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Balancing work and spiritual sustenance

04 September 2015

Using the story of Mary and Martha, Nicholas Buxton seeks the integration of being and doing

When I made the life-changing decision to follow the spiritual path, wherever it might lead me, I immediately found myself caught between two conflicting calls: withdrawal from the world, and engagement with the world. I felt a strong urge to explore the possibility of joining a monastery, and I also felt, equally strongly, that there were numerous “worldly” aspirations I still needed to fulfil.

This dichotomy is played out in the story of Mary and Martha, a story that is often cited as one of the great proof texts for the contemplative tradition of Christian spirituality.

“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10.42). Mary has decided in favour of what really matters. She beholds the truth, manifested before her in the person of Jesus, and it will not be taken away from her, because she is anticipating, in her contemplation of Jesus, the eternal contemplation of the soul in communion with God. She is, in this life, living the eternal present moment of the life everlasting.

Martha, on the other hand, is “worried and distracted by many things” (Luke 10.41). Like most of us, she is caught up in the cares of the world. Martha has to do the things that need doing: she has to work, and get her hands dirty. The story as we have it seems clearly biased in favour of Mary’s contemplative calling, appearing to devalue the practical and necessary business of everyday life represented by the hard-working Martha.

As a consequence, many have sought to redress the balance. After all, Martha embodies the concerns and responsibilities we all face in our daily lives. Most people can probably identify more easily with Martha than with Mary, and may well sympathise with the affront she feels on account of the preferential treatment accorded her sister.

Maybe that is precisely why Jesus seems to favour Mary, to remind us that we need to attend to the often neglected spiritual side of life. By affirming the contemplative vocation, we are not necessarily devaluing the cares of the world, but making the point that there is more to life than work.

Our responsibilities still need our attention, but we should not allow them to override our spiritual needs altogether; we should keep things in proportion and perspective. There is an appropriate time for everything, as the author of Ecclesiastes sagely observes (Ecclesiastes 3.1-8).

The story of Mary and Martha should not, therefore, be read as a dilemma between two alternative vocations, but rather as an illustration of the need for balance. After all, they are sisters: they share the same DNA; they do not represent two polar opposites, separate and unrelated, but two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. To be whole, we need both.

Indeed, the task of the spiritual life is not to make an “either-or” choice between the active and contemplative vocations, but to create a “both-and” synthesis. It is all about balance. Mary and Martha personify two facets of the one calling to pursue what really matters.

The question is not which one we follow, but how we integrate them: how do we achieve action in contemplation and contemplation in action? How do we, in Paul’s words, learn to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17)?

This is not such a difficult concept to grasp. Anyone who has found themselves deeply absorbed in a task — especially one they enjoy — or who, like so many of the great saints and mystics, is able to glimpse what is holy in the most mundane activities of life, has experienced contemplation in action. Everything we do should, if possible, be seen as an expression of prayer, and prayer should be seen as a form of work. After all, prayer really is hard work, as anyone who has tried it will no doubt be able to testify.

Most importantly of all, we need to understand from this story that a life of prayer is not just a job for the religious professional. We are all called to seek God and our own authenticity. Finding the balance between the demands of work — or just everyday life — and our need for spiritual sustenance should be one of our highest priorities.

Life can present us with innumerable challenges, including the challenge of remaining positive in the face of illness and infirmity. How, in such circumstances, do we balance Mary and Martha in our lives? How do we gain the perspective that will enable us to fulfil our worldly desires and obligations without being deflected from our spiritual aspirations?

Admittedly it is difficult. But, with God, nothing is impossible (Luke 1.37; cf. Matthew 19.26). Finding this balance is what meditation, the cultivation of self-awareness through the discipline of stillness, is really all about. The harmony of contemplation in action and action in contemplation is the outward expression of the inner equilibrium we seek to establish by means of our practice. The story of Mary and Martha thus serves as a metaphor for both the spiritual life in general, and the specific practice of meditation itself.

The spiritual life is not about being rather than doing, but the harmonious integration of being and doing as a seamless whole, so that we are what we do and we do what we are. Meditation is how we get there. Good speed on the only journey that was ever worth making.


This is the last of three edited extracts from The Wilderness Within by Nicholas Buxton (Canterbury Press, £12.90 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84825-657-6).

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