I didn’t really understand why the associations with “leisure” offend many in vocational Christian service until recently, today in fact. I’ve understood the struggle of it. That whole Mary/Martha dilemma – do I sit, or do I work? I get why many don’t take leisure…the needs of a fallen, groaning world render the concept frivolous to some, uncaring to others, and selfish to many. But I’ve not really understood where these ideas come from.
Aside from our own predispositions to use what’s at hand to make our lives run smoothly, there’s an old, old teaching that makes leisure into an “either/or” state of being. Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato considered the contemplative life to be the highest value a human could have. They saw contemplation as bringing the human mind into contact with the highest principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. This way of life stood in stark contrast to the life of the ordinary worker…servants whose place it was to work so that a privileged few could devote themselves to thinking lofty, beautiful, soulish thoughts. There was no marriage of two concepts – the worker and the contemplative. You were just one or the other. Today, add into this economic lack and worker shortages and you have very fertile ground for that old thought, “It would be nice if I had that kind of time… .” A thought which breeds all kinds of self-pity, resentment, and bitterness.
Enter Jesus, the ultimate Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, who left His rightful place to take on the form of a servant, became flesh, and lived right in the middle of us. He put contemplation right in the center of the working masses, inviting us into a life of “active contemplation.” He effectively obliterated the “either/or” choice. Perhaps that’s what we can glean from Jesus’ invitation to Martha.
This idea of “active contemplation,” or another way of saying it would be “centered living” (living from a place of peace with who we really are (little and helpless yet beloved and valued) and walking in confident rest that God is active, present, and always working, even when we can’t see) is what comes from unity between action and contemplation. Too much action and we are moved away from the purpose of our being. Too much contemplation and we can be shaped into a pious superiority that Jesus didn’t model or endorse.
Here’s where we need returning, long looks at Jesus. He lived periods of prayer and stillness intersecting almost randomly with hard work. He didn’t give Himself exclusively to one or the other. I think probably He gave Himself to both concurrently. What did it take for Jesus, fully human and surrounded by needy, grasping people, to keep an unbroken, inward gaze with His Father? What does it take for us?
If we want to live in leisure, free to encounter Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, then we will have to come out of “either/or thinking” and embark on the messiness of “both/and.” We will need to find ourselves as active contemplatives.
ACTION: How would you describe the dilemma of “either/or” in your world? What does it foster in you? As you talk with Jesus about this, what do you sense from Him? How is He speaking to your heart?