16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 10:38-42
The episode of Martha and Mary is probably the most well known story of the two women. Moreover, it is also most likely the most well known dinner party our Lord attended (presuming that the wedding feast in Cana was much more than a simple “dinner party”).
The final phrase of the Gospel account – “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” – led many of the Church Fathers, and also St. Thomas Aquinas, to consider the relation between the active and the contemplative lives.
Martha, of course, represents the active life. Mary, the contemplative life. Studying this narrative, theologians have pondered: What is the greatest vocation? I will here present the answer of St. Thomas Aquinas in condensed form, with some small applications to our own day. (See ST II-II, qq.179-184)
The Active Life and the Contemplative Life
Vocations can be divided between the “active life” and the “contemplative life” – between vocations primarily concerned with things of the world and those concerned primarily with prayer. However, each individual’s life can also be divided into activity and contemplation, since every vocation requires both prayer and work. But what is meant by the “active life” and the “contemplative life”?
The active life is the life of the moral virtues. It is the life in the world, the life concerned with the apostolate and the works of mercy (both the corporal and the spiritual works). This is the life directed primarily to the love of neighbor, for the sake of the love of God. The active life is the life of most people: even parish priests, though consecrated and celibate, live the active life; since they are busy about the work of active parish ministry.
The contemplative life is the life of prayer and contemplation. It is the life outside the world, already anticipating the world to come. This life requires the moral virtues, but is not primarily concerned therein. Rather, this is life directed primarily to the love of God – cultivating the intellectual virtues. All consecrated religious are called to this life, even those “active” religious (like many of the Dominicans and Fransiscans): all religious are called to be devoted primarily to the love of God in the life of prayer, this is in turn the soul of their apostolic works.
Now it is obvious that no individual, this side of Heaven, lives the purely contemplative life. Even religious monks and nuns must take break from contemplation in order to cook and clean. Work and prayer make a perfect harmony in the monastery so that even the “active” aspects of monastic life are entirely filled with the lasting radiance of contemplation.
Moreover, certainly no one called to the active life should live a purely active life. Prayer, even contemplation, is necessary to all – some period of daily mental prayer is morally necessary for salvation for all people. The active life, without prayer and contemplation, will soon become shallow, dry, bitter. Without the pleasure and delight of contemplative prayer, the active worker will soon turn to the pleasures of the flesh and other sinful passions.
The Contemplative Life, greater than the Active Life
The contemplative life is greater than the active life, just as our Lord said: “Mary has chosen the better part.” The contemplative life is greater for the same reason that the intellectual virtues are greater than the moral virtues: it accords more perfectly with that which is greatest and most divine in man (his intellect).
Moreover, the contemplative life is greater than the active because it will remain even in heaven – Jesus told us: “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” This doesn’t just mean that she did not need to go set the table at that moment, it is a prophesy regarding the final state of heaven: it will be the life of contemplation. Thus, the life of the contemplative monk or nun is already a foretaste of what is to come. And if there be any external action in heaven, it will be entirely at the service of the interior movement of prayer and contemplation.
It is also important to note another reason why St. Thomas prefers the contemplative life to the active: the pleasures and delights of contemplation are far greater (both in intensity and in duration) than any other pleasures! To any who have not experienced the sweetness of contemplative prayer, this will seem impossible. To the worldly sinner, the one bound in the sins of the flesh, this will seem ludicrous. But he who has begun even the first movements of the interior life will be able to understand something of what St. Thomas tells us – there is truly no pleasure or delight greater than the loving embrace of God experienced in prayer. It was this pleasure which gave the martyrs the ability to rejoice in the midst of even the greatest persecutions – who has willingly suffered such tortures for mere carnal pleasures? Yet how many saints, filled with the delights of their contemplation, have joyfully borne the Cross!
Thus, in every respect, the contemplative life is greater than the active life.
The Priesthood and the Contemplative Life
In recent years (that is in the past 100 or so years), there has been much discussion about the relative greatness of the priesthood and of married life. These two states and vocations have regularly been compared to one another, with a great deal of subsequent debate and discussion about clericalism. Setting all the many popular pros and cons of this comparison aside, I would offer that the greatest harm that followed from this comparison (between the priesthood and married life) has been the relative silence and obscurity of religious life.
If it is true that the priesthood excels (in certain aspects) the married life, how much more does the religious life excel the priesthood! This is the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, in respect to supereminence, religious life greatly exceed the vocation of the diocesan priest. Why? Because the diocesan priest is still a Martha, he is still devoted to the active life (this is good); but the religious is wholly consecrated to God through his vows and is devoted primarily to the contemplative life (this is better). Even the “active” religious are still principally devoted to the contemplative life – according to St. Thomas.
The diocesan priest can be compared to the religious monk or nun on three levels: supereminence, order, and office. According to supereminence the religious excels the diocesan priest, since he is wholly and completely committed to perfection and the contemplation of God. According to order and to office, the diocesan priest is greater (for it is greater to be a priest and to be entrusted with the care of souls than to be a vowed religious without the care of souls). However, if we compare a religious priest (e.g. a Dominican priest), then he is equal to the diocesan in order and office, but still greater in supereminence (for he is a religious, while the diocesan is still secular). Now among the three, supereminence is the surest way to determine the greatness of a vocation. Hence, the religious vocation is better than the diocesan priesthood (which is still good, just as marriage is still good).
The Greatest Vocation
If we follow St. Thomas (who is, in large part, simply re-iterating a much older tradition) the married vocation would be good, the diocesan priesthood would be better, and the religious life would be better still – this does not mean that the individuals would necessarily be holier: any particular mother or father may be much holier than any particular monk or nun. However, the order of these states does indicate the relative perfection of each vocation – married life points to heaven, the priesthood directs us to heaven even more, and the religious life is an even still more perfect sign of the life to come.
What then is the greatest vocation? St. Thomas tells us that it is that of the diocesan bishop. Like the religious he is wholly and entirely consecrated to God, even more than a parish priest. Moreover, he holds the highest and most perfect (as well as the most perfecting) order in the Church: he is an Apostle. Finally, his office is that which is most important and necessary in the Church: caring for the souls entrusted to him. The vocation of the diocesan bishop is far above that of the simple priest, because he is consecrated to God in a far more perfect way: this is one reason why the bishop wears a ring (symbolizing his marriage to the Church) as well as a cross (for he has been conformed most perfectly to the priesthood of Jesus Christ).
St. Thomas is also careful to point out that, among religious orders there is a gradation of perfection. All religious, even the active orders, live the contemplative life. Certainly the cloistered orders live the contemplative life in a particularly clear way. Moreover, the teaching orders (like the Dominicans) are truly contemplatives – in fact, the teaching orders are the highest and most perfect of all since their whole vocations is to hand on to others the fruits of their contemplation. St. Thomas tells us that the teaching orders (and he hopes we understand that he means the Dominicans) are the most perfect of all the religious, because they share most closely in the life of the diocesan bishop. Like the bishop, the Dominican is wholly consecrated to God. Like the bishop, the Dominican (i.e. the Dominican priest) is entrusted with the care of souls. Like the bishop, the Dominican hands on to others the tradition he has himself received, studied, and contemplated.
All are good, some are better
Recognizing the goodness of every authentic vocation in the Church, there is no harm in exalting those most precious vocations to the religious life. It will do no harm to the priesthood or to married life or to any other authentic vocation; since holy religious monks and nuns will help priests through their example and their prayers, and holy priests will help married people and all in the parish through their own example and prayers.
The lifting up of one vocation, exalts the others as well; just as all the members of Christ’s Body rejoice whenever one member rejoices. All vocations are good, some are better. The Good God will call each according to his will, so that the full multitude of the elect will shine forth as a single most perfect and well formed Body in Christ.