Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
Through the centuries there has been an immense amount of commentary on these two sisters, most of it favouring Mary. But Meister Eckhart, almost alone among the mystics, favoured Martha over Mary. “Mary was praised for choosing the best; but Martha's life was of very great profit, for she served Christ and his disciples. St Thomas says the active life is better than the contemplative, in so far as in action one pours out, for love, that which one has gained in contemplation. It is actually the same thing, for we take only from the same ground of contemplation and make it fruitful in works, and thus the object of contemplation is achieved.”
It was more usual to favour Mary. So Jeanne-Marie Guyon (1648 – 1717) wrote, “Martha did what was right; but because she did it in her own spirit Christ rebuked her. The human spirit is restless and turbulent; for which reason it does little, though it would appear to do much. ‘Martha,’ says Christ, ‘you are worried and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary; and Mary has chosen the better part which shall not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:41, 42). And what was it that Mary had chosen? Repose, tranquillity, and peace. She apparently ceased to act, that the Spirit of Christ might act in her; she ceased to live, that Christ might be her life.”
Mde Guyon’s friend, François Fénelon, tried to put them in balance, rather than just favouring one. In this, he was on a similar path to the 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing, which favoured the contemplative life but the active life essential to it. “There are two ways of life in Holy Church. One is the active, the other is the contemplative life. Active is the lower, contemplative the higher. The active life has two parts, a higher and a lower, and likewise the contemplative has two parts, a lower and a higher. These two ways of life are linked, and though they are different, each is dependent on the other. For what we call the higher part of the active life is the same as the lower part of the contemplative. You cannot be fully active unless you are partly contemplative, nor fully contemplative (at least on earth) unless you are partly active.”
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