Scripture: Luke 10:38-42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who also 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.”
Reflection: Active & Contemplative
I sometimes worry that I am a lousy dinner guest. Whenever I get to go visit someone for dinner, I always go in telling myself, Jessie, after dinner is done, don’t forget to help clean up! And then, every time, I get yapping with one of the hosts, or absorbed in a story someone is telling, or caught up playing with the kids, that before I know it it’s 8:30 pm and my little ones are coming unglued and I realize that I just need to get out of these poor peoples’ hair so they can move on with their evening! And then I catch a glimpse of the pile of the dishes on my way out and feel just awful! It feels so ungrateful to go and consume good food and good company and good conversation and then just leave a pile of pots and pans to scrub.
The dilemma Mary and Martha give us is one that I feel keenly. As someone who is terrible at multitasking, I often need to decide, and not just at dinner parties or even hosting them, which thing am I going to fully commit to giving my focus to. The labor that needs to be done, or the interpersonal engagement.
I love the story of Mary and Martha, but I know I need to be careful with it. At first blush it feels a little like it’s setting up this binary around what it means to be a “good Christian.” Are we supposed to be active, OR contemplative? And it seems to unapologetically pick a side, the side of the more contemplative types, the side of sitting and hanging out and talking and listening, the side my nerdy and domestically-challenged heart could happily dwell in forever.
Yet if any of the gospel writers know the value of good active ministry it’s Luke, the gospel where our story came from today. In seminary they teach you a kind of shorthand for the overarching themes of each of the four gospels: Matthew is the “Jewish” one, the one most invested in Jesus’ Jewish pedigree, John is the “Spiritual/Mystical” one, Mark is the first one, the oldest one, the OG-gospel if you will, and Luke is often called “the Social Justice” one. It’s Luke who gives us the Magnificat, the Good Samaritan, the Widow and the Unjust Judge, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke pulls no punches when it comes to God’s vision of a reversed social order, and Luke does not tread lightly when he calls us to the active work of lifting of the lowly and building God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness. Social Justice is Luke’s brand.
Yet in the story of Mary and Martha, it almost feels like Luke is arguing with himself a bit. Or maybe, providing an important caveat to his broader themes, some crucial context for the life he calls us to. Both Mary and Martha are deeply active in Jesus’ ministry, and many have even called them his disciples. Here, Martha is simply doing what she’s supposed to do: provide hospitality, food, and shelter to this poor, nomadic band of religious zealots. Yet Jesus affirms Mary’s little sabbath of sorts as she sits at his feet. He commends her for sitting down and simply drinking in his words, in spite of all the work there was to be done. Jesus knew that you can’t pour from an empty cup, and wanted to encourage his followers to take time to connect with him, to rest and rejuvenate before embarking on the busyness of their ministry work.
This summer I took a class on Christian mysticism, and it had me thinking a lot about the active/contemplative divide that has characterized various traditions within Christianity. Mysticism is the exploration of the most intimate aspects of the relationship between God and the soul. Mysticism values knowledge gained by experiencing love over knowledge gained by reason, and mystical writing relies heavily on metaphor and imagery, rather than Biblical research or intellectual arguments.
I’d always thought of mysticism as deeply interior and contemplative. The only mystics I’d spent any time reading were types to go off in the desert by themselves and have religious fever dreams, or wall themselves up in a church, Cask-of-Amantillado-style with a little window carved out so they could take in their one meal a day and give out cryptic advice to pilgrims. I have to confess I was a little skeptical about what these profoundly isolated people would have to offer the present world, one in which we are already too isolated and divided, a world which needs connection more than anything.
But then I discovered the Beguines. The Beguines were an unofficial order of religious women that emerged in the 1200’s. But unlike nuns, Beguines took no vows of lifelong poverty or chastity. Women could become Beguines for as long as they wished, and unlike nuns they only committed to chastity for the time they were involved with the group. Beguines also did not commit to a life of poverty, like nuns did. Beguines wanted to be able work to independently support themselves, their group homes, and their charitable endeavors rather than be dependent upon the support of the institutional Church to carry out their ministries.
The Beguines opened high-quality schools for poor children and hospitals for those who didn’t have access to doctors, they were known in particular for treating Lepers when few else would. Florence Nightingale, in fact, is said to have been inspired by stories she’d heard about the Beguines when, centuries later, she began her own nursing work. The Beguine way of life proved to be quite attractive for women of all classes in Medieval Europe. In one town with a population of about 15,000 people, there were 2,000 who were Beguines at one time.
As I’m learning all this, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was that made this life so attractive, and what it was about this life that produced such rich apostolic fruit. What was it that fueled their ability to make such a profound difference in their local communities?
The Beguines did all of that incredible “active” work while actually considering themselves an intensely contemplative order. They defined themselves not at all by the charity work they did that was so impressive to outsiders, but by their own passionate devotion to Jesus. All those charities were simply a side-effect of their contemplative love for Jesus.
Beguine spirituality was primarily characterized by a desperate, passionate longing for a kind of mystical union with Christ. So, they made it their life’s work to seek Jesus in all things, in the quest for a kind of spiritual union with him. They wanted to emulate him, to adopt all his ways, to partake in all his earthly experiences (especially the harder ones), so that they could become more like him, and in becoming more like him, ultimately equip themselves to become “one” with him.
I know this approach sounds really strange to modern ears (and, to be honest, it gets even stranger), but I can’t escape the idea that it was simply this longing they felt for that oneness that inspired so much of the good work did in the world.
In longing to be like Christ and to become one with Christ, they began to truly love as Christ loves.
It was that longing that unified the active and contemplative approaches to spirituality. Here, in the Beguine communities, both the “Mary”-types and the “Martha”-types were welcome, and they fed, supported, and sustained one another, and continued to strengthen the side that maybe came less naturally to them. I feel like, maybe the Beguines could have taught me how to have a good, deep, spirit-filled conversation while washing the dishes.
The Beguines’ longing-filled contemplation of Christ inspired their action, and their efforts towards actively emulating the walk of Jesus helped illuminate Jesus’ words in new ways for them. They wanted to do what Jesus did not because they thought it would impress anybody, or even impress God.
They walked in Jesus’ footsteps because they thought it would help them understand him better, love him better, they thought it would help them see the world from his perspective, it would equip them to be more united with him. They didn’t wait placidly for their quiet contemplation to inspire their action, but rather they dove into the “action” and let it shape their contemplation.
So, I’ll be with you for two more weeks until Rev. Catherine comes back and starts leading worship again, and in that time I am hoping to dig a little more into the Beguine mystics and this question of the relationship between our life practice and our spiritual practice.
We talk a lot about how our spirituality helps us live in the world. But equally important in Christian life is how our living in the world informs our spirituality. How have the good things you have done for others—the Christlike things, and don’t be afraid to claim them as such! Remember in the 90’s when we all were asking ourselves “What Would Jesus Do?” and maybe sometimes even did it?
How have the good things you’ve done—as a parent, as a friend, as a worker or volunteer or caregiver—how have they impacted your understanding of who Jesus was and is? What active experiences in your life have helped you contemplate Jesus in a new light, and maybe brought your relationship with him to a new level? That’s the question that I really feel the Beguine mystics calling us to contemplate. So, I hope you’ll take this journey with me in the weeks to come.