How Then Does A Lay Person Live Out a Contemplative Life?


It is my contention that it is possible for a lay person to live a contemplative life.

What does this strange blending look like? What form does it take and what does it entail for the soul so disposed.

I think we could all agree that it would be possible for most souls to achieve at least the lower degree of contemplation. Not all do it, but it seems that such contemplation is the highest rung on the ladder of what we can obtain "through our own efforts aided by sustaining grace."

Perhaps we should spend a moment thinking about what the contemplative life requires from the person. As I tried to suggest in Martha and Mary: A Speculation, I think much of our understanding of the contemplative life is colored by a misunderstanding of the story of Martha and Mary. I think many of us read this story to mean that the active life is necessarily opposed to the contemplative life. As I said in the cited post, I do not think that is the message we are supposed to garner from the story. However, that understanding presents several problems that must be addressed.

To start with, unless we are extraordinary, as is the case of St. Thérèse and the Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, very few of us are born contemplative. That is, we all enter life in the mode of active life. If it were true that the active life was in some way a substantive barrier to the contemplative life, then it would be impossible to achieve it. St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that the active life may be at once a hindrance to some aspects of the contemplative life and not a hindrance. I won't go into his arguments because frankly I don't think I understand them thoroughly. But suffice to say that while an active life might present a hindrance, it does not constitute a barrier to the contemplative life.

A second problem that is commonly noted is that somehow a contemplative life requires us to withdraw from all the responsibilities of our present state. Once again, I believe this proceeds from a misunderstanding of Mary and Martha. Mary sits at the Lord's feet musing, and Martha works. Mary has withdrawn from the responsibility of social engagement and hospitality and has entered into close communion with the Lord.

Well, I think we can readily see the error of this view. Mary is, in fact, actively offering what hospitality really requires--presence. Hospitality isn't merely about food and shelter, although those are important constitutive parts of hospitality, but it is about being present to the person to home hospitality offers in a fundamental, grounded way. You are there to listen, to hear, to console, to advise, to do what is necessary so that the person feels at home. It was this form of hospitality that Mary offered to Jesus. Do we really think that she wasn't already feeling bad that she wasn't helping Martha? Could she really sit there and ignore entirely the hubbub surrounding her as preparations were made for dinner? When Martha accused Mary before the Lord, would we say that Mary's heart did not drop, recognizing the truth of what Martha was saying? Isn't that perhaps part of the reason for the gentle rebuke that the Lord delivers to Martha? More, after the Lord continued His journey, are we to suppose that Mary sat around the house all day mooning about how nice it was to talk to Him.

I don't think that is what we are to take away from the story. Now, perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I believe we are to see Mary as someone who knows when to work and when to be still. She has a base-level understanding of what it means to be hospitable. She has the urge to serve, but curtails her own desire to hear what it is the Lord wishes her to hear. Martha, on the other hand, extremely well-intentioned, hasn't quite caught on to the idea that there is a time for bustle and activity and a time for quiet reflection and spending time with your guests. More, Martha hasn't quite learned what it means to serve with joy and love and to love the opportunity to serve selflessly. She could have prepared the dinner AND still have been present to the Lord, she simply didn't know how; nor did she fully understand the importance of doing so.

Many of us are in a "Martha" state of life. Sometimes I can't quite see how to integrate my activity and my prayer-- my service to others and my spending time with the Lord. I know that by serving others I AM spending time with God, but because He is not necessarily foremost in my mind in the time of service, it doesn't really "count." I think, to some extent we all suffer from the same mindset.

(Unfortunately, time has come to move on to other matters. This evening I have a great deal of work to make up for so this will be continued later.)

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 29, 2004 7:20 AM.

Four Questions Part 2D--What Do I Mean By Contemplation? was the previous entry in this blog.

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