From the very beginning of the Christian tradition there has been a tendency to view Martha in contrast to her sister Mary. And today’s Gospel is the basis for that approach. We seem to have here a clear comparison of two approaches, or as our psychologically oriented culture might say, two personality types.
The standard line has Martha typifying the active life of service in the world, while Mary represents the more contemplative life of religious devotion. In one of his homilies Saint Augustine extends that comparison, suggesting that Martha stands for our life in the world: a life of labour and sorrow; while Mary represents the life to come, where we will enjoy the eternal contemplation of God.
There have also been voices down through the centuries suggesting that we could, and that we should, have it both ways. Walter Hilton, a 14th century English mystic, wrote an ‘Epistle on the Meddled Life’ in which he offered the opinion that combining the attitudes of Martha and Mary in a meddled or mixed style would be by far the best approach.
Most people today have little choice about whether they are going to live the active life of Martha. There are always things to do: rooms to clean, grass to cut, meals to cook, meetings to attend, jobs to work at; more than enough things to keep us “anxious and upset”. At times, these constant demands may conspire against our enjoying the benefits of Mary’s approach. This is the dichotomy faced by many religious communities. Am I here to work, or am I here to pray? And if it’s both, how do I blend both together? Today’s Gospel asks us whether our lives make a statement that says, in effect, ‘I don’t have time to be attentive to the Word of God’. How willing am I to put aside my work and answer the call of the chapel bell when it calls me to prayer?
Contemplation of God doesn’t have to take us out of our everyday life; there are always things to be done. Rather, it should provide us with a new perspective of that life. True contemplation allows us to live the seemingly paradoxical mixed life of being active and busy while remaining focused firmly on the “one thing only that is required”.