We all know the story of Martha and Mary--how Mary chose "the better part." But why is that so? Didn't the Lord applaud the woman who has anointing his feet? Didn't He tell us that "whatsoever we do for one of these the least of His little ones, that we do unto Him?" Why should Mary have the better part.
Here is what I think the tale is about. Many make it out to be about the difference between the active life and the contemplative life, making the common mistake that contemplation=utter inaction. What I think this is about is where the heart is. Mary is completely lost in Jesus's words, utterly abandoned to Him, listening carefully and simply loving Him.
Martha on the other hand is completely wrapped up in herself, in societal expectaions, in how much she has to do to put on a "good show" for the Lord and how little help she is getting from that lazy-butt sister who's just lolling about listening where she oughtn't to be rather than helping in the kitchen.
If Martha had partaken of the "better part" she need not necessarily have sat at Jesus' feet. If she were truly lost in Jesus, she could just as easily have set a table for fifty and roasted a lamb without so much as thinking about asking for help. She would have been so wrapped up in the wonderful privilege of service, it would not have occurred to her to give the job to someone else. After all, this is what the Lord appointed for her to do, and do it she would with all her heart.
The contemplative life is not an inactive life. Nearly every contemplative I am aware of served an active life of service to a community. Some did solid, substantive physical labor, others swept floors in a convent, made soup, tended to the sick in their communities. A cloistered life is not a life of utter inaction. There are still abundant corporal and spiritual works of mercy to be performed.
Where do we get the notion that a contemplative spends all day lolling about in some sort of opium-dream of divinity? Why do we consistently ignore the fact that great contemplatives like St. Teresa of Avila (who erected 32 "Foundations" or convents in her lifetime), St. Catherine of Siena (who traveled to Avignon to persuade the Pope in Exile to return to his rightful see in Rome), Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Katherine Drexel (who built, bought, and/or establish hospitals and schools for underprivileged persons of color and Native Americans) all spent tremendously active lives. They did not sit around waiting for visions. They didn't carefully walk through darkened corridors so as not to disturb the Divine influence that was showering down upon them.
And this only makes sense. If we read our Bibles carefully (or even not-so-carefully) we hear James telling us that faith without works is dead. How can a contemplative not have faith? Surely then there must be works. Yes the works are often in the form of prayers, but they are also often in the forms of work that we couldn't even begin to think of doing.
Being contemplative perfects union with God. All the works that come from a contemplative in this state are more substantive works because they have their origin at a level above personal desire or volition; they spring from utter abandoment and willingness to do God's appointed work for them.
So I read Martha and Mary to be not about sitting and listening or working, but to be about how we go about either listening or doing our work. If in the course of our work all we think about is how much work it is and how unappreciated it is, and how we ought to have someone helping us, and dadgummit that's the last time I'm going to do something for this groups of ingrates, we are obviously not setting our hearts on the goal of pleasing God. We are being Marthas, complaining to God about how unappreciated and unhelped we are.
But if we set about even the most minor or menial task--vacuuming the floors, picking up dirty clothes (that we've told that spouse/those kids about ten thousand times) without a single hitch in the hymn we're singing, in perfect happiness at doing what needs done in order to life out God's will for us, then we are at once active and contemplative. We are living the life of Mary in the midst of our activity. THAT is what the contemplative life is about. It isn't about setting aside thirty hours to do nothing but stare at the wall of our bedroom or about becoming holy while our children go without meals.
The complete Christian life is never an either/or it is always some form of both/and. The great saints knew this and they told us through their written works and through their lives. We have two mirrors by which to see them--too often we only look at one.