Martha has made a comeback. Today, her frenetic busyness increasingly wins her admiring followers, while Mary and her otherworldly ilk are treated like people from a bygone age. From what I can tell, this reversal of biblical priorities is an outcome of modernity. Or, more likely, modernity is a by-product of our neglect of contemplation.
Modernity unmistakably prioritizes the active life. Technological time-savers such as laptops and smartphones were supposed to relieve our schedules; instead, they have made our lives more hectic than ever before. The CVs of ordinary med-school applicants, barely dry behind the ears, make one wonder how these students possibly managed to squeeze a 30-year career of academic accomplishment, volunteerism, and work into four years of college attendance. And our political moralism has turned us all into social justice warriors, taking up our favorite causes with messianic zeal. Martha is sitting firmly in the driver’s seat.
The topic of contemplation comes up a fair bit in talks that I do. Usually, the room is filled with Marthas. (In fairness, impatient and easily distracted, I too fall into this category.) So I’ve been forced to ask myself: What are the key points to convey to an activist audience about the Martha-Mary relationship?
It’s no sense telling activists to stop being active. God is a God of action. In himself, according to Thomas Aquinas, he is actus purus, and he acts when he creates and cares for the world. Though we do so in a creaturely manner, through our activities we participate in this active life of God. No matter the unfavorable depiction of Martha in Luke 10 (distracted, anxious, troubled about many things), action is important. Theologians throughout the tradition have insisted that contemplation must always give way to action.
The mystical theologian Gregory of Nyssa becomes an activist when faced with poverty and homelessness. He contrasts the wealth and luxury of the rich (lying in “beds covered with flowery hangings, richly embroidered,” eating and drinking from “bowls, tripods, jars, ewers, platters, all sorts of cups,” acting like “boys with effeminate coiffures, shameless girls, sisters to Herodias in their indecency”) with the plight of homeless beggars (“a myriad of Lazaruses sit at the gate, some dragging themselves along painfully, some with their eyes gouged out, others with amputated feet”). Gregory’s preaching doesn’t encourage contemplative withdrawal from the world. He actively wants to change it.
Reflecting on Lot’s life in Sodom, Saint John Chrysostom similarly questions a one-sided focus on contemplation: “Where now are those who say that it is not possible for someone growing up in the environment of the city to keep one’s virtue, but for this is required retreat and a life in the mountains, and that it is not possible for the man of the house, with a wife and with children and servants to look after, to be virtuous?”
The fifth-century monk John Cassian famously exhorts his audience to lead an active life: “A monk who works is attacked by but one devil; but an idler is tormented by countless spirits.” For Aquinas, the failure to engage in the active life betrays selfishness: One has a duty to pass on to others the fruits of fellowship with God. And the title of Walter Hilton’s late fourteenth-century Mixed Life (Medeled Liyf) speaks for itself. There is more to life than contemplation. “There are three ways of living: one is active, another contemplative, the third consists of both and is the mixed life.” To be sure, none of these authors simply opts for action as opposed to contemplation. But they all recognize the importance of serving God in daily life.
Still, these premodern theologians are quite unlike our contemporary activists. Each of the authors just mentioned would have echoed the psalmist in saying, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after” (Ps. 27:4). Each would have agreed that only “one thing is necessary,” and that it is not Martha but Mary who has chosen the “good part” (Luke 10:42). The single necessary thing (unum necessarium) is not the life of action but contemplation of God in his temple.
Why? Isn’t God’s creation good? Aren’t we supposed to celebrate the many-faceted active life God gives us to enjoy? Sure—but with two caveats. First, our active life is worthy of celebration only because it aims at the contemplative life. Without a contemplative horizon, our human activities turn into distractions. If the active life is all there is, it remains without telos to give it meaning. Contemplation fills action with truth, goodness, and beauty. It is contemplation that gives action a share in its luster.
Second, if the significance of action is derivative, this means that we should insist, without compromise, that contemplation (not action) is ultimate and makes up our eternal future. The reason is simple: The creator, not the creature, is our final end. Just as natural desires aim at a greater, supernatural end, so our active lives aim at something higher, beyond themselves—namely, eternal contemplation of God in Jesus Christ.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.