Last week we considered the false distinction which is often drawn between law and charity. In Christ, we recalled, that distinction is done away with, so that we can see the greatest charity is that lived in obedience to the law, and the greatest obedience to the law is that which has the love of Christ at its heart. In the well-known story of Mary and Martha, presented to us this morning in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, another false distinction is quashed: that between action and contemplation.
As is well known, the embodiment of these two ideas—action and contemplation—is thought to be found in the figures of Mary and Martha. Saint Augustine, for example, writes that Martha was “engaged in ministering to the bodily wants and wishes of our Lord, as of one who was mortal,” but that Martha “was absorbed in the sweetness of our Lord’s words.” Yet neither action nor contemplation is sufficient in and of itself. Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “In the Church, contemplation and action … have to coexist and complement each other.” Thus a balance of these two characteristics, between action and contemplation, even (it must be said) in the life of the contemplative, needs to be found, in order to create a certain harmony.
Yet in doing this we must also take seriously the words of the Lord to Martha: “Mary has chosen the good portion” (Lk. 10: 42). Indeed, is it not that task of prayerful contemplation to which the apostles themselves were committed: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word”? (Acts 6: 4).
In this sense, our relationship with the Lord “must always be the priority, and any true sharing of goods, in the spirit of the gospel, must be rooted in faith.” Contemplation must be “the more ultimately significant attribute of our nature.” And it must always be from that fundamental foundation of our relationship with the Lord that good works and good actions flow. We might even say that such actions are an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible life of grace at work within us through our union with Christ. Just as a separation between charity and law denigrates both, so also action that is divorced from the life of the individual with the person of Christ is lessened in its quality. Again, Pope Benedict tells us: “Without a profound meaning, all our activities are reduced to sterile and unorganized activism.”
The sacred liturgy provides the corrective forum for this activism. Just as Mary was engaged in what Saint Ambrose calls “the more perfect work,” so in this most perfect act of worship—the worship of God the Father by God the Son in and through God the Holy Ghost—we come to be realigned in our priorities; to be put right in that relationship with the God before us in a most striking and powerful way. Here we come to that ultimate act of contemplatio, literally being “with the temple,” in order that all our actions might be infused by the grace we here receive. The rhythm of the sacred liturgy, of right worship, brings us back to that primary task of union with God, so that the priority of contemplation might form our right action and, “like a basso continuo accompanying the soul,” inform and influence all that we do and say.
As we turn once more to the Lord, and await his coming in the gifts of his body and blood in the Most Holy Eucharist, may we fix our gaze on him alone in that “good portion” of our Christian vocation. And in meeting and knowing Christ here, in receiving his life into our very own, may we carry him out into our lives and actions, that all might come to know his love and his truth, that the world might believe.