Nothing is more worthy of attention than what the Gospel teaches us about the two sisters Martha and Mary. It is certain that Martha represents active life, that is, life where, by her own efforts, by her own work, we hasten to bear witness to God her love; and that Mary is the image of contemplative life, where we study ourselves to stand at rest, to give rise in us to the action of God, and where we operate only by movement and under the guidance of God.
The two sisters receive Jesus Christ in their house, both love him, both want to mark their love; but they do it in a very different way. Martha thinks only of exercising charity to the Savior and preparing a meal for him. Her care is worthy of praise, but she puts a lot of activity into it, a lot of eagerness: she is restless, she worries; she prepares different dishes, while only one would have sufficed. Mary, for her part, gives herself no movement to treat Jesus Christ well; but she sits at her feet to be nourished by her word. The occupation of the former is all external, all in action; that of the second and all inner, all in silence and rest. One wants to give to the Savior, the other wants to receive from him; one presents her with great heart all that she has, the other gives herself.
Martha, convinced that she does more for Jesus Christ than her sister, and that she should leave the Savior's feet to come to her aid, complains to him that she lets her serve alone, and begs him to tell him to help him. She believed that Mary was idle, and that her rest and silence had nothing to please Jesus Christ.
But what does he say to her? Martha, Martha! you are worried and you are rushing for many things; however only one is necessary, Mary has chosen the best part, which will not be taken away from her.
Let us weigh this answer: the instruction it contains is well-likely to moderate activity and reduce multiplicity, which are the two great defects of devotion. It was in order for the hostesses of Jesus Christ to prepare him to eat, but he only needed a frugal meal. One dish was enough for nature's needs, and Martha would think she would miss the Savior if she did not make him a large number of dishes. That's the flaw in multiplicity. This frugal meal had to be prepared peacefully, and without losing the inner rest; and Martha hastens, agits, becomes confused. That is the defect of the activity. Martha preferred her occupation to that of her sister. Jesus Christ straightens her again on this, and teaches her that Mary's choice is the best. He still teaches him that the external works, the works of charity, though good in themselves, though commanded, are only for present life, and will cease with it; instead that the rest of contemplation will never pass, and that after beginning on earth, it will continue with more perfection in eternity.
On another occasion, when Jesus Christ came to resurrect Lazarus, Martha, educated of his coming, and always active, runs to meet him. Mary stays at home, waiting for her sister to tell her that the Master is calling her. Martha acts of her own movement; Mary waits for Jesus Christ to set her in motion.
Let us draw from all this safe rules to direct our judgment and conduct in matters of devotion.
(1) Good works, had jesus Christ himself as their object, and something as necessary as food, are in themselves of less value than the prayer and rest of contemplation. Therefore, it is generally necessary to prefer prayer to action, and to give it much more time. By prayer I mean here all the exercises of piety whose soul is the immediate object.
When external works that look at one's neighbour are not of absolute necessity, it is not so much necessary to multiply them that they take on our prayers and on our inner exercises. We may claim zeal and charity: zeal must be settled, and charity must begin with ourselves.
(3) Even when external works are indispensable, and God's will is express, it is necessary to try to do so without leaving the inner rest; so that, in action, the soul continues to be united with God, and that it does not lose a certain reverence that must accompany it everywhere. As this is a rather difficult practice, and is unique only to advanced souls, all the masters of spiritual life recommend to the beginnings to give as little as they can to action, and to apply more to prayer. A time will come when the oration has become, so to speak, natural to them, they will be able, god to see it appropriate, to act much outside, without losing the rest of the inside.
(4) Compared to even inner exercises, the activity that has its source in self-esteem is always bad, and it cannot be repressed too much, to allow oneself to be dominated by grace. What was Mary doing? She was sitting; his body was in a fixed and quiet situation; she was in silence. Jesus Christ spoke; she listened to him with all the attention of her heart. It is not said that she spoke to Jesus Christ, nor that she interrupted him; she stood before him like a disciple before her master; she received her lessons, and let them slowly penetrate her soul. This is the model of perfect prayer, where the soul does not seek to exhale itself in reflections and feelings, but where it listens to the one who instructs it without any sound of words. When God has made us the grace to call us to this kind of prayer, we must never leave for any pretext, distraction, drought, boredom, temptation. But it must be persevered; we must devour all the sorrows that meet there, and be convinced that we do a lot, that we do everything God wants us to do, even when we think we are doing nothing and wasting time. It takes great courage, and taking a lot on oneself, to walk constantly in the wilderness of a naked, obscure oration, empty of thoughts and affections. So it is this oration that most advances our death to ourselves, and our life in God.
5. Activity generates multiplicity, and rest leads to unity, to this unity of which Jesus Christ notes the necessity. The activity accumulates practices; it embraces all kinds of devotion. It goes from one act to another; she is agitated, tormented, and never thinks she has done enough. Rest concentrates us in God, and sets us to one thing: to listen to him in prayer; and, out of prayer, to fulfill his will in the present moment, without worrying about the past or the future. So that the soul never has one object, and never indulges in external things, less occupied with its action than with God's will, which is its motive and end.
6. She thus learns not to separate Mary's occupation from Martha's, and to subordinate them so that one does not harm the other. She does not neglect any of the duties of her condition, even those of propriety; but it puts at the head of all its duties the inseparable union with God, the continual dependence of grace. She gives the neighbour all the services that depend on her, but she does not do it on her own: she waits for Providence to present the opportunity. She speaks, she acts in peace under the direction of grace, and she aspires only to be alone with God.
7. Finally, even in the best things, in those which most interest the glory of God, it never interferes in anything; it does not even take a step towards God, if God himself does not call him. She stays where she is, as St Francis of Sales says, because her present state is the one where God wants her, and she must come out only by her order.
That devotion would be beautiful, that it would be glorious to God, useful to the soul, edifying to the neighbour, respected in even the most corrupt world, if it behaved according to these rules! But, unfortunately, one wants to govern oneself, one seeks oneself in one's devotion, and this is what makes it subject to so many flaws and wrongs.
(From the Manual of Inner Souls)
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