Monday, July 22, 2013

Contemplatives Aren't Active

It happened again yesterday, in the homily given by the priest at my parish. I love this priest and appreciate his no-nonsense statement of the truths of the Church. He will not pull punches.

But last night, I was a bit disappointed. This was a novus ordo Mass, and the Gospel was Luke 10:38-42, in which Martha complains to Jesus that her sister Mary won’t help with the hostess-work. Our Lord, of course, tells Martha that “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

It seems to me that this passage is something of a litmus test that helps distinguish between contemplative and active souls. The active souls object to what Jesus told Martha, and are willing to venture that He has made a slight error!

The priest last night extolled the “life of prayer” to some extent, but he said that the thought Mary shouldn’t get the highest marks – maybe only 90%, because we still need to “do” something.  He did acknowledge that God gave Mary the go-ahead, but still added his own opinion on the matter. “Faith without works is dead”, he quoted St. James. And so contemplatives must also engage in “works” in order to prove themselves, it seems. Engaging in works (as defined by “active” types) will help the contemplative lead a “balanced” life. Our priest thought Mary would have done better if she’d gotten up to help Martha a little bit.

Well…Jesus didn’t think so.

Mary’s work was contemplative, I think. No, she didn’t wash dishes or serve hors d’oeuvers; she worshiped Our Lord by listening to him, by focusing all of her attention on Him. It seems to me that “actives” don’t see this as work. They see it as sloth. They think it is easy to “just sit there” and listen. They don’t see that as “doing” something. And “doing” is what they are all about.

Of course, there are gradations. Few are completely active or completely contemplative. Our priest has a contemplative bent, I think, but he is also very much oriented toward activity, and he usually interprets “active participation” at Mass to mean actively participating in singing, etc. Another priest I know has very little of the contemplative in his personality. He gives the same homily about Martha every year on her feast day, saying that Martha deserves more credit than she gets, because she did all the work when Jesus came to visit. Where would we be, this “active” priest asks, if everyone just sat around like Mary? Martha is a hero to him; Mary is…well, Mary just didn’t pull her weight.

Of course, it is true that “faith without works is dead”. But it’s in the definition of “works” that we disagree. Contemplatives do perform “works” – even if those works are not seen by others. And contemplatives do, at times, even perform those works the “actives” are talking about. But mostly, actives don’t understand contemplatives. That’s just the bottom line, I guess.

Allow me to repeat my favorite quote from The Cloud of Unknowing:

What I am describing here is the contemplative work of the spirit. It is this which gives God the greatest delight. For when you fix your love on him, forgetting all else, the saints and angels rejoice and hasten to assist you in every way – though the devils will rage and ceaselessly conspire to thwart you. Your fellow men are marvelously enriched by this work of yours, even if you many not fully understand how; the souls in purgatory are touched, for their suffering is eased by the effects of this work; and of course, your own spirit is purified and strengthened by this contemplative work more than by all others put together. (p. 48)

 Contemplatives do perform “works”. But their work is often a little different from that expected by actives.

I wrote about this in another post, too: In Defense of the Contemplative Life 

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