The story of Mary and Martha of Bethany — where Martha is busy serving the guests while Mary sits with Jesus, leading to the point where Martha complains about her sister not helping out with all the work that needs to be done, only to have Jesus defend Mary for choosing “the better part” (Luke 10:38-42) — has long been regarded as a story about how the contemplative life is “higher” than the active life. The Cloud of Unknowing forcefully makes this traditional argument. But in her book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Dorothee Soelle offers an interesting and unusual re-interpretation of that passage from no less a mystic than Meister Eckhart.
Meister Eckhart . . . places the still uncompleted Mary at the beginning of the spiritual life while the active Martha is much further ahead. “Martha feared that her sister would remain stuck in her feelings of well-being and in sweetness.” Then this spiritual counselor completely reverses the sense of the Biblical text that assigns “the better part” to Mary and, identifying himself with the activist Martha, says, “Therefore Christ spoke to her and said, ‘Set your mind at ease, Martha, she too has chosen the better part. This [viz. Mary's inaction] will come to an end in her . . . hand she will be blessed like you!” This reversal is not only about rehabilitating Martha and active behavior but also about abolishing the division of human beings into makers and dreamers, activists and introverts, and the differentiation between the productivity of action and the receptivity of piety. By not separating Martha’s acting from Mary’s contemplative devotion but, rather, conceiving of Mary in Martha, Eckhart does away with the false superordination as well as the compulsive choice between two forms of life, the spiritual and the worldly. In the perspective of mysticism, this hierarchy is untenable.
— Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry:
Mysticism and Resistance
I’m reminded of Richard Rohr’s book on contemplation, Everything Belongs. Contemplation is about bringing things together, not dividing them out. It is human nature to judge, to discriminate, to discern, to separate, to analyze, to evaluate. And in so many aspects of life, such skills are important and necessary. But contemplation is not about separation, but about unity, common ground, relatedness, the place where everything belongs. And so I think Eckhart is really on to something here.
In the spirit of “everything belongs,” Mary and Martha have more that unites them than separates them. Sure, there is the immediacy of two sisters who are at odds, and I rather like to think that Jesus nudged Mary and said, “It would be a kindness to go help your sister.” (Actually, what I really like to think happened is that Jesus said, “Let’s all pitch in and get the food prepared!” although gender roles may have meant that such an idea would have been even more upsetting to Martha than having Mary sit with “the boys” while she did all the work). At any rate, given Jesus’s overall commitment to love, fairness and basic common sense, I think we can trust that he didn’t just blow Martha off, although the abrupt end of the story in Luke makes it seem so. But no matter what happened after the story as we know it ends, it’s clear that Jesus defends Mary as his initial response to Martha’s complaint. Eckhart, however, turns this upside down by suggesting that Jesus sees Mary as immature. Maybe Martha was 25 and Mary only 15. Mary, enamored by the local celebrity rabbi showing up in the house, naturally wanted to hang out with him, and forgot about her socially prescribed duties. When Martha asks Jesus to intervene, he responds indulgently toward the girl at his feet. But if Eckhart is right, he is not dissing Martha so much as asking her to cut her sister a bit of slack. “When she grows up, she’ll be as responsible as you, Martha. But she is wise to discover the wisdom of busting out of social roles and nurturing her own thirst for knowledge — or devotion.”
What I like about Eckhart’s way of interpreting Luke 10:38-42 is that it preserves the classic idea of honoring contemplation, but not at the expense of attacking the active life. Both are necessary; everything belongs. The mark of true spiritual maturity is not in abandoning one’s duties to sit at Jesus’s feet. Rather, the mark of true spiritual maturity is learning how to integrate the contemplative and the active in a continual rhythm of — as the Benedictines put it — ora et labora (prayer and work).