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Mary and Martha: The relationship of action and contemplation

 To give Our Lord a perfect service Martha and Mary must combine  Saint Teresa

A standard sermon

There’s a standard sermon about Mary and Martha. Martha is about doing something, engaging in good works, and helping people. Mary is about being still and listening, giving ourselves to prayer and piety. Martha is about action. Mary is about contemplation. One thinker suggested that Martha is about loving the neighbor and Mary about loving God. 

So far, so good. They serve well enough as images for two aspects of the spiritual life. Then we go off the rails into customer service religion. The preacher tells a spiritual lie—“We need both the activist and the contemplative. God calls some to the one and some to the other.”

Well, maybe it’s not quite a lie, more a spiritual half-truth and an avoidance of the whole truth. 

What needs to be said is more this, “In our spiritual journey some begin more inclined to action and others to contemplation. God draws us all toward a life in which awe and adoration are the ground for our action.”

Sadly most of our congregations don't have much humor about this. It's a brave, and usually foolish, preacher who will say, "Martha is a workaholic, compulsive, unable to stop herself. Mary is not dependable. She refuses to accept responsibility for her share of life's work.”  Worse yet is to suggest that most people in any parish are spiritually immature. It's true but we really do need to watch how we say things. 

Still leaders need to stay clear and ready to persevere. It is simply true—that the "all activist” person, the one with little reflectiveness, with little sense of perspective or wonder—can do great harm. Their weak hold on the reality of human limitation and sin makes them arrogant and dangerous. Saint John of the Cross said, “But without prayer, all they do amounts to nothing more than noise and uproar; it is like a hammer banging on an anvil and echoing all over the neighborhood. They accomplish a little more than nothing, sometimes absolutely nothing at all, and sometimes downright evil.”

On the other hand, in practice, the “all interior” person is likely to do little damage and may serve us by example and in prayer.  It’s partly that there are usually so few of them and the few there are tend to not take up a great amount of the parish’s emotional space.[i]

This is not a polarity to be managed. Nor is it a balanced be maintained. It is a synthesis to be created at the center of parish life. It is a synthesis to be lived by a critical mass of the parish. It is a synthesis to show itself in the general climate of the parish. We do this person by person. We do this by nurturing those of apostolic faith and by loving and inviting those who are not of apostolic faith, to move forward. It is an invitation done with great gentleness and patience.

The standard sermon expresses an understanding that is comforting for most parishioners. “You are fine as you are. No growing necessary.” The new sermon says, “God loves you just as you are. And God calls you to grow into the person you can be.”


The story of Mary and Martha is all too frequently twisted by preachers to avoid making us uncomfortable. They offer the ways of Mary and Martha as equally valid paths. But that’s not the story. Our Lord gives us a challenge — “Mary has chosen the better part.” To receive the challenge, and the grace that accompanies it, is to enter into our own life in a new way. We come to see and understand that the Eucharist is not only about us being fed so we might feed others; Eucharist is an end in itself. Just being with one another and God in communion is the purpose and completion of life. We come to understand that sitting on a porch drinking fine Scotch or cheap beer is not just a break from the struggles of life, but is a taste of eternity.[ii] Robert A. Gallagher

The strange tilt in many parishes of endless appreciation and "welcome wherever you are on your spiritual journey" undermines spiritual and emotional health and development. What we do with Mary and Martha is one case.

The honest preacher[iii] will want admit that Jesus did seem to be more appreciative of Mary than Martha--only one thing is needed and Mary has chosen it. In the end the kingdom doesn’t need our activism. The kingdom doesn’t require our good works. The kingdom is friendship, communion, and companionship. It is the banquet. It is the New Jerusalem in which God is fully with us and there is no more death, no mourning or crying or pain. All the tears have been wiped away. 

There is a point in our spiritual growth where we seem to be either mostly Martha or mostly Mary. We do need to begin someplace. Early on there are "two ways." We are mostly one or the other. Later it may be more that there are "two aspects." That's when the syntheses is taking place. It is Teresa’s wisdom being fulfilled, “To give Our Lord a perfect service Martha and Mary must combine.”

For me the most significant result of this inner growth is that we move more and more into reality. It is Henri Nouwen’s movement from Illusion to Prayer. In his system it is intertwined with moving away from hostility and loneliness. 

It is from an inner life fed by prayer and reflection that we can better see things as they are. People as they are in themselves, and as they are “in God,” rather than as they are in relation to my needs. This is learning to be free, to see the world and other people less through our own confusion and desire to control, acquired and achieve.

The Civil Rights Movement

The movement was rooted in Christian understanding prayer. You could see it in the witness of John Lewis, Martin Luther King and many others.

For Jonathan Daniels it was the backdrop for his action. It was during Evening Prayer and the singing of the Magnificat that he knew he was going to Selma.

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary's glad song. …Then it came. "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things." I knew then that I must go to Selma.

He had a Prayer Book spirituality—The Eucharist and the Daily Office provided the ground for his natural reflectiveness. 

Charles Eagles describes the feelings as Daniels and the other Episcopal seminarians arrived in Atlanta on the way to Selma for the second march. “Emotionally, they resembled soldiers preparing for battle—though anxious, even fearful, they were at the same time excited about the prospect of participating in the march to Montgomery. Some were silent, while others chattered nervously. An inveterate smoker, Jon Daniels had innumerable cigarettes while sitting rather quietly.”[iv]  In this climate, and during those days, they would say the Office and seek ways to be present at the Eucharist. In one of his reflections he wrote, “As Judy[v] and I said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible "communion of saints"--of the beloved community in Cambridge who were saying the offices too, of the ones gathered around a near-distant throne in heaven--who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise.”

In "Standing in the Need of Prayer" Coretta Scott King wrote about the role of prayer in the movement, "Prayer was a wellspring of strength and inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the movement, we prayed for greater human understanding. We prayed for the safety of our compatriots in the freedom struggle. We prayed for victory in our nonviolent protests, for brotherhood and sisterhood among people of all races, for reconciliation and the fulfillment of the Beloved Community. For my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle."

It wasn't that everyone in the movement was a Christian. They certainly weren't. There were many religious Jews and there were secularists of all kinds. But there was a critical mass of faithful people There was a habit of  prayer and understanding that held the movement grounded in a notion of the Beloved Community. Or at least it did for a while.

Over time some became more frustrated as the struggle dragged on, the resistance to change proved stubborn, and more died.  In some places the critical mass shifted to groups with little interest in the Christian faith, the image of the “beloved community,” and the methods of non-violence.

All struggles for justice require a critical mass of people who in prayer and reflection have focused their attention on God and God’s reality. Without that the actuality of human limitation and sin will draw the movement more and more into willfulness and illusion. Spirituality and justice are to be a seamless garment. Prayer and action are called to be inseparable.


Change is resisted until people have the abilities they need to live in the new place. If I want to live in Mexico it will help to learn the language and culture. If a leader is trying to make her company more responsive to the needs of customers there are new skills and attitudes to learn before the employees will be at ease.

The Benedictine Promise is a true picture of the spiritual dynamic among stability, listening and change; or more accurately stability, obedience and conversion of life.  We do need to tell people that conversion is necessary in the Christian life. But hearing that does little good without having the skills and knowledge that allows us to navigate the Promise, especially the task of endless change. To do that well we need competency in certain areas. For example, learning to give ourselves to the present and developing the habit of taking practical action here and now, or learning to reflect upon death, or learning to make a commitment to our own maturity by performing the "work we have been given to do” and seeking to accept responsibility and take action.

We can help people open themselves to the inner life by:

- Giving them an idea of what that might look like. Helping them identify moments in their experience. Providing images.

- Helping them find the dissatisfaction within them. Change is in part motivated by a gap between where we are now and where we could be.

-  Providing specific first steps they might take—begin to experiment with the Daily Office, come to the session on Eucharistic Practices.

- Developing related skills and habits. Probably the first set of skills has to do with learning to be still and silent.

Our growth in the Christian life is not a project we undertake. It’s not us achieving a goal or feeding our ego.  It is about being still and sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is about wasting time with Jesus. It is about giving our best to Jesus. It is Mary’s way.

The fact is that the Holy Spirit nudges and draws us into maturity in Christ. It is the Spirit’s work.

But life remains odd and paradoxical. So, we must also give ourselves to the new path. We must become proficient in the ways of the Christian life. And so, there we are—we have a project.

Along the way we may find ourselves caught up in awe and adoration. We may find ourselves so swept away in the Liturgy that all our foolishness is for the moment gone.

Parish development

One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. And that for those three things and nothing else, addressed to God and no one else, you and I and all other countless human creatures evolved upon the surface of this planet were created.[vi]

Things to do:

1. Stop telling them that the two are equal. They're not equal. Mary's is the better choice. And in God's graciousness, in time, we will all come there.

2. Develop a critical mass of people of apostolic faith and practice. People who have taken responsibility for their own spiritual discipline and grounded the discipline in the ancient ways of the church and adapted that to contemporary needs.

3. Teach people how to engage in Eucharistic practice and how to say the Daily  Office.

4. Coach and train people in being reflective.  Help them see how they currently engage in wonder, awe, and adoration.

5. This one is critical -- Do liturgy in a manner that opens people to awe and adoration. You want people to be swept off their feet every Sunday and brought to their still place day-by-day in Office and Eucharist.




A List of All Postings

[i] What may be generally true isn’t always true. I have on rare occasions seen parish’s that are so quiet, so restrained, so passive, that life comes to a halt. The parish begins to disintegrate.

[ii]Fill All Things: The Spiritual Dynamics of the Parish Church” Robert Gallagher, Ascension Press, 2008

[iii] We preachers might begin with ourselves. From St. John of the Cross, “Let the men eaten up with activity and who imagine they are able to shake the world with their preaching and other outward works, stop and reflect a moment. It will not be difficult for them to understand that they would be much more useful to the Church and more pleasing to the Lord, not to mention the good example they would give to those around them, if they devoted more time to prayer and to the exercises of the interior life.”

[iv]Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama” by Charles Eagles, Page 34. Eagles description is echoed in David Halberstam’s book on the civil rights movement, “The Children.”  His account of the training of those preparing to sit in at Nashville’s lunch counters in 1960 mentions skills of how to respond when attacked, how in the training process they were forming a community and “learning to be responsible for one another.” They learned the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience. They learned to do reconnaissance missions so as to see the places they would be and assess the amount of resistance they would face. (pp.76 – 81) This was a movement they had given themselves to and it would change them. Early in the book Halberstam writes of the life members of the group had as they aged. Some became famous and served as politicians, doctors and educators. Others had more mundane lives and the years of the movement would be the most “exciting and stirring of their lives.” And others “were not unlike brilliant combat leaders in America’s wars who never handled in peacetime an existence which was routine as well as they handled the one fraught with danger.” p. 8 Halberstam also wrote “The Coldest Winter” on the Korean War. The connection between the young Marines and soldiers in Korea and the civil rights “soldiers” sound alike even though the one used violence and the other non-violence.

[v] Judy Upham was another seminarian. She had been asked by Daniels to go with him to Selma.

[vi]Concerning the Inner Life” Evelyn Underhill, page 22 One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. And that for those three things and nothing else, addressed to God and no one else, you and I and all other countless human creatures evolved upon the surface of this planet were created. We observe then that two of the three things for which our souls were made are matters of attitude, of relation: adoration and awe. Unless these two are right, the last of the triad, service, won’t be right. Unless the whole of your...life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which the life produces won’t be much good