Three months ago, my wife and I moved to a hermitage. Here, I am surrounded by God’s creation. I have a daily rhythm. I sit at the feet of Jesus, pray, and attend daily liturgy. Times of solitude, silence, and stillness are easy to come by.
I imagined things would be different by now, but the truth is that in my attempt to curb my restless activity with more contemplation, life at the hermitage is just as “active” as it was outside the cloister walls. It still only takes a small distraction or the unpredictability of living in such a remote place without all the amenities to render me unsettled, restless, and frenetic. After three months in the cloister, I’m beginning to question the extent to which my spiritual practices have any bearing upon my day-to-day life! So, I’ve started to look more deeply into what I would describe as a spiritually, theologically, and culturally conditioned division within me and asking, how might I live more coherently?
02. Mary and Martha
The history of interpretation of Luke 10:38–42 speaks to this innate desire to achieve some sort of harmony between a life of prayer and work. Mary the contemplative sits at the feet of Jesus while Martha is busy at work.
While scholars agree that the passage is to be read spiritually as an allegory of the two ways of life, there is less agreement regarding which is the superior posture. Most scholars contend that the contemplative life of Mary is “better” (following Jesus’ words in verse 42). However, St. Augustine praises both Martha and Mary for “waiting” on the Lord in their own unique way, while the mystic Meister Eckhart goes so far as to say that Martha’s life of action is superior to Mary’s.For an abbreviated summary of the history of the interpretation of Luke 10:38–42 see: https://lifeisthismoment.com/2016/05/21/being-at-home-in-two-worlds-meister-eckhart-on-mary-and-martha-and-the-integration-of-the-active-and-contemplative-life/ This is in keeping with the tradition of the cardinal virtues––where justice (doing the good) is the “proper effect” of prudence (knowing the good).Josef Pieper, Justice (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), 43–44. In following St. Thomas, Pieper says, “Indeed, the good of reason consists in justice as its proper effect (sicut in proprio effectu).” For Pieper, justice is the proper effect (actualization) of prudence (knowing the good). That is, prudence is judged true to the extent that it results in the doing of good.
Historically, and to varying degrees, monastic orders have sought to balance the lives of Mary and Martha. While a Carmelite like Teresa of Avila might stress the Marian way through prayerful contemplation and the union of the soul to God, other orders such as the Franciscans or Dominicans stress the Marthian way of ministry and charity as a sign of union with God.For more on the unique emphases of Catholic orders: http://www.religious-vocation.com/differences_religious_orders.html#.XjGD7yVOmEc
Monastic literature speaks of the desire to inhabit both ways simultaneously. Indeed, the monastic rhythm of ora et labora (“pray and work”) is about bringing the sort of grace we glimpse in prayer into the active life. The goal of monastic spirituality (of total union of wills)Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection. Beginning in Chapter 27, Teresa interprets the Lord’s prayer as contemplation fulfilled in act. is about habituating oneself to the rest of Mary and the work of Martha. As Thomas Merton said, “The highest spiritual good is an action which is so perfect that it is absolutely free of all labor, and is therefore at the same time perfect action and perfect rest. And this is the contemplation of God.”Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction & Meditation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987), 85.
03. The Rhythm of Ascent into God and Descent into the World
For ancient philosophers and Christian mystics contemplation is a “way of life.”Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995). This means that the contemplative vision one receives from God in prayer is real to the extent that it is embodied and lived out (words must become flesh) in real time (grace divinizes history and corporeality).Dallas Willard says, “That is why our apologetic has to embody the message and person we want to communicate. Only with ‘gentleness and reverence’ will people be able to see, verify, and be persuaded to respond to what we have to say.” Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 5. See also, Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (New York: OUP, 1993), 150. The Desert Fathers and Mothers imagined an integral bond between word and praxis (action). When a monk sought a word from an elder, they were not seeking ideas about the spiritual life. Instead, they “wanted to know, in one way or another, what they were to do, how were they to act.” The hermeneutic of the desert was based in praxis. Praxis brings the Word to life, making it incarnate. The “meaning” of the Word is found in the practical and ethical demands it places upon the hearer. Here action and contemplation find mutual fulfillment in one another (to contemplate the truth in prayer is to do the good in action).This is in following the metaphysical vision of the transcendentals of being: beauty, truth, and goodness. Because all that exists shares in the beautiful, the true, and the good, which cannot be parsed, each property is more fully manifest to the extent that the other properties are present and cohere in each particular thing, as each of the transcendentals are fulfilled in relation to the other. This also mitigates the faith/works division. For a very accessible introduction to the transcendentals, see Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009). See especially, Chapter 1.
Indeed, the first line of Plato’s Republic opens with Socrates, the contemplative philosopher, “coming down” (katebein in Greek) from the life of contemplation “to the Piraeus.” In the Athenian port town amongst all the hustle and bustle of social and economic activity Socrates mingles with the wisdom of the age and in the end gives his life in service to the gods (this paradigm of ascent and descent is reiterated in the “allegory of the cave”).
For Jesus, the spiritual life is not a naval-gazing retreat from the world (from ethical/political engagement), but a transformed existence in the world.See, Ron Dart, The Beatitudes: When Mountain Meets Valley (Fresh Wind Press, 2005). This ascent/descent paradigm is present in Jesus’ “Beatitudes.” The “blessed” are those who desire a contemplative life in God and are prepared through trials for the difficulties (“persecutions”) of life in the world. We find it also in the Lord’s Prayer, as Jesus instructs us to begin with reflection upon God above, “Our father, who art in heaven,” before we ask him to come down to us and be with us in the world, “thy will be done (in us), on earth as in heaven.”Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection. See Chapters 30–32. Teresa adds the “in us” to press this ethical dimension. In Chapter 32 she says, “For once the earth has become heaven, the possibility is there for Your will to be done in me. But if the earth hasn’t—and earth as wretched and barren as mine—I don’t know, Lord, how it will be possible. It is indeed a great thing, that which You offer!” See also, Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), Chapter 3.
Contemplative literature understands the transfiguration as that signature moment of Jesus’ connection to the father. Atop the mountain Jesus is transfigured before Peter, John, and James. Peter, in later recalling the theophany, tells us,
We [Peter, John, and James] were eyewitnesses of His majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, Whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with Him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16–18)
It doesn’t get any more contemplative than that! Yet, the story does not end on the mountain in the bliss of the contemplative vision of God. What follows are the real ethical demands of the vision that we face in the descent.
Matthew 17:9 says, “they came down (kateben, is used here as in the Republic) from the mountain,” Mark 9:9 says, “they were coming down the mountain,” (katebein) and Luke 9:37 says, “they came down from the mountain” (katerchomai in Greek, the verb from which we get the phonetic English noun, “Catacomb”—a vivid imagery for living amongst the dead as depicted in Jesus’ literal raising of the dead, his “Harrowing of Hell” on Holy Saturday, and his constant juxtaposition of death and spiritual life—“you must be born again”). It is a good, biblical, notion to “come down” to be with the world (in the incarnation Jesus empties himself to be with us; he gives his life on our behalf).
Jesus’ ascent and descent symbolizes the proper harmony between the contemplative and active life: Jesus goes up (anaphero/anabien) the mountain to be with God and comes down (kateben) bringing the gift of God’s presence into the world. The mountain represents the contemplative vision of God and the “coming down” occurs as the invisible pervades the visible.Dallas Willard says we live in “two landscapes,” that of the visible and invisible. Michael Stewart Robb, The Kingdom Among Us: The Gospel According to Dallas Willard (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2022), 181.
Since moving to the hermitage, I’ve had more time to reflect upon the kind of person I am becoming.Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 142–3; and Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2021), 14. It has been helpful to reframe my active life, even my vocation, as the effect of my life of prayer. The concept of examining the extent to which I “inhabit” my prayer life has also proven helpful. This means that my action says more about the “fruit” of my prayer life (or the person I am becoming) than anything else. I’m learning that the efficacy of my prayer life is best determined by its fruit, that is, in how I respond in difficult situations, what I say and do when I’m under pressure, and ultimately, how I love others, even my enemies.Contemplatives urge us to look not to consolations but to the fruit of virtue as signs of the efficacy of our prayer life. See Teresa of Avila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, Chapters 11–19. See also, Thomas H. Green, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2007), Chapter 2.
04. For Further Reading
To varying degrees, and for any number of reasons (psychological, spiritual, theological, cultural), conscious or unconscious, we all wrestle with this tension between a life of prayer and action. Perhaps you too are seeking to find a more delicate balance. If you’re active perhaps you long for a bit more contemplation, and if you’re contemplative perhaps you’d like to make time for more prayer.More broadly, we find this contemplative and/or active tension played out in the dichotomies of faith and/or works, preaching and/or doing the good (“social gospel”), word and/or deed, truth and/or goodness (the transcendentals), grace and/or effort, and the passive and/or active spiritual disciplines. Below are some resources that I’ve found helpful.
For more of Mary see:
- Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1987.
- Vest, Norvene. No Moment too Small: Rhythms of Silence Prayer and Holy Reading. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008.
For more of Martha see:
- Dart, Ron. The Beatitudes: When Mountain Meets Valley. Abbotsford, BC, Canada: Fresh Wind Press, 2005.
- Smith, James K. A. How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022.
- Willard, Dallas. The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus. New York: HaperCollins, 2015.
Pieter Aertsen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Vincent Di Fuccia is the director of the Cultura Fellowship at the Martin Institute for Christianity & Culture. He is a Research Fellow for the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, Nottingham, UK, and is a certified spiritual director through the Anglican Diocese of New England. He and his wife Sara established Platform to Table, a non-profit ministry for Christian leaders.