The Ones We Leave Behind

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between contemplatives and others. What does it mean to pursue the mystical life, when so many people have no desire for, interest in, or aptitude for contemplative practice? Myers-Briggs personality type indicators suggest that only about 1% or so of the general population are “natural” mystics. Assume another 2 percent or so have enough of an interest in the contemplative life to pursue it, even without the inborn aptitude. Still, that leaves only 5% or so of the general population as contemplatives or aspiring mystics. What about the other 95%? Do we just dismiss that majority as lost to institutional religion (or consumerism or secularism or whatever)? Do we attempt to evangelize them? (“Have you made a decision for mysticism yet? Today is the day! John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart are calling you — yes, you — so don’t delay. Just come forward and give your life to contemplation. Do it now!”) or do we just give thanks that we live in a diverse universe and it’s really okay that not everyone wants to be a contemplative: after all, it would put a lot of DJs out of work if everyone eschewed house music for Gregorian chant.

That lost option is pretty much how I see things, but still, this relational question nags me.

When the desert fathers and mothers first went out into the desert, who did they leave behind: friends, coworkers, family members? What did those people think? How much pain was caused by Pachomius or Evagrius or whomever running off to the desert and abandoning existing relationships? Is it really worth it to be so single-minded in the pursuit of union with God that we are willing to toss away existing relationships? I know this is the way of the world: if explorers had not been willing to leave behind all they knew and loved, the course of human history would have been drastically different. It is in our nature to wander, to roam, to explore. Contemplatives just do it not by getting on a boat or plane, but by retreating into the desert, the wilderness, the urban jungle, the monastery. But there’s always a tension there. Christ declared that “I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” and that “No one who prefers father or mother to me is worthy of me; no one who prefers son or daughter to me is worthy of me” and “And everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times as much, and also inherit eternal life” — but he also reiterated the law of Moses that included the commandment to honor the father and the mother, and attacked the Pharisees for failing to observe this law with their whole heart. Even more fascinating to me is the story of Mary and Martha from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Here it is from the New Jerusalem Bible:

In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.’

Traditionally this has been interpreted to show that Jesus honored the contemplative life above the active life. Mary, the contemplative sitting at Christ’s feet, has chosen “the better part” over her sister Martha, busy with the work associated with her hospitality. Frankly, that interpretation could only come from one who takes the work of servants (or, traditionally, women) for granted. I think it’s insidious, and this specious exegesis has probably snared countless contemplatives in the vice of pride. A much more sensible (to my mind) way of reading this text is not as a privileging of contemplation, but a playful rebuke to those who “fret” and are “distracted.” Hospitality is a wonderful thing, but the wonder is soon dissipated when the person doing the hospitality is nervous, anxious, compulsive, or worse, resentful or bitter. Maybe what Jesus was suggesting to Martha was that if she would just chill out, sit down and relax with the people who were listening to him teach, then once the lesson was done everyone could lend a hand and get the food done more easily (of course, I’m reading into this all my postmodern, postpatriarchal, egalitarian biases; in all likelihood, everyone would not have pitched in — but at least the two women would have worked together, rather than been at odds).

But I can’t help but wonder: would it have been so hard for Jesus to say, “Martha, you need to chill. Mary, please discuss with Martha how you can help her with the food, and maybe that will give her the space to let go of her anxiety.” In other words, I’ll grant that Jesus was right in going after Martha’s control issues, but by the same token, Mary really does come off as a slacker. I’m left wondering just how the sisters worked that one out, long after the guys were gone.

Back to the mystics who leave non-mystics behind, whether in fact (as with the desert fathers and mothers) or in metaphorical ways. Contemplation is a core element of the mystical life, but so is hospitality. Seeking Union with God is central to the mystical quest, but so is serving God through others. I’m not saying that the desert fathers and mothers were wrong to leave their former lives behind. But I bet there were all sorts of circumstances surrounding the impulse to retreat into the desert, and those situations varied widely in terms of how gracious (or how relationship-killing) the leave-takings were. The take-away, for me, is simply trying to keep in mind that nothing exists in a vacuum, including Union with God. If I want to raise my consciousness by devoting my life to contemplative prayer, will I be gracious when someone in genuine need interrupts my meditation? If I think going to mass every day will make me a holier person, but my family needs me during that hour each morning, how do I balance these competing desires? Of course, these questions are easily inverted: at what point do I have to say “enough!” and vigorously protect time in my life for spiritual nurture, in the face of a noisy hungry desperate world that will always have more for me to do, to do, to do?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • MikeF

    I have often thought of these things, too, Carl.

    I’m reminded of two stories from Benedicta Ward’s collection The Paradise of the Desert Fathers:

    Once two brothers came to a certain old man. It was his custom not to eat every day but when he saw them he received them joyfully and said, “A fast has its own reward, but he who eats for the sake of love fulfils two commandments: he leaves his own will and he refreshes his brothers.”

    A brother came to see a certain hermit and, as he was leaving, he said, “Forgive me abba for preventing you from keeping your rule.” The hermit replied, “My rule is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you away in peace.”

    Another important point for me is that, personally, I don’t look upon contemplative prayer as solely “rais[ing] my consciousness, or “spiritual nurture” (though it certainly does involve those things) but at least as much as a way of approaching the question implicit in Paul’s remark in Romans 8.26 that “we do not know what we ought to pray for,” which I read, in context, as being so overwhelmed by the grief and fallenness of the world that words are just not enough for the prayer we should pray.

    Michael Ramsey said, “Contemplation is for all Christians… [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.”

    Another angle slightly closer to your excellent point about Mary and Martha is Catherine of Siena’s “The secret of Christian contemplation is that it faces us with Jesus Christ toward our suffering world in loving service and just action…”

    What a very thoughtful and necessary post, Carl – thank you!

  • Sue

    Yes, I agree with Mike. There is much to chew on here.

  • Kristen

    Hi, I just started reading your blog. Came here via a friend of mine.

    This is a huge question for me. I frequent a forum in which there are a lot of fundamentalist Christians, and a good number of atheists…and they are constantly battling it out. In that situation, mysticism is helpful for me because it can act as a peace treaty between the two. But almost everything I say has been disregarded until recently, since lately I’ve “won over” a couple other people.

    But I don’t like to think of it as “winning” people over. I don’t want that to be my goal. Then I’m no better than the fundamentalist evangelicals who push their religion on others. Instead, I try to think of it as sharing myself with them. I don’t care if you agree or disagree, or decide to follow my example or not…but here’s how I look at things.

    And I’ve noticed that it works too. When I stop thinking about getting people to agree with me, they just sort of naturally (and very gradually) drift towards what I’m saying.

    As far as medium goes, blogs are great ways to help others understand the mystic’s way of looking at the world, but even more helpful to me is forums, like the one I talked about above. Discussion on neutral ground, I guess. Most people have never even heard of mysticism, and think it’s a bunch of wishy washy hocus pocus. Just as with any religion, having a constant voice in discussions helps people understand it and get rid of all those funny stereotypes. It’s not about converting people, just helping them understand. :)

    And of course, we need books for when someone is turned on to mysticism via blogs and forums. The book isn’t going to attract someone who knows nothing about mysticism, but it might attract someone who’s been exposed to it in other places.

    That was probably a bit long-winded. Sorry about that. :)