Contemplation and Service

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But Martha was overwhelmed by so much serving. She came up
and said, “Lord, does it not concern you that my sister left me
alone to serve? Tell her to help me!” The Lord answered her,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things.
But there is need for only one. Mary chose the good part. It won’t
be taken away from her.”

Luke 10: 40-42

For followers of “the Xaverian Way” today’s story from Luke is among the most important of passages. The inspiration for Theodore Ryken’s foundation had, as a core constituent, the fostering of a way of living in service to the church and the world that would require “following both the lives of Martha and Mary.” His temperament and life experience had taught him that in discipleship and on the spiritual path there is no dichotomy between contemplation and action, but rather that the action of service and discipleship is always a response to contemplative encounter with Jesus and deep listening to His word.

In his Plan of 1837-8, Ryken spoke of how his brothers would follow Mary “by living the religious state and following its exercises, such as prayer and meditation” and would follow Martha “by catechizing children and older people and working at these people’s salvation.” Unfortunately, we can read this description in such a way that it reinforces the biases of our functional perspective. In this functional light a balance of contemplation and action means spending some time each day in “contemplative activity” and most of the time in “ministerial activity.” In both instances, however, the emphasis remains on our activity. This interpretation misses the heart of the gospel teaching: “… you are anxious and troubled by many things. But there is need for only one.” The one thing necessary is hospitality (receiving the guest), and the core disposition in hospitality is attention, listening, encounter. In this sense “following the lives of Martha and Mary” requires hearing and receiving the word in one’s heart and then responding to what it requires of us.

As Pope Francis has said, “The truth is an encounter—it is a meeting with Supreme Truth: Jesus, the great truth. No one owns the truth. We receive the truth when we meet it.” Anyone who watches or listens to American media knows that as a people we do a lot more talking than listening. In the same way, we engage much more in “form-giving” than in “form-receiving.” Ryken understood our preference for acting/speaking over listening/receiving. This is why he asked his followers to consider the life of Jesus “spending as many as thirty years in solitude and only three years in preaching.” To act out of our compulsions which arise in response to our being troubled and anxious is to fall prey to the “will to power” in us. The gospel call is to be of service to a Reality that is beyond us. The difficulty in acting in service is our tendency to attempt to control and overpower what is beyond our comprehension and control. To truly serve requires first that we hospitably receive the truth of the other and respond to the unique appeal of that truth to us. Martin Buber described his living of this ever-present tension between power and service/love as follows: “Every morning I shall concern myself anew about the boundary between the love deed—Yes—and the power deed—No—and pressing forward honor reality. We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world. So let us, cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.” (Power and Love)

Activity that is not grounded in contemplation and obedience to Reality readily becomes the frantic and anxious exercise of power, of the futile attempt to control a world we have come to fear rather than love. In Between Man and Man, Buber describes how an “overreaching” human activity can result in the “sickness” of an increased self-alienation that comes to dread any “pause” where listening and receiving could occur in us.

When we see a great man desiring power instead of his real goal we soon recognize that he is sick, or more precisely that his attitude to his work is sick. He overreaches himself, the work denies itself to him, the incarnation of the spirit no longer takes place, and to avoid the threat of senselessness he snatches after empty power. This sickness casts the genius on to the same level as those hysterical figures who, being by nature without power, slave for power, in order that they may enjoy the illusion that they are inwardly powerful, and who in this striving for power cannot let a pause intervene, since a pause would bring with it the possibility of self-reflection and self-reflection would bring collapse.

Between Man and Man (1965), p. 151.

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