One Thing


The Readings for the 16th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C1):

Martha, Martha, sollicita es, et turbaris erga plurima, porro unum est necessarium. Maria optimam partem elegit, quae non auferetur ab ea.

Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her. 

It’s traditional to see Mary as contemplative and Martha as active. It’s very traditional to read both of these as needful in the Church, and it’s important to recognize the ministry of both. We probably all have “Mary” phases and “Martha” phases. In any healthy Christian relationship, there is a balance of this, a tradeoff of husband and wife, of friends, of siblings, of coworkers. Who is active today, who is contemplative? Will they trade places later today, tomorrow, or next week?

What spoke to me in both the Gospel and the first reading, is the primacy of contemplation. 

Abraham is sitting in the shade, in the quiet of a hot afternoon, then the Lord appears to him and then Abraham moves his household to action. Mary has chosen the better part. There is only one thing needful.

Properly ordered action arises from contemplation.

The Dominican Tradition is a contemplative one, but it adds action as well. We are to take the fruits of our contemplation and bear them out into the world as action.

There are many who would that the Church were more active: forgetting of course that she is the largest charity organization in the world, providing more support than any other agency (including governments) in more places (ok, everywhere). If this statement about the Church is expanded ecumenically, Christians far outgive literally everyone. Some want the Church to be more active: what they really mean is “be less contemplative”.

They fail to see that her charity does not arise from any sense of human duty, but rather from an active participation in the divine kenosis: the Church’s charity is the continual outpouring of Love that breathes between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, between the Trinity and the Church as Christ’s body in the Holy Spirit, only then from the Church to the World, again in the Holy Spirit. The Church’s charity is the action of God in the world and she only fails when her Charity is not rooted in the contemplation of the divine face. That is the one needful thing: to sit at the foot of Jesus and participate in perichoresis, in the outpouring of Love on the world.

She cannot be active only.

There are many service organizations in the Church, but properly ordered service must begin in the heart united in love to Jesus. And to Jesus that heart must return moment by moment, to participate in the dance. To fail to do so… is to leave on whinging like Martha about needing help, or to exhaustedly plop down at the end of the day and doze instead of a continual action of Eucharist.

Martha is not complete without Mary. Her frantic action cannot be complete without contemplation.

Is Mary complete without Martha? There are contemplatives in the Church whose entire calling is to radiate that divine love to the rest of us. Yes, Mary can be complete without Martha. Abraham could have spent the day in the quiet of the shade…

Can any of us, living in the world, be complete without both? No. Each are called to the foot of the Cross, to the open table of the Word, to the heavenly vision of the Liturgy, and from there to dance out into the world in love – and then to return again, moment by moment.

Service only arises from the heart. This is the one needful thing.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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