According to worldly standards, contemplative life may seem “useless.” Some people may see no purpose in our “sitting around all day”, spending over seven hours a day in church. Of course, at their root, worldly standards are antithetically opposed to Gospel standards. Our Lord said such things as: the one who seeks to save his life will lose it; the greatest will be the servant, and blessed are the poor. Jesus turns everything upside down. So it makes sense that contemplative life doesn’t make sense to our human perceptions. We need to look with the eyes of faith in order to perceive the value of going before our Lord and remaining with Him hour after hour, day after day. In the end, it is through experience, more than through explanation, that we will gain true knowledge of what contemplative life is about.
The Gospel passage that seems to best express the contemplative life is the story of Martha and Mary (see Luke 10:38-42). This Gospel passage has traditionally been interpreted as seeing Martha as the prototype of those called to active ministry in the Church, and Mary of those called to contemplative life. It is important to note that Martha is not rebuked by our Lord for her service, but rather for her anxiety, and judgment of her sister. Martha was seeking to conform her sister to her own heart’s desire, to her own standards of seeing and judging things. If Martha had been simply carrying out all she was called to do with love, our Lord would not have had to address this issue with her. But her focus was distracted from the Lord, Whom she should have been doing her service for, and she became concerned with what she perceived to be her sister’s laziness and lack of service.
The truth is, though, that Mary was serving the Lord, in the way that she was called to. Our Lord had called her to sit at His feet and to bask in His love, and she responded with her whole heart, mind, body and soul. She delighted in listening to His teaching, and He delighted in her delighting in Him. He had come to earth to pour His love upon people, and here He found an open heart. What a joy for Him! Thus, she relieved and consoled His Heart in a way that Martha was not doing at that time. Did you notice that in the Gospel passage of Martha and Mary, Mary does not say to the Lord, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister is busy and distracted with many things? Tell her to sit at Your feet, like I’m doing.” Rather, Mary is lost in love of the Lord; her focus is on Him, and she does not judge or condemn her sister. Not all are called to the same task; each has a particular purpose which God intends, and the best thing we can do is what He has called us to. That is how we will be personally fulfilled, and how the whole Body of Christ, the Church, will function properly.
Our Lord Himself, when He walked upon this earth, spent thirty years at His home in Nazareth, living a relatively secluded life, and only three in active ministry. Contemplative religious life is, in a way, a continuation of this time in the life of our Lord. The contemplative life is filled with little seemingly insignificant tasks, just as was His life in Nazareth, but when such tasks are done with love, then souls are saved and the Heart of our Savior is consoled. Notice, too, that when Jesus finally did go forth in active ministry, He was continually going off by Himself to pray, and seek solitude and times of intimacy with Abba Father.
This wounded world needs Jesus. Even if we spent our whole lives in frenzied activity, trying to bring about peace and to untie the confused knots which are found raveled around every part of our society today, we would not accomplish as much as one sigh from the heart, one mere glance of love at our Eucharistic Lord, is able to bring about. It is not us, but it is He who will change our world, He who will bring about the peace we all desire.
—By Fr. Francis of the Redeemer, OSIHJM