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Martha and Mary: The Double Hospitality (excerpts)

By Jean-Louis Chrétien. Translated by Abigail Leali. Published in Communio International Catholic Review, Fall 2020.

By its imperious austerity and by its brief lucidity, the account that the Gospel according to St. Luke — and it alone — offers us of the hospitality that Mary and Martha provided to Jesus in the village of Bethany seems from the beginning to upset all verbose commentary and interpretive subtlety alike. This discrete scene, which ends with Jesus’s affirmation that little is needed, indeed only one thing, to listen, is itself a scene of few words and details, and it aims at a unique lesson. It compels us to enter into the simplicity of listening, which it asserts as the irreplaceable requirement. Two warm receptions, two possible ways of receiving that are sisters to one another just like the persons of Martha and Mary, distinguish themselves and confront each other here at Martha’s initiative. Mary would not have broken the silence; Mary would not have responded, but nor would have Martha, and, in listening to the Lord’s teaching that the part of Mary would not be snatched from her, Martha begins to be granted that part in becoming herself one who listens.

These two dimensions of hospitality are those of our hands and our ears: of our industrious hands, devoted to all that they must do—tidy, arrange, prepare a table or a meal, anticipate the needs of others—and of our strained ears, attentive even while our bodies bow and rest in repose, letting descend upon themselves, according to the Biblical image, the celestial rose of the Word. As all the Fathers have emphasized, Jesus’s praise of Mary should not be taken as a critique of the work and tasks of Martha. The Latin translates as optima pars (“the best part”) the Greek expression that says only “the good part.” Yet even the notion of “part” supposes that there is a single hospitality dividing itself or splitting into two roles or tasks and that this hospitality would be mutilated if one of the two came to be lost. Jesus does not reprimand Martha for what she does but for the manner in which she does it: on the anxious bustle, worry, tension, and troubling of her spirit in the middle of her task.

The opposition between these numerous worries and the unrivalled attention to the Word of the Lord, between the ephemeral character of the first and the lasting fructification of the second, forms without doubt the core of the scene. This lesson of hospitality shows us that to welcome is first to listen to what comes for the day in the words of him who comes to us and that all the rest must be at the service of this. What is the most inconspicuous—the simple act of giving one’s attention—is also what is the most decisive here. For who would want someone to worry about their hunger and thirst without paying attention to them? To feed a man is first and foremost to listen to him. To listen to him is first and foremost to respect him, even if this respect does not translate into the gesture of remaining at his feet.

So profound is this teaching and so durable its impact on us, that it does not seem to lend itself to any controversies of interpretation. How has this episode been read over the centuries, that it has lent itself to commentaries at times so divergent as to infer even the reverse of its obvious meaning? How to receive these words that speak of what is received? ….

Can one, must one be without ceasing and entirely Martha or Mary? This is precisely the object of plenty of debates, primarily on the work of monks. A charming and funny account of the Desert Fathers (4th c. and 5th c.) shines a light on the problem with simplicity. A monk passing through, noticing the companions of Abba Silvain at work, opposes them with the word of Christ on the better part that Mary had chosen. The abbot conducts him to a cell with a book and sees to it that no one calls him for the meal. Once he leaves of his own accord and is surprised that no one called for him, Silvain responds that it was “because you are a spiritual man and you have no need of this food. We, being carnal, want to eat, and because of this we work. You have chosen the better part in reading all day; you do not want to eat carnal food.” The other then asks for pardon, and the old man concludes, “In truth, even Mary needs Martha. It is thanks to Martha, in effect, that we praise Mary.” Jesus came to them not only to preach but also to be fed and take rest. The complementarity of Martha and of Mary can also have its place in each of our lives. Even so, the riposte of Father Silvain does not in any way need to be understood as a rejection of the preeminence of contemplation but rather as a critique of a human manner—too human—of understanding this teaching of Jesus. It is in failing to uphold hospitality that he recalls its spiritual foundations and diverse aspects…..

The life of Martha, with its many worries, is a life that we cannot but lead here; the life of Mary is that which we hope for ourselves at the end of time. This multiplicity is not wrong; it clings to the human condition itself and to the diversity of tasks that we must take up out of love for others. St. Augustine sees in us Marthas who believe in the future Mary that it will be given us to become. “Are we to suppose that Martha was reprimanded for her service, for busying herself with the cares of hospitality, for welcoming the Lord himself as a guest? …. If that’s really the case, let people all give up ministering to the needy; let them all choose the better part, which shall not be taken away from them. Let them devote their time to the word, let them pant for the sweetness of doctrine, let them busy themselves with theology, the science of salvation; don’t let them bother at all about what stranger there may be in the neighborhood, who may be in need of bread or who of clothing, who needs to be visited, who to be redeemed, who to be buried. Let the works of mercy be laid aside, everything be concentrated on the one science.” One sees the ironic resolution with which St. Augustine rules out all praise of a contemplation that comes at the cost of charity. It is, additionally, this orientation that makes him decide in favor of manual labor for monks as also corresponding to a spiritual exigency.

And it is furthermore on the side of Martha that St. Augustine, who is assuredly a great contemplative and a great mystic, places himself. He does so on the basis of his own insight on the theme of food: for him, the Biblical Word is an essential food that, to live, we need as much as that of the body. Martha and Mary stand in some way at two sides of the table. “Mary, you see, was absorbed in the sweetness of the Lord’s words. Martha was absorbed in the matter of how to feed the Lord; Mary was absorbed in the matter of how to be fed by the Lord. Martha was preparing a banquet for the Lord, Mary was already reveling in the banquet of the Lord.” But, at the end of this sermon, St. Augustine applies this image to the situation in which he and his listeners find themselves: the latter, distanced for a time from troubles, worries, and affairs by their participation in the divine office, listening with attention to the sermon, are similar to Mary, and they receive, by the mediation of the priest, the food that is the Word of Christ. But what does Augustine do? It is he who prepares, offers, and serves this meal of the Word: he is, therefore, by his own admission, on the side of Martha! That the Word raises action and the active life, and that it is, when preached, the part of Martha poses an important philosophical question to which we will return. ….

As was stated above, the liturgy of olden days until quite recently included this episode of St. Luke as the reading for the feast of the Assumption. The link between the two is not at all immediately clear, but the preachers’ ingenuity explored the episode in such a way as to draw it out and reveal new clarities in it. To this is added a textual detail that has not yet been put to good use. The first phrase of the account says that Jesus “came to a village.” The word “village” or “burg” is a translation of the Greek kômè. This is rendered in Latin by the word castellum. It is the origin of our “castle,” but its customary meaning is better expressed “village.” It can signify either a strong place or a strong castle, though this is not the case in the Gospel. But certain medievals took it thus and understood Jesus to have entered a fortress where the house of Martha and Mary was found. From there, an entire web of symbols can be put into place. The tertium comparationis between the reception at Bethany and the Virgin Mary is none other than hospitality: Martha and Mary received Jesus in their home; the Virgin initially received him in herself, in her body. Martha and Mary lived in a fortress; the body of Mary was a well-guarded fortress. How does this hospitality concern and affect us? ….

But concerning the interpretation of the figures of Martha and Mary, the most shocking yet awaits us. Not content with acquitting Martha against a tradition that often prostrates her for the profit of Mary or with placing both sisters, as it has been seen that many do, on the same footing and at an equal dignity, two mystical authors, one celebrated and the other less known, have read this episode in a way that radically inverts the obvious meaning and, for the prize of a rich and profound meditation but literally in reverse of the text, have pronounced the superiority of Martha over Mary: it is, in truth, Martha, against Jesus’s teaching, who received the good part! These authors are Meister Eckhart in one of his German sermons and Louis Chardon, French Dominican of the seventeenth century, author of a spiritual and literary masterpiece rediscovered by Abbot Brémond in his Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France: Le Croix de Jésus. How is this reversal, paradoxical to say the least, possible, and what does it mean?

Much more is at stake, it must be said immediately, than an inversion of the values of action and contemplation: Eckhart and Chardon decipher Martha and Mary’s attitudes in light of their own spiritual principles and seek to discern them, each following his own direction. Yet their interpretations fall into a sort of contemporaneity. Here again, the question is: will we be Martha or Mary? But it is taken in another light. The fusion of Mary of Bethany with Mary-Magdalene is not without its role, but it is not the most determinant. Eckhart’s Sermon 86 is long and sometimes, quite literally, very arduous, but it is possible to extract from it the principle axes. Eckhart first builds upon on the differences between the two sisters concerning age and life experience. Mary, seated at the feet of Christ and drinking in his words, is entirely in delight, consolation, and joy. She remains in an “ineffable longing [unsprechelîchiu begirde]: She longed for she knew not what, and she wanted she knew not what.” But this je ne sais quoi, which holds such a great place in the history of spirituality and of aesthetics, is not, for Eckhart, worthy of praise; when he takes up these same expressions again a little while later, it is to add: “We harbor the suspicion that dear Mary was sitting there more for enjoyment [plaisir] than for spiritual profit.”

Eckhart distinguishes here, in effect, two delights: one according to sensitivity, the other according to the spirit. In this last, “the highest part of the soul is not drawn down by any pleasure, so that it does not drown in pleasures, but stands sovereign above them” as it also stands above suffering. Mary’s danger is to be absorbed in her delight, to extinguish her liberty. It is, in the eyes of Eckhart, the danger of the novice, to which he opposes Martha’s maturity—which is none other than “her respected age and a ground very rich in experience,” which “made her think that no one could do the work as well as she.” She knows the perils that menace her younger sister because of her life experience, “and living gives the most valuable kind of knowledge” [leben gibet daz edelste bekennen]. But how do we understand, in that case, the complaint that she addresses to Jesus?

Here, Eckhart the reader is, as was said in former times, more admirable than imitable; he takes the opposite view of the text: “Martha did not say this out of spite. Rather, she said it because of endearment; that is what motivated her. We might call it affection or playful chiding.” In a disguised form, it is her anxiety for the spiritual future of her sister that she expresses to Jesus by implication, as between adults: “she feared that she would remain stuck in this pleasant feeling and would progress no further.” In responding to her and evoking the better part of Mary that will not be taken from her, Jesus is, in reality, reassuring her regarding the future of Mary. “Christ did not speak these words to Martha to chasten her. Rather, he responded by giving her the comforting message that it would turn out for Mary as she desired.” Moreover, Eckhart reflects on the fact that Jesus, in his response, repeats the name of Martha, taking seriously the act of being named twice by the divine Word. For him, this is not the tone of an admonition but the mark of the double perfection of Martha according to the temporal and the eternal. The superiority of Martha is therefore entirely resounding: she forms a model of sorts for the spiritual life fulfilled—in contrast with her youngster of a sister! But how to understand, in this unusual perspective, Jesus’s next sentence, “you are worried and upset about many things”? Here again, Eckhart inverts the meaning of the text, though ingeniously. Dû bist sorcsam: this worry or care is the mark not of anxious absorption with little details but of spiritual liberty. He wanted to say: You are close to things (dû stâst bî den dingen), and things are not in you. They are careful who are without obstacles in all their activity. They are without obstacles who accomplish all their works as is appropriate, according to the image of eternal light. These people are close to things and not in things [bî den dingen und niht in den dingen].

This beautiful distinction opens the space, the liberated space, for a solicitude that is not preoccupation, an action that is not busyness. Interiorly unrestricted, bolstered in a love that does not search for consolation, elevated above that which she can feel—that which has no meaning—Eckhart here insists that she feels nothing: Martha can be near things with luminous efficacy without things possessing her and without herself engulfing them. This is Christian liberty, where action and contemplation, duty and suppleness intimately unite. To turn towards what we have to do is not to absorb it: such is Eckhart’s lesson here, the validity of which is distinct from the dubious character of his hermeneutic. All this can lean on St. Paul’s invitation that “those who use the world, [use it] as though they did not make full use of it” (I Cor 7:31). “Martha,” clarifies Eckhart, “was so grounded in being that her activity did not hinder her. Work and activity led her to eternal happiness,” since “[she] was near things, not in things,” even though she took care of them. This is the true separation that no ivory tower will replace. “[For the one who works in the light, his] light is his activity and his activity is his light.” Eckhart adds: “Martha stood in lordly, well-founded virtue with a free spirit unimpeded by anything.” Her liberty is hardened by the density of her stage of life.

Mary does not yet know how to live; she does not have this knowledge that comes from life at all, drowned as she is in her joy: “she was sitting there in joy and sweetness but had just begun to be schooled and to learn about life.” Whatever violence is done to the text, the sermon is magnificent: Martha is no longer the figure of the active life opposed to the contemplative life; she is the unity of action and contemplation in a life higher and stronger than anything that would separate them. But Mary, too, at the end of the long journey that Eckhart ascribes to her, will learn how to serve and act by intensifying her brilliance. ….

At the end of this journey, which could not be exhaustive, but which has retraced the main interpretations of this episode in Luke, several conclusions emerge. The first relates to hermeneutics. To see how many such elevated spirits have pulled this simple account in diverse and sometimes opposite directions, one could be tempted by a sort of interpretive skepticism, as if the text were nothing but a pretext to affirm decisions made before it and outside of it regarding the possibilities for human existence. To fight each other by means of quotations is often a dubious combat. But this would miss the essential: the diversity of interpretations of this scene that brings into play the reception of the other—of the eminent other, welcoming him in his eminence—is also the deployment of the responses to a call that seizes our existence itself and troubles it. St. Augustine liked to say that Holy Scripture is a mirror that reveals us to ourselves. To see ourselves there, it is also necessary to let it work in our lives by the questions that it poses. The silvering of this mirror is also something of our flesh. And this episode of St. Luke cannot but be a question: who will we be, how will we be for him who comes? How will we anticipate him who comes? It interrogates us on our vocation, and it is with our vocation, be it uncertain and trembling, that we respond to him. In drawing out a double hospitality, two modes of welcoming, the episode itself opens a space of play and of trouble. All the authors agree that there would be no hospitality if we had only Mary or only Martha. But it is up to our lives to draw from this lesson: up to our lives in their unicity and singularity, with the timbre of their voices and the form of their hands. It is in welcoming the other that I reveal who I am and that I become him in truth. Could we not also view the reproach of Martha as reminding her that there is not only one way of welcoming, hers, and that she is wrong to forget that each receives according to what he is?

The second conclusion is spiritual and united with the first. In reducing the choices of Martha and Mary before Jesus to the terms—certainly of philosophical origin—of action and contemplation, the Fathers and the mystics certainly did not “Hellenize” the Bible nor compromise the Christian faith with a purely human knowledge (if such truly exists). For they never lost sight that this contemplation consisted in listening to God in his Word and that this action was service of neighbor and of God in that neighbor, who is hungry or who is tired. They do not speak of the contemplation of the laws of the universe nor of political action. At stake with Martha and Mary is truly the personal connection to him who comes and who comes in being received. And this hospitality is not that of a party from bygone days, by principle not repeatable, for Jesus himself tells us (Mt 25) that in receiving or in refusing to receive someone, no matter who it is in distress or in need, it is him that we refuse or welcome. The Ancient Greeks had, in their way, foreseen this in making Zeus the protector of strangers—then and not only then without rights—and in insinuating that the gloriless stranger who knocks on our door is perhaps a disguised god, veiled in anonymity. The grandeur of hospitality is also not to want overmuch to know who is the guest, not to measure in advance the dimensions of his being. That he would remain always in some way unknown, so that we might give him the liberty to make himself known!

Finally, even in a lay and modest way, Martha and Mary are luminous: it happens sometimes that someone bends over backwards—as is said colloquially—so much to receive and satisfy us (“you are worried and upset about many things!”) that we do not have a person in front of us anymore, only a busyness in which we end up becoming subordinate to the burden that we see ourselves as being on the other. St. Cyril of Alexandria, a philosopher yet very speculative, draws from this scene the simple lesson that if we receive missionaries of the Word (and what man cannot be so in his way, if we listen to him?), food and a welcome without pomp or luxurious fuss would be sufficiently appropriate, if they are dignified. To receive is first to listen. But, inversely, a listener that would like us to speak for hours on end without bothering to ask if we are hungry, thirsty, tired, or simply want to stay quiet, would no longer be attentive or hospitable.

It is not sufficient, therefore, to be Martha and Mary; we must be Mary tending towards the better of Martha, Martha tending towards the better of Mary; to have a listening that acts and hands that listen. The unity of the two is not comprised of the synthesis of two concepts but rather the convergence and meeting of two possibilities of existence, neither of which attains its incandescence except in concerning itself with the other’s burning. That is probably why they are feminine. If he who comes is always to come, hospitality, with these two faces, is also lifelong, and we cannot hope that its worry be healed.


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