Mary and Martha Revisited

A friend of mine wrote me this note:

I struggle at times to see the point of non-mystic relationships with our Abba. I don’t want to judge but it feels as if mystics connect with God and all else is religion. Even as I prepare to go to a contemporary church service where many enjoy the worship and talking, I would rather just be somewhere quiet with my Source and Lover of my soul.

You’ve written somewhere on your website about the connection between mystics / contemplatives and INFP’s. Do we all connect with God in different ways and only a few of us are wired to be contemplative or are non-contemplatives living Martha lives busy doing for God instead of sitting at His feet?

Is it wrong to encourage others to this life because they are wired differently than me?

Here’s my reply:

My first thought is that I think we need to keep as broad a definition of “mysticism” as possible. My own spiritual director (a Trappist monk) has a very strong bias toward apophatic prayer, and I’m continually teasing/reminding him that the kataphatic path can be just as blessed by God. Based on what you’re saying, it sounds like you share my director’s natural affinity for the apophatic path. Alleluia. What is tricky, of course, is learning to accept those whose path is different from our own, especially when they seem to be hostile/critical in their assessment of our path.

As for your Mary/Martha question, I think the answer is “It depends.” Discernment is essential here. I do believe that even the most Martha person is occasionally called to Mary moments, and vice versa. If you come to the edge of a river and someone is drowning and there’s a rowboat with a life preserver there, “praying about it” is the wrong response. Those of us who are naturally apophatic/contemplative are continually being taught that loving service/work is a form of prayer — just as the natural activists have to learn that quiet contemplation is a form of action. I know this may sound like I believe ultimately we’re all called to some sort of uniform integration, but I don’t think that’s the case. The “Mary’s” of the world will always be more Mary than Martha, and vice versa. Incidentally, I believe that when Jesus tells Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part” it is NOT meant that contemplation is somehow “higher” than action — no matter what the Cloud of Unknowing says. Rather, I believe Our Lord is praising Mary for her presence and serenity — Mary could have been sitting there feeling guilty for letting Martha do all the work. Likewise, if Martha had been centered in joy as she served the guests, she too would have had “the better part.” Of course, I’m guilty of eisegesis here, and who knows, maybe Mary was a habitual slacker.

Back to you. I think the most telling statement in your letter is confessing your struggle to see “the point” of non-mystical religion. That’s worth investigating. I think several lines could be followed:

  • Isn’t it possible that many people are what Thomas Merton called “masked contemplatives” — they engage in a contemplative practice without realizing it, or naming it as such? The Anglican theologian Martin Thornton wrote admiringly of the woman who got closer to God cutting up lettuce for a salad than did the monk busy with his Psalms and Rosaries (now there’s an inversion of the Mary/Martha story).
  • Another thought is more evolutionary: today’s churchgoers are, at least potentially, tomorrow’s contemplatives. We don’t begrudge a seven-year old because they haven’t figured out calculus. Now, the problem with this analogy is that many churches try to inhibit the onset of contemplative consciousness, but that’s an obstacle to be overcome, not an ontology that can’t be avoided. And perhaps it’s up to us contemplatives to evangelize those who are only potential contemplatives?
  • Finally, to quote my friend Bob Hughes, in his wonderful book Beloved Dust: “Indeed, because love of God cannot be seen reliably, the only visible measure we have for someone’s progress in the spiritual life is an increase of effective love for the neighbor.” In other words, God gives us people to love so that we can grow in both love of God & love of neighbor, and sooner or later this means learning to love those we see as hard to love or unlovable. For contemplatives, those who are frenetic and activist in their religious observance are often trying and tiring. But those are precisely the people God has made our neighbors. We have our marching orders…

As for your final question: no, I don’t think it’s wrong to speak of contemplation with others; as I say, maybe we are called to evangelize those who have not yet tasted refreshing waters found at the well of contemplation. But just as ordinary evangelists can backfire if they come on too strong, I think discretion is essential here. Maybe rather than encouraging others, we simply should be in the business of inviting them when we feel led to do so. And then leave the “encouraging” to the Holy Spirit. Also, I do think that learning to love non-contemplatives just as they are is a necessary pre-requisite to effectively sharing contemplative spirituality with them. If people get an intuitive sense that we’re trying to “fix” them or somehow make them more like us, they will naturally (and probably justifiably) defy our efforts, no matter how well-intentioned. As always, humility is a strong ally here.

I hope these thoughts are helpful in some small way. Stay in touch!

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  • Joe Rawls

    Your writer seems to have bought into the “I’m spiritual but not religious” concept, which I think is bogus. All contemplative teachings of which I am aware have their origins in some kind of institutional religious matrix. I would go so far as to say that the two are really inseparable. Think of an orange, with religion the rind and spirituality the pulp and juice. Think also of Merton after he entered the hermitage full-time. He was still part of Gethsemani, from which he had to establish a certain physical and emotional distance for compelling and valid reasons. I sympathize with your writer; I myself have had enough negative experiences in the institutional church that I’m often tempted to bag it all. But it helps me greatly to model myself after Merton.

  • Dan

    I don’t believe you have to leave religion or the institutional church (IC) to pursue a spiritual life. I’m sure that most people there are pursuing God in some form. I don’t agree that the two are inseparable. Fellowship with other believers is an essential. That this includes a large group gathering where only a few speak is, to me, optional. I don’t have a problem with the IC because of negative experiences or wounds inflicted there. That has happened, but I don’t believe that is my issue.
    I talk weekly with a number of Christians one-on-one who are, and often have been for a long time, involved in wide variety of IC models. I do not find that their intimacy with God and relational maturity with Him has been greatly improved by the experience. To the contrary, there seems to be a widespread belief that if one attends IC on Sunday morning and participates in the programs and mission trips then their spiritual life will bear real fruit. Yet all these individuals know that their life overall is lacking real Life. This has led me to believe that not only is the IC not very effective, but it is counter-productive if the people involved substitute participation there with intimate, heart level connection with the Living God. A mentor has told me for years that the greatest risk for the follower of Christ is distraction.
    I have recently began to experience the kataphatic path through repeated immersion into Brother Lawrence’s teachings. That has been so rich an experience I don’t think I can describe it adequately. He talked of working in the kitchen or “taking up a straw from the ground for the love of God.” Doing dishes has become worship as rich as the apophatic prayer. (I’m new to contemplative teaching, so I have to admit here that I had to do a little research on the words apophatic and kataphatic. The following article was very helpful: )
    I do believe in “evangelizing” others to intimacy with God. And I heartily agree with your points regarding accepting them where they are and loving them there. Thanks for the reminder. In my IC it feels I’m swimming upstream, so I really wanted to know if the “evangelizing” is opposed by God if he wired them to be more kataphatic than I am naturally.
    Carl, thanks for the response which is very helpful. I’ll spend some time digesting it.

  • Bob

    It seems that the apophatic grows out of the kataphatic. I think the kataphatic experiences of God are almost always first and foremost and then a deepening with apophatic or silent wordless experiences with God. Merton seemed to have a kataphatic experice of God that lead him to the monastery and late in his short life he was exploring more apophatic prayer. When people gather, institution and structure will follow.

  • Yewtree

    Interesting. For me (currently) the cataphatic emerges from the apophatic. Maybe it’s because I am very influenced by the Tao Te Ching.