Conversatio Divina

A Meditation on Jan Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Mary and Martha

O Taste and See

Juliet Benner

“Mary…was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His Feet.”

Luke 10:39, NASB

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) was a Dutch artist who was not recognized for his art until only a hundred years ago. He has come to our most recent notice through the movie based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which was inspired by a visually stunning painting by Vermeer.

Vermeer’s interest in art was sparked by his father’s livelihood as an innkeeper, art dealer, and a worker in fine silk and satins. His frequent treatment of these in many of his paintings reveals this childhood influence. Known mainly for his paintings of interior scenes, Vermeer’s genius lay in his ability to capture the soul and inner life of people. He was masterful at transfixing images in suspended silence, transforming ordinary, everyday images into eternal reflections of feelings and passion.

Raised in a Protestant home in Delft, Vermeer converted to Catholicism when he married Catharina Thins. Together they produced fifteen children, four of whom died in infancy, who placed a huge financial burden on him. Apparently, it was a happy home, but the stress of maintaining such a large family took its toll, and he experienced financial collapse in his final years. Only thirty-five paintings survive today.

Vermeer’s genius lay in his depiction of images of everyday life. He gave dignity and grace to the ordinary life that surrounded him. His use of strong light and color and his broad handling of the paint show the influence of Caravaggio and the Utrecht school on his art.

The painting by Vermeer, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (1654) hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland. Its large size (63” x 56”) suggests that it may have been a commissioned piece. It is believed to be his earliest surviving work and his only known painting on a biblical theme. Vermeer’s depiction creates an intimate interaction among his subjects, their close-up treatment drawing us into the story.

“Mary . . . was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet” (Luke 10:39, NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)).

 

In its broadest sense, contemplative prayer is being open to the beauty and power of God—basking in his presence and enjoying his company. No words or thoughts are necessary. It is simply allowing oneself to be totally captivated by God and resting in him.

If contemplative prayer is understood in this way, I would have to say I have been a contemplative for most of my life. Thanks to the cultural and familial tradition in which I grew up, I learned early on that I lived in a world that was saturated with the presence of God. As a young child, I was keenly aware that I was with God and God was with me, and the joy of being present to the God who was Presence to me has been the subtext of my life.

None of this makes me special. I am convinced this is true of many more people than might realize it—possibly all of us. As children, the majority of us, I suspect, knew much more about such attentive openness to God than we now either recall or know how to practice.

We see these natural roots of contemplation in our childlike gasp of wonder when we are confronted with a magnificent evening sky or majestic mountains. Such moments snatch us up outside ourselves into a place of self-transcendence. We lose ourselves in wonder and rapture. This natural contemplation is the soil out of which Christian contemplative prayer develops. From here, God can draw us into a posture of gazing on our Beloved and being lost in the Divine presence.

Although visual images are not essential, many people find they enhance the practice of contemplative prayer. This is why some people find themselves more open to God when walking in a forest, sitting in a beautiful cathedral, or contemplatively reflecting on works of art. These external objects are not the focus of contemplation, but a means to open oneself to God. They are not the object of prayer, but an aid.

Like any act of contemplation, engaging with art as an aid to prayer demands stillness, silence, and openness. Such a posture offers us a reflective space in which contemplative prayer can develop. Art goes beyond words to an indescribably deeper place within our souls. Silence is the means by which the inexpressible is communicated and transforms sign into symbol.

The cover art of each issue of this journal has offered such a place to open ourselves to the practice of contemplative prayer. The guided biblical meditations associated with the art have allowed us to walk together through the paintings, quietly developing an interior silence and stillness that opens us to God. The painting on the cover of this issue presents us with a visual depiction of what this posture of contemplative prayer looks like in the person of Mary.

Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, seems to me to be someone who knew how to live her life in this deep place of silence, surrender, and openness to God. I very much doubt that she ever attended a workshop on contemplative prayer or that she had read any books or articles on it. Yet she lived her life in a posture that is captured in the familiar Gospel story that sets the scene for this issue’s cover art.

01.  Christ in the House of Mary and Martha

We all know the account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha. Vermeer’s rendering of this very familiar story depicts the three friends in a room together. It shows the moment when Jesus responds to Martha’s complaint about Mary’s apparent neglect in helping her.

But before looking at the painting, take time for a slow, meditative reading of this story of Jesus’ visit with the two sisters. The complete account is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, verses 38–42. Read it as if for the first time. Notice any new images or thoughts that come to your mind. After you have done this, spend time looking at the painting. Sit quietly and comfortably, without any distractions, and prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, asking for your eyes and heart to be opened to the spiritual realities the painting presents.

02.  First Impressions

How does this painting change or enhance your understanding of the story? What is your initial response to it? How is this scene different from the one you may have formed in your imagination as you read the story?

The painting shows an intimate interior. The three people in it are obviously very close friends. Jesus has had a long relationship with Mary and Martha, and it seems he visited them often. Here he is relaxed and comfortable in their home as he sits at their table. Martha is busily preparing the food they are about to eat, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to him.

Notice how this depiction transcends time. All the elements suggest a setting within Vermeer’s culture and period. But Jesus remains clothed in the Middle Eastern garb of his time and place. The Jesus of history comes to them and meets them in their world. He does the same for us.

The room is dark, serving to highlight the three dominant figures who are important to the story. The light brings them all into sharp focus. They are held tightly in a large triangle in the center of which is a brilliant white cloth, also a triangle. This artistic device invites us into the drama of the painting. Let us enter it together.

The text reminds us that when Jesus arrived at their house, Martha scurried about, making preparations to receive this special guest. By offering a meal, she was extending the hospitality that was normal and expected for the culture of Jesus’ time. In the midst of her hurried preparations, she notices that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him instead of helping her with the work. This is perfectly understandable to us. We, too, would feel put out if we were left doing all the work when a guest arrived.

Then in her frustration and distraction, Martha approaches Jesus and complains about the situation to him. She expresses her resentment to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” It seems unfair that Mary gets to sit and visit while Martha is left to do the preparations alone. Jesus’ response, at first seeming to carry a hint of impatience and scolding, is rather one of sadness and longing. He wants Martha to join him and Mary in this warm circle of friendship.

Jesus acknowledges Martha’s contribution to the “many things” that needed to be done. But he goes on to tell her that she is too preoccupied with them and needs to do the “only one” necessary thing. That one thing is to be fully present to him and enjoy his company.

03.  A Closer Look

Look at Martha in the painting. Her sleeves are pushed up to allow her to work unfettered by her clothing, which is plain and practical. In her hands she holds a basket of bread she probably baked herself. As she places it on the table, she turns her face to Jesus to express her concerns.

Jesus, in turn, looks at Martha but gestures toward Mary to indicate the one good thing that “shall not be taken away from her.” It is an open, warm gesture, also communicating to Martha that she is included in it if she will allow it. Interplay among the three figures creates continuous movement among them in an otherwise still painting. The light and love on Jesus’ face as he turns toward Martha express a tender and compassionate longing for fellowship with her too. Notice how his right hand, open and extended and highlighted by the bright white of the tablecloth, is not only pointing to Mary but is also gently inviting her to spend time enjoying him. His hand seems to be offering us the same invitation. How do we respond?

What does this one necessary thing look like? Let us turn our focus to Mary. She sits on a low stool at Jesus’ feet. Her clothing is brighter and more colorful than Martha’s. Could it be something special she put on for this occasion? This could reflect her anticipation of his visit and her personal preparation for it. She sits is a relaxed manner, her left arm resting lightly on her left knee. Her right arm supports her face as she leans slightly forward to attend to Jesus’ words. Her feet are bare, suggestive of her humility and a visible symbol of a disciple.

Mary conveys to us a posture of complete openness and receptivity to Jesus. She sits silently and attentively. Her position in the painting places her apart from Martha and Martha’s activities. She seems almost isolated in her devotion. Her whole being is enraptured by Jesus. As if she were a child, nothing in her surroundings distracts her from her single-minded, single-eyed absorption. Hers is a posture of natural, unforced devotion that comes out of a heart of love, not duty. She did not say to herself, “I must have my quiet time alone with Jesus.” She is caught up in her contemplation and looks to Jesus as a lover would to her beloved. Her gaze is one that powerfully communicates to us the meaning of Christian contemplative prayer.

In Mary we see the elements of stillness, silence, solitude, and a listening heart. It is not easy in our fast-paced world to enter into this contemplative space. Like Mary, we need to dispose ourselves to it, making the time and space in our busy lives to come apart from the world’s activities. She shows us how to simply sit and be with God. There is no analysis in her being, no looking at herself in attempts to know her progress. There is no chatter at Jesus, no filling of empty space to avoid silence, just an adoring gaze.

Mary sits so close to Jesus that she seems to merge with him in the painting. Her knee seems to touch his. The shadowed rendering of their garments makes little distinction between them. There is real physical and heart intimacy conveyed here. The vivid and sumptuously rendered tapestry behind Mary adds to the feeling of warmth and vitality in this relationship. This is a rich friendship that allows space for just being together.

Contemplative prayer allows her and us to listen with complete abandon to God. It is in this posture that we are enabled really to hear the voice of God. We need to be quiet, to stop talking, and let ourselves be drawn into the silent mystery that is God. Notice that Mary and Jesus are right in the midst of the household activity. Jesus comes to us, communes with us, in the midst of our day-to-day existence. Our challenge is to be so attuned to him there that we can be drawn into a stillness of heart no matter what our surrounding circumstances. Practice in contemplative prayer cultivates this interior silence.

Jesus responds with inviting warmth to her attentions. At the same time, he encourages Martha to leave aside her active absorption and consider choosing another way of relating to him. What preoccupied Martha was not unimportant or trivial. It was a necessary observance of cultural tradition and hospitality. Yet Jesus seems to be saying to her that as necessary as these things are, they must flow out of a posture and heart like Mary’s—out of devotion and love.

04.  Stepping Back

All of our doing must flow out of being—spending time, “wasting time,” in wordless silence with God. In a world that measures progress and rewards achievements, this way of being runs counter to the ways we have been conditioned to respond to God. Worded prayers of praise, worship, and petitions to God are necessary to our faith life, but so often we neglect the important contemplative aspect of prayer. It is here, where we cease our talking and simply listen, that we can most easily discern the still, small voice of God.

Step back from the painting and reflect on any new insights you may have received during this time of contemplation. Consider the ways you may use to avoid stillness and silence in your relationship with God. As you look again at Martha, what would be in your basket? What preoccupies you? What are the “many things” that worry and bother you? With whom do you identify in the painting at this moment?

Place yourself in the painting. Where would you be? What do you hear Jesus saying to you? How does he respond to the way you relate to him? What invitation is he extending to you now?

Allow this moment of quiet reflection and contemplation to deepen your awareness of God in your daily round of life’s activities. Consider how this could help you to become more attuned to the presence of God in your everyday circumstances, in the people with whom you interact, and in yourself. Notice, as you walk through each day, what distractions keep you from simply being enraptured with the Lord.

Hear again the Psalmist’s invitations to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, NRSV Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.), and “Rest [be still] in the Lord and wait patiently [longingly] for Him” (Psalm 37:7, NASB).

We do not need to remove ourselves from the world to engage in contemplative prayer. True contemplatives follow Jesus to the very center of the world and make their lives a prayer to God from there. Contemplative prayer begins by basking in the presence of our Beloved and then taking that Presence with us as we live out our daily lives in the world.

Footnotes

Juliet Benner is a spiritual director with a special interest in the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She and her husband live on Vancouver Island in Canada and regularly lead retreats throughout Asia, the South Pacific, and Europe. She can be contacted by e-mail at julietbenner@gmail.com.