Contemplatives in Action
Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deacon Doug McManaman
This gospel reading on Martha and Mary has often been misinterpreted over the centuries and has given rise to a kind of dualism, a false dichotomy between the active life on the one hand, and the contemplative life on the other (Martha representing the active life, Mary the contemplative life), as if the two are mutually exclusive. But of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. Even someone like St. Theresa of Avila, who founded 17 religious houses in her efforts to reform the Carmelite order in the 16th century, was a contemplative in action. Mother Teresa also referred to herself and her sisters as contemplatives in action. A contemplative life without action would soon dry up and become lifeless, but an active life without contemplation is without ultimate purpose and quickly becomes neurotic and fanatical.
All work, all labor, is to be ordered towards the contemplation of God, and of course, our entire life is really a preparation for the eternal contemplation of God with the entire communion of saints. That is the basic message of the 6-day work week which we inherited from the Jews, from the first story of creation in the book of Genesis. The creation allegory depicts God creating in 6 days and resting on the 7th. So, God is both active–He is always creating–, and He is contemplative; He beholds the goodness of what He creates. What is interesting about this story is that after all His work was done, “God saw all that he had made and indeed, it was very good”. That’s what an artist does when he finishes his work; he stands back and takes it all in, contemplating it. If he’s a good artist, he is pleased with it. The sabbath, in other words, is primarily a day of contemplation, which is the highest kind of activity. But, in that same chapter of Genesis, God also sees what He creates after each day of creation, and after each day, the scriptures indicate that “God saw that it was good”. So, there is a contemplative element weaved throughout the week.
For the Jews, the work week is an imitation of God, in which we co-create, we share in God’s perpetual creation of the world, but it also includes a contemplative element every day. After each day, we are called to reflect upon the goodness of the day, to reflect upon the hand of God present in our daily life, how God has manifested himself during the course of the day. In the end, at the end of our lives, we enter into his rest, symbolized by the 7th day, to delight in his supreme goodness forever.
The more we love something, the more we think about it. Those people who are “in love” usually can’t think of anything other than the one they’re in love with. They see the beloved’s face everywhere. And of course, the purpose of this life is to grow in the love of God, to prepare for an eternal life of contemplation of God, to behold His face forever. God loves each one of us as if there is only one of us–as if we are the only person who exists, and we have his undivided attention at every instant of the day. The purpose of our life here is to come to know that love, to experience it. If we really knew it, not much in life would trouble us, and we’d be thinking of God all the time. And just as the one who is “in love” sees the beloved’s face everywhere, so too, we’d see the Lord everywhere, in all things and in all situations. And then life becomes more and more ecstatic, like the experience of being in love. When God looked upon all He had made and saw that it was very good, He saw Himself in His creation. Creation is good and beautiful because God is the Supremely Good and Beautiful. A work of art always reflects the personality and character of the artist, and the cosmos is one large and continuous hymn to God–that is actually one of the titles of a great book by Jesuit priest and scientist, Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Hymn of the Universe¾there’s nothing like scientists who have a deeply religious and contemplative spirit; for they see parables everywhere in creation. Teilhard writes: “Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.”
But of course, not everyone is a scientist. Mother Teresa certainly was not, but she was a contemplative in action, and she could see the Lord in the concrete situations that she found herself in, which enriched so much of her writings. She saw the Lord in the faces of the poor and she saw the Lord in the faces of her Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters in India. Wherever we are called to be, the Lord is there, and if we are reflective enough, we will begin to see Him there.
Our own unique active life, whatever that is, provides us with unique experiences, and when we reflect deeply upon those experiences, we begin to know God from a unique angle. At that point, we have something unique to offer the Church, because our experience is unique. And so the active life with its rich and diverse experiences provides material for the contemplative life, and the contemplative life in turn enriches the active life.
But as we get older, we begin to feel the body slowing down. Old age is supposed to be more and more contemplative, more and more reflective. One could say that after retirement, life becomes less active, and as our age increases, our life becomes increasingly less active, but this may not be entirely true. The activity we are called to in our old age is of a different sort. When my daughter was a little girl, after the 5 o’clock Mass, she’d always go out for coffee with “the ladies”. These were seniors of the parish whom she really liked and clicked with. Some have died, and the rest are shut-ins who can’t get to Mass–although Mass can come to them. But I recently told one of the ladies just how significant that friendship and those moments at Tim Hortons were for my daughter and her growth as a person. She didn’t really know what I was talking about; she didn’t see that just her presence, her being there, was a great work of mercy. But it was.
Also, as we get even older, we may get to the point where we can barely take care of ourselves anymore. In this case, we are still called to serve others actively by allowing others to take care of us. That’s how we are of service to others at the end of our lives.
And so our life in the Person of Christ is both active and contemplative at the same time. A contemplative habit allows us to discern what activities really amount to nothing in the end¾and there are many¾, and which ones are significant and have eternal value. And a genuinely active life provides us with the experience that allows us to continually grow in the knowledge and understanding of God, who is always infinitely more than what we currently understand Him to be.