Action and contemplation, re: Martha and Mary

Yesterday we heard the story of Martha and Mary; our Dominican preacher, Fr. Juan Torres, said that we should not interpret this story as follows: action and contemplation are rivals in conflict with each other and Jesus teaches that contemplation wins. No, Jesus is teaching the proper ordering of action and contemplation. Action proceeds from contemplation. The one thing necessary is attentiveness to the word of God and the loving response in faith. The rebuke to the activist comes through loud and clear; but we have missed a deeper point if we walk away with a supposed affirmation of contemplation along the lines of Greek philosophy or academic idleness. Jacques Maritain rightly says that Christ has established a “reversal of values,” a “transvaluation” of values, if you will, by displacing the proud intellectual contemplative of old, so loved by the Greek and Roman philosophers, who sought assimilation to the detached and self-sufficient god of the philosophers. They are displaced by the little ones who have the secrets revealed to them, the humble ones who wait upon the Lord. As Pascal experience, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a living fire, transforming life. Detachment, idleness, peaceful self sufficiency, are not the fate of the men and women of the Beatitudes.

Here is Maritain’s explanation of the Christian reversal of the ancient philosophical ideal:

Supreme wisdom and supreme contemplation are no longer the summit of human science and philosophy but the abyss in man of the gift of the uncreated Spirit which makes him experience, in faith through Charity and the union of love, what no effort of the human intelligence can comprehend, and the things of God known as unknown. The very notion of contemplation changes its meaning, because from now on it designates an experience in which love instructs the intelligence, and a veiled communion with subsistent Truth, Life and Goodness, a communion which is under the very touch of God. Christian contemplation exists not for “the perfection of him who contemplates and does not terminate in the intellect, like the contemplation of the philosophers. It exists for love of Him who is contemplated and does not terminate in the intellect for the sake of knowing but passes into the heart, for the sake of loving,” (St Albert the Great) because it proceeds itself from love. And for this same reason it does not terminate in a theoretical accomplishment but superabounds in action. Jacques Maritain, Challenges and Renewals pp 202-203; from Moral Philosophy, p. 83.

 That description fits Mary’s portion perfectly —  she was instructed by love himself, not veiled, but in the flesh. We participate in the same contemplation, but veiled, as Maritain says, through signs. Contemplation will lead to action, out of love. For when the Lord of Love instructs your intelligence it will indeed “pass into the heart, for the sake of loving.” Fr Torres said this story must be interpreted in light of the parable of the Good Samaritan in which our Lord instructs us “to go and DO likewise.” The story of Martha and Mary teaches us the dynamic interplay of action and contemplation, and the rebuke to the activist is far less interesting than the burning love of the saint.

I believe this is a harder lesson for the academic than it is for the practical person who is busy getting things done. So perhaps it is fitting that we need an Aquinas, with impeccable academic credentials, to explain the relationship to us. (See Summa II-II 179-182, judicious selections may be found in the Classics of Western Spirituality, Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings, Simon Tugwell, Paulist Press,1988). Fr Torres plucked out just the right passage from Aquinas — contemplation inspires and guides the active life (II II 182.4), especially response to obj. 2.

Maritain’s reference to the great Dominican and teacher of Thomas Aquinas is from De Adherendo Deo, chap. 9, a fitting source for backing up the words of the Dominican at Holy Rosary in Houston, Tx..

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