Divine Callings, But One God
The story of Mary and Martha was popular in the Middle Ages and was used to compare the active versus the contemplative life. Gregory writes, “Those two women well signify these two ways of life, viz, Martha and Mary, one of whom was cumbered about much serving but the other sat at the Lord’s feet and heard His words. But when Martha complained against her sister because she neglected to help her the Lord replied saying: ‘Martha, thou art careful and art troubled about many things; But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part which shall not be taken away from her’(Lk.12:41-42, GT, 239). Gregory adds, “Martha’s part is not censured but Mary’s is praised” (GT, 239). Gregory seems to present a balanced perspective of these two ways of life, the active and the contemplative.
Paul states, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not have the same function. . .” (ESV, Rom.12:4). In Corinthians, he writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (ESV, I Cor. 12:4). These two scriptural references support the idea that there are a variety of callings, but the same God. The question is--are the active life and the contemplative life different callings or are they different aspects of a person’s life? St. Thomas Aquinas states, “It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.” Aquinas seems to think that the active life and the contemplative life are different callings.
Before taking a position on whether or not the active and contemplative life are different callings we must define these two concepts. Gregory writes, “So the active life is to give bread to the hungry, to teach the ignorant with the word of wisdom, to set aright the lost, to recall a proud neighbor to the life of humility, to care for the weak. . . (GT, 238). In contrast, Gregory says of the contemplative life, “Truly the contemplative life is to hold fast with the whole mind, at least to the charity of God, our neighbor but to abstain from external action; to cleave to the sole desire for the Creator, so that the only recourse for the spirit is, scorning all cares, to burn to see the face of its Creator. . .” (238). Gregory warns us of two dangers. The first danger is to falsely think that busyness is a characteristic of the active life. The second danger is to abandon doing good works.
It is true that all Christians need to pursue an inward, contemplative life reflecting on their relationship with God. Second, it seems true that all Christians are called to practice good works. Most Christians, probably, lean closer either to the active or the contemplative life. In addition, at different times in the Christian journey either the active or the contemplative life will be more prominent. Finally, it is true that some Christians are called to pursue the contemplative life, and others, the active life.