132"IN the gospel of Saint Luke it is written, that when our Lord was in the house of Martha her sister, all the time that Martha made her busy about the dighting of His meat, Mary her sister sat at
His feet. And in hearing of His word she beheld not to the business of
her sister, although her business was full good and full holy, for
truly it is the first part of active life; nor yet to the preciousness
of His blessed body, nor to the sweet voice and the words of His
manhood, although it is better and holier, for it is the second part of active life and the first of contemplative life.
But to the sovereignest wisdom of His
Godhead lapped in the dark words of His manhood, thither beheld she
with all the love of her heart. For from thence she would not remove,
for nothing that she saw nor heard spoken nor done about her; but sat
full still in her body, with many a sweet privy and a listy love
pressed upon that high cloud of unknowing betwixt her and her God. For
one thing I tell thee, that there was never yet pure creature in this
life, nor never yet shall be, so high ravished in contemplation and
love of the Godhead, that there is not evermore a high and a wonderful
cloud of unknowing betwixt him and his God. In this cloud it was that
Mary was occupied with many a privy love pressed. And why? Because it
was the best and the holiest part of contemplation that may be in this
life, and from this part her list not remove for nothing. Insomuch,
that when her sister Martha complained to our Lord of her, and bade Him bid her sister rise and
help her and let her not so work and travail by herself, she sat full
still and answered not with one word, nor shewed not as much as a
grumbling gesture against her sister for any plaint that she could
make. And no wonder: for why, she had another work to do that Martha wist
not of. And therefore she had no leisure to listen to her, nor to answer her at her plaint.
Lo! friend, all these works, these words, and these gestures, that were shewed betwixt our Lord and these two sisters, be set in ensample of all actives and all contemplatives that have been since in Holy Church, and shall be to the day of doom. For by Mary is understood all contemplatives; for they should conform their living after hers. And by Martha, actives on the same manner; and for the same reason in likeness."
- Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter xvii, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
The Scripture Reference:
About The Cloud of Unknowing:
Introduction by Evelyn Underhill (CCEL)
In our era, when women's rights and the role of women in the Church can be so controversial, it might seem surprising that a fourteenth century monk wrote of Mary and Martha -- women -- as examples of the contemplative and active life for men and women alike. He seemed to think nothing of it. It does not seem to have occurred to him that, in some other era or some other place, people might tend to read about Mary and Martha and apply them specifically as examples for Christian women to follow. He was probably writing for monks. Nor does it seem to have dawned on him that, in some other place and some other era, anyone might read what he wrote as "feminist". The concept we call "feminism" was outside of his frame of reference.
Yet, Mary and Martha both became examples of the Christian life, for men and women alike. The language is still in our vocabulary. Men still described themselves as “sitting at the feet” of some respected Christian teacher or mentor. From New Testament times on, it would seem, neither Mary nor Martha was regarded solely as a role model for Christian women. Rather, they became role models for all Christians.
They never went about it quite the same way as the men. No one ever suggested making either Mary or Martha one of the 12 disciples. No one ever suggested making them apostles. There is nothing in the stories of Mary and Martha that would support the ordination of women -- far from it. They influence by the way they lived and by their love for Jesus, not for positions of authority. And yet, we know more about them than we know about most of the 12 disciples of Jesus, and they influence us in their way.
Mary seems to me to have been quite different from the Jewish concept of a woman of faith. Proverbs 31 talks about the value of a “worthy wife” as being far above pearls, and goes on to describe her diligence in providing for her household. Martha was a Proverbs 31 woman, actively doing everything that a good wife was supposed to do according to the Old Testament Scriptures.
Mary was not a Proverbs 31 wife, if she was ever married at all. Proverbs 31 says nothing about a woman praying, worshiping, or studying at the feet of the rabbi. It does not mention the contemplative life of prayer and meditation. It says nothing of knowing who God is. Jesus transcended the law -- as He did other times in some other ways -- when He told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part in sitting at His feet and listening to Him. And Mary became an example for both men and women in the contemplative life, while Martha became an example of the active life.
Jesus later did something similar when Mary broke a bottle of perfume and poured it over Jesus' feet before his death (John 12:3). This was not the Proverbs 31 woman, who should be so careful in managing financial affairs. She did not spend her money to buy a parcel of land or to plant a vineyard; she had an expensive bottle of perfume and broke it, spilling the whole bottle over his feet, leaving those around her aghast at the financial waste. But Jesus said she had done the right thing, as she had prepared him for his burial. Mary is not remembered for being the kind of woman who would have made anyone a perfect Proverbs 31 wife. She is remembered for having loved Jesus and for having sat at His feet to learn from Him.
In John's Gospel, it was Judas who objected to Mary's use of the expensive perfume because he was a thief and would have taken the money for himself. In Mark 14, another account of the same incident, we are told that there were "some" who were indignant at the waste (not just Judas), and that it was immediately after this occurred that Judas went to the chief priests to hand Jesus over to them. Something about this incident, in particular, seems to have really offended Judas. Jesus had said that Mary anointed Him for His death, and neither the idea of a suffering messiah nor the use of money for extravagant worship appear to have set well with Judas, and perhaps the fact that a woman was involved did not set well with him either.
However, the fact that Mary did some things that were not common for a first century Palestinian woman was not the point that interested the author of The Cloud of Unknowing in Chapter xvii. He took it for granted that Mary and Martha were persons, and that as such, they could represent active and contemplative persons without it being an issue of gender equality. The example of Mary and Martha was, instead, an example of how each one of us, men and women, best serve God and do God's will.