hosts and guests

July 29, Feast of Martha, Mary and Lazarus

(fr Cyprian)


We have a choice as to which gospel reading we can use for the memorial of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. One is the reading from John (11:19-27) about when Jesus comes to Bethany two days after he has heard the news that Lazarus has died, and Martha makes her confession of faith: ‘Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God…’ But I chose to go with this option instead, from the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) with that infamous line, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things… Mary has chosen the better part…’ The one common thread that runs through these two stories is that in both of them Martha is the active one. Just as in the Luke reading Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha is scurrying about serving, in the John narrative Martha goes out to meet Jesus when she hears he is coming, while Mary sat at home.

We are also quietly remembering and celebrating this date as the day when we officially opened as a monastery in 1958. It’s quite significant that New Camaldoli was founded on this feast. Our founders were so insistent on the strictly eremitical life, and yet Holy Mother the Church, in her divine sense of playfulness, has the place founded on the feast of the hosts and friends of Jesus. not as much ironic as complementary in a Camaldolese sort of way.

I’m sure I have spoken about this in the past but it comes to my mind again in the context of this story. Fr. Bede Griffiths taught often about what in India is called the sahaja samadhi, which means something like “spontaneous” or “natural contemplation.” On the one hand there are those who have no part in contemplative prayer. And Bede says that they remain at a lower level of faith and activity; and that’s how we usually interpret Martha, busy about these many things––which Bede says “is very good in its way, but is far from perfect.” We usually make this division in our tradition between the active life and those who have reached the higher state of contemplation; that’s what we usually think of Mary who has chosen the better part. But Bede says that there is a higher state still, which goes beyond both and fulfills both. “One can be a contemplative, in perfect stillness, and at the same time fully active.” That’s the sahaja samadhi. And he says that Jesus was the perfect example of that.

What this has to do with us Camaldolese: There was an article by the Dominican Raimundo Spiazzi in an old edition of Vita Monastica, entitled “The Cenobium and the Hermitage According to Saint Thomas.” He explains that Saint Thomas taught that the ideal of the most perfect spiritual and religious life was contemplata aliis tradere––“to pass on to others that which has been contemplated” (it sounds so un-poetic in English). Between the communal and the solitary life, just like between the purely active and the purely contemplative life, in our tradition the primacy is always given to the contemplative and solitary life well undertaken. (Now, those last words are part of the caveat of the article, by the way, not just the “solitary life,” but the “solitary life well undertaken.” If the solitary life is assumed for the wrong motives or without the proper preparation, it’s actually dangerous.) That being said, still, even if the solitary life is well undertaken, with solid preparation and for the right motives, according the Saint Thomas the fullness of spirituality is the life that includes and gives importance also to the activity that flows from contemplation––actio procedens ex contemplatione. Contemplation can also be the way to and the source of action, of ministry and apostolate, charitable action, creativity, as a beginning not an end. Now I take the word “activity” in its broadest sense, not just going out and evangelizing, running parishes or soup kitchens, but the availability of charity and creativity, in little ways and great. I think that’s the genius of the Camaldolese balance; and that’s also the energy behind the third good, which Emanuele says should fire all of our life––absolute availability to the Spirit.

That in turn reminded me of one of the first books I read about solitude and silence back when I was a teenager, Catherine de Houeck Doherty’s classic book called Poustinia. She is writing about the Russian hermit tradition, the poustinik or staretz. In this passage she is telling about one old staretz that her mother used to go see and take young Catherine along.

It is difficult to simply relate this man, and other poustiniks that I came to know through my lifetime, with what is called a “hermit.” There was some kind of difference. The poustiniks seemed to be more available. There was a gracious hospitality about him, as if he were never disturbed by anyone who came to visit him. On the contrary he was a welcome face. His eyes seemed to sparkle with the joy of receiving a guest. He seemed to be a listening person. A person of few words, but his listening was deep, and there was a feeling that he understood. In him, St. Francis’ prayer seemed to become incarnate: he consoled, he understood, and he loved––and he didn’t demand anything from anyone for himself. (31-32)

I can’t say that I’ve found it yet, but I guess that’s what I am always looking for in my own life, and in our life as a community––what I certainly have experienced at other monasteries and in other monks––this easy flow between work and prayer, the active and contemplative, solitude and community, even between private prayer and public prayer (liturgy), this sahaja samadhi. Maybe if Martha could have calmed down she could have actually reached a higher stage than Mary: she no longer would have needed to sit at Jesus’ feet to be rapt in contemplation because Jesus was enshrined in her heart and the love of Christ was the motivator and energy behind all her actions. I believe that is also Meister Eckhart’s interpretation of this parable, which is not a surprise since he was a faithful son of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

I never get tired of this play on words. In Italian the word ospite means both guest and host. In our Italian liturgical calendar Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are listed as amici e ospiti del Signore–“the friends and hosts of the Lord.” Or does it mean “the friends and guests of our Lord”? There are some people, when they walk into a room, they take it over with their presence, and even if they are in your house they are the ones holding court, as it were. It was like that when Pope John Paul came to the cathedral in Phoenix; he was the only person in the room who was at his ease. It was as if we were his guests in our own cathedral! But think of that interesting play on words here in our Eucharistic liturgy: is Jesus our guest? Or is he the host? Maybe that is one of those distinctions that fades after a while. Who is the guest? Who is the host? And so in that context think of Saint Benedict’s advice that we treat all guests if is they were Christ––who is actually the host.

So my prayer for us at New Camaldoli is simply this: that we and New Camaldoli as a community would continue always to be good hosts––and good guests!––and friends, that we would always be available and gracious, always a welcome face, deep listeners, and a place of consolation, understanding and love, and welcome Christ who comes to us in myriad ways.

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