which Martha complains to Jesus that her sister Mary won’t help with the hostess-work. Our Lord, of course, tells Martha that “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

To me, a person’s interpretation of this passage is something of a litmus test that helps distinguish between contemplative and active souls. The active souls object to what Jesus told Martha, and are willing to venture that He has made a slight error!

Our priest extolled the “life of prayer” to some extent, but he said that he thought Mary shouldn’t get the “highest marks” – maybe only 90% - because we still need to “do” something.  He did acknowledge that God gave Mary the go-ahead to “just sit and listen”, but still added his own opinion on the matter. “Faith without works is dead,” he quoted St. James. And so, he implied, contemplatives must also engage in “works” in order to prove themselves. Engaging in works (as defined by “active” types) will help the contemplative lead a “balanced” life, opined our priest. He thought Mary would have done better if she’d gotten up to help Martha a little bit.

Well…Jesus didn’t think so.

Mary’s work was contemplative. No, she didn’t wash dishes or serve hors d’oeuvers; she worshiped Our Lord by listening to him, by focusing all of her attention on Him. It seems to me that “actives” don’t see this as work. They see it as sloth. They think it is easy to “just sit there” and listen. They don’t see that as “doing” something. And “doing” is what they are all about.

Certainly there are gradations. Few individuals are completely active or completely contemplative. Our priest has a contemplative bent, I think, but he is also very much oriented toward activity, and he usually interprets “active participation” at Mass to mean actively participating by singing, etc. – doing something. Another priest I know has very little of the contemplative in his personality. He gives the same homily about Martha every year on her feast day, saying that Martha deserves more credit than she gets, because she did all the work when Jesus came to visit. Where would we be, this “active” priest asks, if everyone just sat around like Mary?!  Martha is a hero to him; Mary is…well, Mary just didn’t pull her weight.

Of course, it is true that “faith without works is dead”. But it’s in the definition of “works” that we disagree. Contemplatives do perform “works” – even if those works are not seen by others. And contemplatives do, at times, even perform those works the “actives” are talking about. But mostly, actives don’t understand contemplatives. That’s just the bottom line, I guess.

Pope Pius XI also addressed this issue in his Apostolic constitution Umbratilem, approving the statutes of the Carthusian Order. He began the letter with these words (emphases mine throughout):

[1] All those, who, according to their rule, lead a life of solitude remote from the din and follies of the world, and who not only assiduously contemplate the divine mysteries and the eternal truths, and pour forth ardent and continual prayers to God that his kingdom may flourish and be daily spread more widely, but who also atone for the sins of other men still more than for their own by mortification, prescribed or voluntary, of mind and body - such indeed must be said to have chosen the better part, like Mary of Bethany.

Not only is it the “better part”, but it is also efficacious; it is work of the highest order. Pope Pius XI continued:

[2] No wonder, then, that ecclesiastical writers of former ages, wishing to explain and extol the power and efficacy of the prayers of these same religious men, should have gone so far as to liken their prayers to Moses, quoting a well-known fact, viz., that when Josue was engaged in battle with the Amalekites on the plain and Moses on the top of a hill nearby was praying and beseeching God for the victory of his people, it happened that as long as Moses held his hands raised heavenward, the Israelites conquered, but if from weariness he lowered them a little, then the Amalekites overcame the Israelites; wherefore, Aaron and Hur on either side held up his arms until Josue left the field victorious.

This example most aptly symbolizes the effect of the prayers of the religious We have spoken of, since those prayers are borne up by the august Sacrifice of the Altar on one hand, and on the other hand by works of penance, as by two props typified respectively in a certain way, by Aaron and Hur; it being the usual and indeed the principal duty of these solitaries, as We have remarked above, to offer themselves up to God and devote themselves as propitiatory victims and hostages for peace for their own weal and that of the world - a function which they fulfill in an official way, as it were.

[3] Therefore, from the earliest times this mode of life, most perfect and at the same time most useful and fruitful for the whole of Christendom more than anyone can conceive, took root in the Church and spread abroad on all sides...

I don’t think Jesus made a mistake about the value of Mary’s worship. I think he was trying to make a point!


  1. Well said! My cousin is a cloistered Poor Clare nun in Rockford, IL. and I am ever so grateful for her dedication to a life of prayer.

    On their website they explain quite well the contemplative 'work' they perform: http://www.rockfordpoorclares.org/page-5.html

  2. Yes, very good post. Even the very smallest action which arises out of the love of God developed in prayer (like the example Jesus gave of a cup of cold water) accomplishes more true work for God than mountains of brick and mortar and bulldozers working ostensibly for God but really for self-glorification. The fancy buildings -- even if they are seminaries or convents or cathedrals -- will all fall down, but the only thing which will endure for eternity is the love of God.

    Do we value the visible or the invisible? The entire point of what Christ came to teach is that we should learn to value the invisible over the visible because God judges by the heart and not as man does by the exterior.

    Regarding the teaching on the Gospel of Martha and Mary, it's a shame when rather than explaining the Gospel, sermons instead explain it away. Jesus is making an important point, and to drag in St. James at this juncture is to deny the message of Jesus or at least to create the appearance of conflict or contradiction.

    That is not to denigrate Martha. Martha also has her place. And later in the Gospels she gives the most beautiful and moving testimony in favor of the divinity of Jesus, not excelled even by that of Simon whose testimony led Jesus to change his name to Peter.

    But let us love Martha for her virtues while recognizing the superiority of Mary and let us not dare to deny the words of Christ, "She has chosen the better part."
    -John G.

  3. Thank you for this ~ I am much more Mary than Martha & have always felt rather lonely about it, since nearly all women I've met (or homilies I've heard) seem to strongly identify with Martha!


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