BEING a contemplative in action is sometimes described as having the Mary (the contemplative) and the Martha (the active) principles in us. Today’s Gospel is a simple and yet deep portrayal of the clash of these two principles.
When we pray with this Gospel passage, we often take the perspective of the struggle between work and prayer in our life. It is a common struggle for many of us.
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI in his book, “Sacred Fire,” reflects on this struggle from another perspective, the struggle between “doing” and “being.” He reflects on the struggle as stages in our journey along the road of discipleship, toward wholeness and reintegration.
Many psychological and spiritual frameworks look at our human situation as a journey that begins with wholeness. We come into the world whole with the DNA of our mission or vocation. The journey though often disintegrates us, some more than others.
Parker Palmer says that in the desire to be accepted or to belong, we end up meeting others’ expectations, playing roles, “wearing other people’s masks.”
Reintegrating our ‘being’
In the enneagram paradigm, we begin as “beings” and along the way we live our life “doing.” Then the spiritual and psychological task is to regain, to re-integrate our “being.”
Fr. Rolheiser writes that in our youth we find meaning and self-worth in achievement and success; our energies and passions are directed toward meaningful and positive work. This is the Martha that works and busies herself with the tasks of hospitality. It is the “human doing.”
Yet at a later stage, there is a shift in the source of meaning and self-worth; as meaning and self-worth go beyond achievement and success, beyond the doing and moves toward the transcendent and making the journey to reintegration. It is becoming a “human being” again.
Early one morning last week, I sat in my study praying, using Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” This day was preceded by almost two or three weeks of hectic and intense work coupled with an equally intense stage of a spiritual struggle.
To say the least, it was draining and at times punctuated by doubt and moments of depression. I simply sat that morning in silence, surrendering this in prayer, begging the Lord to rescue me.
Then the grace came in being, simply being there. Across from where I sat and prayed was a snapshot of what had been my journey: a painting of Central Park, the sketch of the façade of Ateneo de Manila High School, an image of Quiapo Church, a picture of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ at prayer and an abstract work of the procession in Fatima, the Nov. 10, 1958 copy of Time Magazine with the image of Pope John XXIII on the cover, the diploma of my masteral course on Jesuit High School Administration and the images of Our Lady of Monserrat, Ignatius of Loyola, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus breaking bread with Christ, Christ on the Cross and more. This kaleidoscope of images amidst two bookshelves filled with the books I had used the past 30 years or so is the tapestry of my journey.
This was the journey of my active life, punctuated by moments of contemplation that helped put some order and center to it all. As Polonius tells Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
That moment gave me perspective of a journey made with the desire to be mission-oriented, to be lovingly faithful to God’s mission for me; a journey that was also strewn with missteps and mistakes, sin and failure.
Long story short, it was a journey of success and failure, hope and despair, faith and fear, grace and sin, and at this point I could look back and say: I gave it my best shot and this gives me the freedom to acknowledge my mistakes and sins, and to apologize. It blesses me with the grace to be grateful for God’s lovingly providential presence.
When I woke up that morning, part of my instinct was to overcome the heaviness and the bout of depression with work, more work that will get me out of the slump. But there was no fire or energy in me to even try this. And this led me to that moment of prayer.
“It is good to wait in silence for the Lord to rescue.” (Lamentations 3: 26) “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46: 10)
This is the threshold of contemplation. Surrendering to this moment and emerging from it to continue the journey, we do so as a contemplative in action. Re-integrated we resume the journey as a “human being,” with the gift that makes us not so much look for God, but to find God in all things.
The Lord tells Martha, “Mary has chosen the better part…” Grace is freely and generously given to us by God but we must choose to allow grace to come into our life. At all stages of the journey such choices need be made, choices that either bring us farther away from or closer to the core of our relationship with Christ.