worried and distracted

I read an article in the New Yorker recently about personality tests, specifically about the huge success of the Myers-Briggs. The article began by saying, “There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think there are two kinds of people in the world and people who don’t.”

Today’s gospel (Lk 10:28-32) presents us with one of the most famous polarities of our tradition, Martha and Mary, generally understood to represent the active and the contemplative life respectively. At least that’s the classical interpretation. It was a wonderful gospel for us to hear as we end our time of retreat and head back into our normal routines again––“the daily round, the common task” (one of our morning hymns).

One of the things this article suggested is that it is just too simple to divide people in such a binary way, the sharp distinction between the active and contemplative, for instance. I think there is some merit to that argument. I have said often that I think the false dilemma between the active and the contemplative was only given to us because of the hardness of our hearts. It would be like choosing between breathing in and breathing out. Meister Eckhart, one of the great mystics of our tradition, had a controversial interpretation of this tale: he thought Martha was actually the more spiritually mature one because she didn’t need the consolation of the physical presence of Jesus and could get about her business.

Fr. Bede along with Gandhi, in their writings about the Bhagavad Gita, warned about the purely contemplative life being fraught with opportunities for hypocrisy, and preferred the idea of the sahaja samadhi, natural contemplation where someone could be acting in the world but still perfectly in tune with God at all times. And the best example of course is Jesus himself––though we must admit he too had his moments in the desert and in the wilderness and on the mountainside, communing with, and we could imagine drawing strength from abiding with, his Abba in solitude and silence.

The other argument against such a narrow interpretation might be like this: I cannot imagine myself saying to Sr. Lucy, who works with battered women and burn victims on the streets of India, or a single mother caring for her children, or a husband attending to his wife dying of cancer, for example, that I am living a better life than they are simply by virtue of being a hermit monk. Those objective standards are too abstract and have to be held very lightly.

On the other hand, my defense of our “useless life,” is that we are part of the Body of Christ, and so much of the Body is not just active but hyperactive, and someone has to keep the gaze fixed on Jesus, stay close to the well of life-giving water, keep the fire burning––and that’s our “job,” if you will, the role. of contemplatives. Someone asked Fr. Thomas Keating once how much one should meditate and he said, “Enough to balance all your activity!”

Let’s look at it from another perspective. (This is one of my favorites because it applies to me, particularly in my ministry as prior.) There are two kinds of people in the world: people oriented and task oriented. What’s the difference? Well, let’s say the house is on fire. People oriented people will go and make sure that everyone is safe and out of harm’s way. Task oriented people will put the fire out. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is suggesting that the former is better than the latter. I say this as a true 8 on the Enneagram––“Get the job done no matter who gets their feathers ruffled along the way” in search of that objective goal. But maybe there never really is such a thing as a purely objective goal; we are always face to face with real subjects. And our work, as noble as it can seem to be, can actually be an avoidance of intimacy, an avoidance of relationship. Parents find this out to their horror all the time: they’ve spent so much time providing a good life for their family, but have spent no time with their family. Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken away from her. There is more than a task at hand––there is a relationship with Jesus.

That leads to another optic on this story: what is this better part? Maybe it’s simply love. I’m reminded of those words of Pedro Arrupe that Robert loved so much: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. … Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” That’s Mary’s better part––being in love with Jesus. It’s got to be the love of Christ that impels us and urges us on. As the Song of Songs says, Love is stronger than death, fierce as the grave.[1] Love is stronger than money problems, stronger than collapsing roads, fiercer than health issues, fiercer than climate change.

Even if we can’t constantly sit at the feet of Jesus in in contemplative silence in our cells as if in Paradise, let’s make an extra effort not to be worried and distracted like Martha, but be grateful for the reminder that Sr. Marielle (a Benedictine from South Dakota, our retreat leader this year on “The Paschal Christ at the Heart of the Rule”) gave us of how many times St. Benedict mentions “love” in the rule. Benedict says his rule was written to safeguard love––not only our love for Christ, but the Rule begins with advice from the father who loves you, and a reminder that the Lord who in his love shows us the way of life, and ends with the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love––the pure love of brothers. That’s that why we do this––until we shall run the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.[2]

Even if we can’t constantly sit at the feet of Jesus gazing at his beloved face, let’s make sure that we impress upon the eyes of our hearts the image of the Paschal Christ who died in deep unbounded sacrificial love.

cyprian 9 oct 18

[1] Song 8:6.

[2] Pro 47, 1, 20; 72: 3, 8; Pro 49

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1 Comment

  1. “Meister Eckhart, one of the great mystics of our tradition, had a controversial interpretation of this tale: he thought Martha was actually the more spiritually mature one because she didn’t need the consolation of the physical presence of Jesus and could get about her business.“.
    Love the homily, and I’ve always identified with Martha 🙂 Of course, I’d rather be Mary. But alas… So it goes. Thank you Father Ciprian

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