Jesus at Table

J ESUS, SIX DAYS BEFORE THE PASSOVER, WENT TO BETHANY, AND THEY MADE A MEAL FOR HIM THERE (John 12: 1, 2). St. Luke (10: 38 ff) also recounts that Jesus was received by the two sisters, but does not mention their brother Lazarus. From these two accounts it is evident that Jesus was not only honored but loved by the members of this household and that he was very much at his ease when among them. Accordingly, the Church in her liturgy came to designate them with a singular title, as we saw just yesterday when we celebrate the feast of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Hosts of the Lord. A great privilege indeed to provide a place where the Lord Jesus finds rest and refreshment for the body and good conversation in which he can express himself without fear of contradiction and misunderstanding.

Already in the time of Saint Luke and Saint John these friends of Jesus, especially the two sisters, were understood as being more than just individuals; they were seen to be types of the faithful, representing various ways of receiving the Savior into our lives. Later on, in the 3rd century Origen already viewed Martha as a figure of the active life of service in the cause of the Kingdom of God and Mary as a symbol of contemplation and prayerful attention to the Lord in his glory. St. Ambrose, who knew Origen well, pursued the same line and developed it at some length, making the point, so much insisted on in our times, that the spiritual life admits of pluralism.

There was question then of mercy [in the preceding passage of the Gospel], but the form of virtue is not confined to one expression. We are provided with the example of Martha and of Mary: in the works of the one, active devotion, and in those of the other, a religious attention to the word of God which, when in conformity with faith is even preferred to works themselves as it is written: "Mary has chosen the best part for herself, which shall not be taken away from her." Accordingly, let us strive to have what no one can take away from us by listening with an attentive, not a distracted ear. For the seeds of the divine word itself are usually taken away if they are sown alongside the path. Let the desire for wisdom move you like Mary, for this is the greater, the more perfect work (Traité sur l'Évangile De S. Luc, Sources Chr. 52 1958, 36).

The fortune of this interpretation of the two sisters as symbolic of the active and contemplative lives was assured when John Cassian included this application in his Conferences. Already in his first Conference in which he treats of the principal end of monastic life and of the immediate goal that leads to it, he adduces the example of Martha and Mary as illustrating the excellence of the contemplative over the active ways.

This work then ought to be for us the principal endeavor, this immobile destination of heart ought constantly to be sought after namely that the mind should always adhere to divine things and to God. Whatever diverges from this however important, is to be considered secondary, or even last, indeed even harmful. The figure of this mind or act is very finely portrayed in the Gospel by Martha and Mary. For when Martha served with a holy ministration, inasmuch as she ministered to the Lord himself and his disciples, and Mary, intent only on spiritual teaching, clung to the feet of Jesus, which she kissed and anointed with the ointment of a good confession, it was stated by the Lord that she had chosen the better part and that it would not be taken away from her. (Collatio I.VIII PL 49: 491).

One important clarification needs to be made when interpreting Cassian in this context and that is his concept of the active life. He means by that the life of actively striving for virtue, the practice of obedience to the commandments, as his teacher, Evagrius Ponticus puts it; he does not have in mind the works of the ministry such as preaching, teaching and assisting the poor and sick. . At the same time that Cassian affirms that theoria, that is contemplation, is superior to action, and that the life of the solitary is more suited to attain that goal, yet his teaching on monastic life is more nuanced than first appears. as we can discover by reading more widely in his work. While his preference is clearly for the hermit life which has fewer distractions, yet he does not maintain that the cenobitic life falls short of the ideal. Rather, he considers that it has a perfection of its own.

Cassian tells the story of the aged monk, John, who, after having first been formed in a cenobitic monastery, lived a long time as an anchorite alone in the desert. Following this period of some twenty years he returned to the cenobium to finish his days. It was the prospect of a conversation with this holy and humble monk who had acquired a reputation for sanctity that drew Cassian and Germanus, his faithful companion, to this large cenobium in the first place. His story was considered a highly unusual one in that he had abandoned what was generally considered a more perfect life in which he was known to have excelled, to return to a practice viewed as less exacting and yet had arrived at an obvious level of union with God that shone through his whole demeanor. He was strikingly endowed with humility, which, Cassian maintained, is the mother of all virtues. In reply to his questioners, Abba John observed first that he still had a high opinion of the life of the hermit, and was happy he had spent twenty years in it. He then goes on to explain his decision in the following terms.

But having tasted the purity of that life I was defiled at times by solicitude for carnal things and so it struck me as good to return to the cenobium. In this way I should more readily bring to completion the less demanding proposal originally taken up and experience less danger from the difficulty of a more sublime profession presumed upon. For it is better to be found devoted in less exalted matters than lacking in devotion in a more sublime profession (Collatio XIX.III PL 49 1129).

Abba John then offers a charming defense of his humility which he desires to preserve intact against any charge of vainglory brought against him because he speaks of his own experience at considerable length, by assuring his interlocutors that he speaks only from the desire to satisfy their laudable desire for spiritual progress. The elder explains how many material concerns began to occupy him due to the requirements of preparing for his own needs. He also began to be praised for the purity of his life and felt the attacks of pride that resulted. There was also what he considered the growing laxity of the younger generation who scandalized him by going so far as to put oil on their cheese. But what troubled him most were the demands of hospitality that increased as the desert became more populated and he was sought out by visitors. It is true, he further elaborated, that as a community man he came to have less spiritual joy than he had known in his ecstasies while in the desert, yet in the cenobium he has a tranquility of soul that is buttressed by following the commands of his abbotand thus his imitating Christ's obedience to his Father.

The chief source of a cenobite's deeper peace of heart, he avers, is the fact that he has no preoccupation for his own material needs and learns to mortify his own desires and to give no anxious thought to the next day. The fact is that the hermit cannot attain to the same measure of personal poverty as the cenobite any more than the cenobite can attain to the same heights of pure prayer as the hermit. There are a very few exceptions, to be sure, such as Abba Moses and Abba Paphnutius, who demonstrate that the fullness of perfection includes both these virtues to a high degree. In the end, his teaching reminds us that attaining to holiness of life is a practical matter and that each of these two ways has its own perfection, although neither is complete without the virtue characteristic of the other. God, however, seems not to expect such fullness of perfection from the large majority of persons.

Having introduced this theme of the relative perfections of different ways of living the monastic call into his Collations and associated it with Martha and Mary, Cassian assured that these teachings would become widely accepted as fundamental to a proper understanding of the monastic way of life. St. Bernard, who elaborated a still fuller doctrine of the different kinds of vocation within the monastic call, based his teaching on these views as found in Cassian's writings, as Fr. Louis Merton points out in his book Martha, Mary, Lázaro(cf. p. 36 Petropolis, Brazil 1963). The Abbot of Clairvaux taught a doctrine of pluralism in regard to the Cistercian vocation. He gave great importance to creating a harmonious, united community life but he well understood that this did not mean uniformity in the manner of contributing to community. On the contrary, he went further than Cassian in that he spoke not only of Martha and Mary as typifying two kinds of monastic living, the more active and the more contemplative; he also treated of Lazarus as typifying the penitent whom he identified as a legitimate third monastic figure. In a Sermon on the Canticle Bernard describes one of his ways of classifying the members of a Cistercian community. In this passage he mentions four different approaches to monastic lifein the cloister.

We do not all run equally in the odor of all ointments; rather you may see some burning more with the study of wisdom, others more animated by the hope of pardon pursue penitence, still others, seek to practice virtues stimulated by the example of the life and ways of Christ, while still others stress piety, inflamed by the memory of his passion (Sermo 22.9 in Cantica PL 183: 882).

A feature common to each of these life styles is the fact that they all are ways of living a deep interior life, though they are experienced at different levels.Bernard does not confine himself to this grouping; in another sermon, he uses the three members of the Bethany family to typify the three different kinds of vocations to be found in every Cistercian community.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Let us consider, brothers, how in this home there are distributed three arrangements of charity, Martha administration, Mary contemplation, Lazarus penance. Indeed, every perfect soul has all three of these at the same time. However, in each individual there would seem to belong more of one of these, in such a way that some are more given to contemplation, others to fraternal administration, others, in bitterness of soul, recall past years... (In Assumptione B. Mariae Virginis Sermo III.4 PL 183: 423).

Bernard maintained this distinction of life styles among the brothers and returned to it more than once. With a versatility that he often displayed in his writings, he conveys the same doctrine by means of other images on occasion. For instance, he takes up well known figures from the Old Testament to exemplify the three types of monks in his community while insisting that all three are at one in the fact that they remain rooted in their heart.

And so, brothers, we do not cease to exhort you to walk along the ways of the heart that your soul might always be in your hands in order that you might hear what the Lord God speaks within you... For our part we are accustomed to understand in these words three types of men to whom God regularly speaks peace, just as another prophet foresees only three kinds of men are to be saved, Noah, Daniel and Job (Ezechiel 14: 14). In reverse order these signify the same order of persons (in the Church)... At the same time among ourselves (for whom we have the greater concern) we regularly assign these three kinds. We understand the people [signified by Job, the married man] to refer to the brothers with offices who are occupied with affairs involving outside people. Those who are converted to the heart, that is the cloistered brothers without official duties and so freely enjoying leisure allowing them to see that the Lord is sweet. Above each of these walls the Lord speaks peace [through the abbot] for both tend to the same end, but not in the same way. (Sermo IX 2, 3, 4 De Diversis PL 183: 566).

In this same conference, Bernard goes on to develop only the contrast between those monks with offices and those who are free of such obligations. He affirms that those who have more leisure for contemplation are the ones to be emulated when possible, for, as the Lord taught, Mary who sat at his feet, had chosen the better part. Yet if the duties of office are imposed they are to be borne patiently. He further suggests, in a highly significant passing obervation, that while Mary's role is in itself the best, "yet perhaps the humble way of Martha is not deserving of less merit in the eyes of the Lord."

This passing comment of St. Bernard raises the issue of the relation between the more active aspects of the Christian life, and the cenobitic way in particular, and contemplation. In the past this topic has all too often been treated without adequate consideration of this doctrine of pluralism in spite of its far-reaching implications. Merton had already devoted a book to this subject of various kinds of living in the same community at a time when the general opinion and our legislation stressed the unity of observances and life style of the choir monks and viewed the lay brothers as a distinct category altogether (cf. Martha, Mary, Lázaro, Petropolis, Brazil 1963). In this work he underlined and demonstrated Bernard's positive view of pluralism in Cistercian communities. In his stress on the different needs and charisms of monks in the same community, Bernard, who was well versed in the teaching of the desert fathers, was raising to consciousness ancient doctrine honored already in the time of St. Antony of Egypt, a doctrine that balanced the primitive Cistercian insistence on maintaining the same observances in all monasteries of the Order. We find among the Sayings of the Fathers the following words of Antony when asked by Abba Nistero "What work shall I do?".

All works are not the same. The scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him' and that Elias loved quiet, and God was with him' and that David was humble, and God was with him. So, what path you find your soul longs after in the following of God, do that and keep your heart (cited in "Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church",vol 2, 76 Brisbane 1999).

More recently, Fr. Charles Dumont, has treated St. Bernard's nuanced teaching on this point in greater detail (cf. "Pathways of Peace", Kalamazoo 2000 p.198) and arrived at some insights that are particularly applicable to us today when the principle of pluralism of observance has been recognized by Cistercian legislation in the Statute on Unity and Pluralism, formulated and accepted by the General Chapter in 1969. Among other things he cites (p. 199) a passage from Bernard which indicates that the activities associated with the communal life can contribute to union with God no less than contemplation and the practices associated with the interior way.

...when your heart goes out to your brothers in compassion your tears flow with the fervor of love. And because of this self-forgetful love you seem to be overwhelmed by sober inebriation, at least for a moment (Sermon for the Epiphany 3.8).

The sober inebriation of which he speaks here as arising from fraternal charity is a code expression for mystical ecstasy employed since the time of Gregory of Nyssa. It refers to the state of a contemplative who attains to the purest and most intense experience of divine love. Bernard maintains that such mystical grace is not confined to those with special gifts for contemplation but may also be enjoyed by the brothers who devote themselves to the works of fraternal charity. Dumont points out that there is interaction between the affective charity of contemplation and the more active love of fraternal service, it being understood that such service is motivated by the love of God and the search for union with Him. He makes the affirmation that "St. Bernard has given us a surprising example of the relative equality of divine and human love." Of course, divine love always has the priority of intrinsic value and even of intention and causality; what is meant here is that in its practical effect as an aid to attaining to union with God, fraternal charity and service can be as efficacious as the love of God experienced in pure prayer. Let us conclude with a final text of Bernard's which serves to close his important sermons on the ordering of Charity and which Dumont adduces as evidence for this association of divine and human love on equal footing in the teaching of the abbot of Clairvaux.

O Wisdom!... guide our actions as our temporal life requires, and guide our affections in the ways of your eternal truth, so that each of us may say in complete tranquility: He has given me the sense of charity (Sermon 50.8 on the Canticle, cited in Dumont, op. cit., p. 198).

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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