Contemplation in a World of Action: a tale of two women


In a sermon some time ago I mentioned the film The Way in which Martin Sheen plays the role of a father who undertakes to walk the Camino de Compostela, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of Santiago (St. James) in the Basque region of northern Spain. It’s a film images-2about love’s redemption through transformative action by a father driven to repair his relationship with his son who has tragically died some weeks earlier while undertaking the first stage of this pilgrimage.

To make a pilgrimage is to set out on a journey. To follow a way is a metaphor for more than the physical road taken. Pilgrimage is an action. One takes or makes a pilgrimage. We commonly think the goal of this kind of journey-making is to arrive at a location of spiritual significance. Yet, perhaps more significantly than arriving at a place, a location, pilgrimage is the experience of transformation along the way. The film The Way poignantly captures this process.

The Gospel

The short passage appointed for the gospel on the 9th Sunday following Pentecost is comprised of five short verses from Luke describing Jesus’ visit to the house of Mary and Martha. In John’s Gospel, we encounter both women as the sisters of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Yet Luke offers no such biographical connection.

martha-and-mary-he-qi-1This story is one of those stories that Christian’s over the centuries have loved to moralize about. It’s a story that has given rise to two strong archetypes. In common parlance, we invoke the Martha and Mary of this story as epithets for the competing tensions in the spiritual life. The Tradition has popularly read Jesus’ rebuke of the complaining Martha to justify placing contemplation before action. The Church has often taught that the life of contemplative withdrawal is a higher calling than that of active life sullied by the taint of worldly carnality.

However, we should hold this passage within the larger context of Jesus being on his journey to Jerusalem. Like any pilgrimage, it’s the journey itself that is transformative, as along the way Jesus uses incidents and events to teach his followers what it means to travel the way of discipleship.

Action and/versus contemplation?

Last week’s parable of the Good Samaritan, when taken together with this week’s story of Martha and Mary, focuses the spotlight on the tension between action and contemplation in Christian spiritual living. In the Good Samaritan story, Jesus ends with the words go and do likewise. In the Martha and Mary story, he seems to be advocating the very opposite.

Beginning with the story of the sending out of the 70 disciples to all the towns of the Galilee the connective theme of Jesus’ Lucan journey to Jerusalem seems to be the importance of hospitality as a central attribute for those who seek to travel along the discipleship trail.

The story of Martha and Mary and it’s larger archetypal projection of do-ers and pray-ers, of action versus the inaction, focuses on the centrality of hospitality in the spiritual life. Hospitality, or the lack of, it is the key theme in the sending out of the 70. It goes to the heart of the Good Samaritan parable, where the unlikely neighbor recognizes his obligations towards an injured man. Hospitality is the central theme of the Mary and Martha story. Martha’s practice of hospitality is active. Mary’s is contemplative. In short, hospitality provides the connective tissue for the various elements of the spiritual life.

Martha practices the responsibilities of hospitality. She welcomes Jesus and then busies herself with the necessary preparations of the host upon a visiting guest’s arrival on the doorstep. Mary practices the responsibilities of hospitality in her welcoming of that which Jesus has come to bring, his teaching and presence. But Martha has something else going on inside her. There is often a danger of feeling aggrieved or feeling put upon that can afflict those who are drawn to the active side of the spiritual equation.  Jesus does not rank Martha beneath Mary. It is to Martha’s accusative sense of grievance that Jesus speaks sharply.

Assessing the tensions

We become busy and we use activity to distract ourselves from something that is feared to be more challenging. Being preoccupied with action avoids needing to go deeper. Noise and action cover over our anxiety concerning silence. If we have nothing to do then what might happen in the seemingly empty spaces that open before us. For most of us Descartes’ declaration: I think, therefore I am, easily degenerates into I do, therefore I am.

Action and contemplation are opposite sides of the same coin. Both are essential elements of a balanced spiritual life. Action ceases to hold spiritual value when our busy-ness causes us to feel resentful. We become resentful, feeling aggrieved as out actions slip, often imperceptibly from a generous regard for another’s needs to a meeting of our own.

Contemplation is the development of a capacity to sit in silence in order to welcome God speaking through the spaces between actions, words, and thoughts. Yet, it ceases to be of any spiritual value when it degenerates into self-preoccupation.

I struggle with my own personal impoverishment. I do not possess the reservoirs of charity and compassion towards others that leads me to automatically place their needs before my own. I lack the reservoirs of courage and resilience that would otherwise propel me to get involved in another’s struggles. I find myself turning away from opportunities for Christian action and I fail to stand in solidarity with others because I am afraid of getting involved. I fill my time with busy-ness, always having something to do, something to worry over, something to be preoccupied by, because this is an easy way, not of actually helping others, but of serving my own needs and avoiding the challenges of contemplation. Yet without the renewal of contemplation, my addiction to action leads me only to burnout.

Somewhat paradoxically, I am also drawn to the idea of contemplation and have a fantasy of what such a practice should look like. Yet my experience of contemplation is usually a frustrating one. I never get to that state of awareness I long for. I continually fail to achieve that degree of spiritual high I crave. Meditation as a practice of contemplation becomes an arid experience of a kind of emptiness where I interpret emptiness as an absence, something missing.

My title for this entry is taken from the well-known book Contemplation in a World of Action by the great 20th-century contemplative, Thomas Merton.  He observes:

….as long as man thinks that the solution of his ‘identity crisis’ consists in achieving this capacity for self-assertion, we can have no peace.

The problem is that there is too much me-I  in my contemplation, as there is too much me-I in my life of action. If my contemplation does not open me to the sense of spacious hospitality within which God is welcome, then it fosters only a frustrated sense of isolation and the ego reproach of I can’t even do this right! Note the verb do as in accomplish in this reproach.

A matter of temperament

Temperamentally, each person has a default towards one pole of the tension between action and contemplation. Some of us are very action oriented, while others are more withdrawn and inwardly focused. The task is to balance our predisposition through the cultivation of its opposite. In each practice, however, the essential element is that of a spirit of hospitality, which is a spirit of curiosity, a spirit of openness, a generous welcoming of otherness. When we work to reduce the centrality of our own ego, it becomes possible to become transformed into a conduit for the Holy Spirit – the love sharer –in action.

Redressing imbalance

In the film The Way, Martin Sheen plays a father struggling in his relationship with his
son. The father is a busy dentist with an onerous load of work and social responsibilities that are part and parcel of being a successful American professional. If he is not working, he’s playing golf. Playing implies pleasure or recreation. But this kind of golf has little of either. It’s just another form of work, using the game as a social networking device. This father is critical of his son’s decision to take a break from the rat race and waste his time with what the father feels is the self-indulgence of spiritual seeking. Martha is peeved with Mary.

The news of his son’s death on the first part of the Camino has a devastating effect on him. He becomes compelled to complete what the son cannot now finish. His whole life becomes transformed in the process. Sheen’s character had failed to reconcile the tension between action and contemplation in his own life, and this became a tension acted out in his relationship with his son. Like Martha, he was critical and resentful of the way his son’s spirit of hospitality to the spiritual enabled him to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Through an act of redemption the father is led to a new self-understanding. Through completing his son’s unfinished action the father incorporates his son’s spiritual hospitality, making it his own. The film’s ultimate conclusion is not the arrival at the shrine of Santiago. The rest you will have to find out for yourselves.


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