Is the contemplative life more excellent than the active life?

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Edouard Manet, “The Monk at Prayer” (1865)

The Gospel of Luke alone records this story in the life of my Savior:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her  (Luke 10:38-42, ESV)

David Jeffrey Lyle, distinguished professor of literature and humanities at Baylor University, has written a commentary on Luke for Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. He astutely observes:

If Luke 10 had ended with the parable of the good Samaritan, we might be justified in thinking that the proper end of the Christian life is generous service to others, exceeding in abundance what the law alone might be thought to require. This brief pericope, however, balances our perspective in a crucial way. This is one case where the sometimes artificial thirteenth-century chapter divisions of Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton have it just right: the true disciple of Jesus must surely love and serve his neighbor – even those not normally thought of as neighbors – but the Lord must be loved first and always. Communing with him, being in his presence and taking in his instruction, is accordingly fundamental nourishment for the balanced Christian life.

Lyle continues:

What Mary is doing by way of service to the Lord is good, but what Mary is doing is actually better: “One thing is needful,” Jesus says, “and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (10:42 KJV). The “good part,” the fathers suggest, is a figurative reference to a better meal, as Augustine puts it, the Bread of life. The point . . . is not that we should imagine a stern disapprobation of the service of Martha, for that would undercut all that has previously been taught, but rather that Jesus here distinguishes between two kinds of duties incumbent upon the faithful disciple.

This distinction later will become symbolic of a choice between the active and contemplative life. Gregory the Great, following John Cassian . . . and many spiritual writers from medieval to modern times repeat him. It is probably to some degree true that, while medieval Christians were inclined to elevate the choice of the contemplative Mary over the active Martha, in Western Christianity since the Reformation the Martha model has become ascendant. Calvin, in fact, sets the Protestant emphasis when he strongly resists any interpretation of this episode that would seem to praise the contemplative over the active life, referring to the earlier view of his medieval predecessors as “wickedly perverted” and assuring his readers that “Christ was far from intending that his disciples should devote themselves to idle and frigid speculations” . . . [T]he “way of Mary” has continued to be regarded as the higher calling in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Calvin’s remarks about this episode in Luke strike me as a reflexive prejudice against the contemplative life of monastics. Instead of choosing between the contemplative or active life, we should regard both orientations as vital avenues to flourishing in Christ. Remembering that Mary and Martha are sisters, the story can be read metaphorically to affirm that contemplation and action are siblings: there is a kinship between them but also a birth order, in which contemplative Mary precedes active Martha. Lyle persuasively argues:

Luke intends us to perceive a complementarity: while active service of the Lord coupled with love of one’s neighbor is a hallmark of the disciple’s life, none can long practice it rightly without sitting at the feet of the Lord. Another way of putting this would be to say that the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is subsequent to and dependent upon our loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. In the spirit of Ps. 119:57-64, drawing near to God and attending, undistracted, to his word is certainly essential to developing that kind of self-effacement: in the apt comment of twelfth-century Cistercian William of St. Thierry, amor ipse intellectus est (“love itself is understanding”).

Complementarity does not not mean equality. Charitable acts are subordinate to divine contemplation, which Jesus calls “the one thing needful.”* Thomas Aquinas helps me to understand the surpassing excellence of contemplation in Question 182 of Summa Theologia.

Nothing prevents certain things being more excellent in themselves, whereas they are surpassed by another in some respect. Accordingly we must reply that the contemplative life is simply more excellent than the active: and the Philosopher proves this by eight reasons (Ethic. x, 7,8). The first is, because the contemplative life becomes man according to that which is best in him, namely the intellect, and according to its proper objects, namely things intelligible; whereas the active life is occupied with externals. Hence Rachael, by whom the contemplative life is signified, is interpreted “the vision of the principle,” [Or rather, ‘One seeing the principle,’ if derived from rah and irzn; Cf. Jerome, De Nom. Hebr.] whereas as Gregory says (Moral. vi, 37) the active life is signified by Lia who was blear-eyed. The second reason is because the contemplative life can be more continuous, although not as regards the highest degree of contemplation, as stated above (180, 8, ad 2; 181, 4, ad 3), wherefore Mary, by whom the contemplative life is signified, is described as “sitting” all the time “at the Lord’s feet.” Thirdly, because the contemplative life is more delightful than the active; wherefore Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. Serm. ciii) that “Martha was troubled, but Mary feasted.” Fourthly, because in the contemplative life man is more self-sufficient, since he needs fewer things for that purpose; wherefore it was said (Luke 10:41): “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and art troubled about many things.” Fifthly, because the contemplative life is loved more for its own sake, while the active life is directed to something else. Hence it is written (Psalm 36:4): “One thing I have asked of the Lord, this will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, that I may see the delight of the Lord.” Sixthly, because the contemplative life consists in leisure and rest, according to Psalm 45:11, “Be still and see that I am God.” Seventhly, because the contemplative life is according to Divine things, whereas active life is according to human things; wherefore Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. Serm. civ): “‘In the beginning was the Word’: to Him was Mary hearkening: ‘The Word was made flesh’: Him was Martha serving.” Eighthly, because the contemplative life is according to that which is most proper to man, namely his intellect; whereas in the works of the active life the lower powers also, which are common to us and brutes, have their part; wherefore (Psalm 35:7) after the words, “Men and beasts Thou wilt preserve, O Lord,” that which is special to man is added (Psalm 35:10): “In Thy light we shall see light.

Our Lord adds a ninth reason (Luke 10:42) when He says: “Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her,” which words Augustine (De Verb. Dom. Serm. ciii) expounds thus: “Not–Thou hast chosen badly but–She has chosen better. Why better? Listen–because it shall not be taken away from her. But the burden of necessity shall at length be taken from thee: whereas the sweetness of truth is eternal.”

Recognizing that “some are taken away from the state of the contemplative life to the occupations of the active life,” Aquinas, quoting his predecessor Augustine, graciously says that action adds to the Christ-life rather than subtracts, although contemplation should not be neglected because its focus on the truth sweetens action.

Sometimes a man is called away from the contemplative life to the works of the active life, on account of some necessity of the present life, yet not so as to be compelled to forsake contemplation altogether. Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xix, 19): “The love of truth seeks a holy leisure, the demands of charity undertake an honest toil,” the work namely of the active life. “If no one imposes this burden upon us we must devote ourselves to the research and contemplation of truth, but if it be imposed on us, we must bear it because charity demands it of us. Yet even then we must not altogether forsake the delights of truth, lest we deprive ourselves of its sweetness, and this burden overwhelm us.” Hence it is clear that when a person is called from the contemplative life to the active life, this is done by way not of subtraction but of addition.

From a medieval Christian point of view, I am probably an active man. Monks and nuns were called to the contemplative life, whereas laymen were called to the active life. Undoubtedly, teaching is a more contemplative line of work compared to, say, engineering, business, medicine, or law, but it is still active insofar as my “holy leisure” is interrupted by “the demands of charity.” Nonetheless, I am grateful that teaching gives me ample space to contemplate.

* In his 1854 novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens entitles his opening chapter, “The One Thing Needful,” a clear biblical allusion to Luke 10:42.

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