Contemplative Exegesis

Meister Eckhart’s interpretation of Luke 10:38-42

Martha as the Embodiment of the Contemplative Disciple in the World

In a recent presentation given to Contemplative Outreach of Colorado, I summarized for the participants a portion of my book, Contemplating Christ, pp. 154-160. The section entitled “The Wayless Way” explores Meister Eckhart’s interpretation of Luke 10:38-42. His exegesis is as imaginative as it is provocative, aimed at reclaiming the passage from undue influence by monastics who traditionally upheld Mary as the model contemplative over-against Martha who is depicted as the inferior of the two – fretting about in worldly affairs. Instead, Eckhart upholds Martha as the more mature contemplative who has perfected the virtue of ‘detachment’ even from meditative ‘practice’ to which Mary still clings. This detachment frees Martha to be fully present to the “dear guest” Christ in her midst, and thus doing what love demands in any given moment. Martha’s attitude of pure detachment, says Eckhart, makes her, not Mary, the model contemplative-in-action, thus affirming the universal call to the contemplative life not as a special gift given only to monastics but one to which the entire church is summoned. My summary of Eckhart’s 9th Sermon and his treatise on Detachment are recounted below – leading to Eckhart’s proposition of the “Wayless Way” by which he means the way that is not a “way” or “method” because all ways and methods drop away until one is in such union with God – the Ground of our ground – that we can, like Martha, simply respond in pure freedom and detachment to what love demands in any given moment.


The Wayless Way


The manner in which the contemplative enters the solitude of the heart even in the midst of outward engagement is perhaps no where more deliberated than in the interpretation of Luke 10:38-42, the story of Mary and Martha.


Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

A brief survey of various interpretations will prepare us for a closer look at Meister Eckhart’s exegesis of the passage in which he upholds Martha as a paradigm of contemplative discipleship. Origen was among the first to interpret this passage as an allegory for the contemplative life. He upholds Mary as the archetype of the contemplative, spiritually advanced beyond her sister Martha who is still “distracted by many things (Lk. 10:41).”16 This interpretation has traditionally been employed to extol the spiritual superiority of the cloistered life to a life of active engagement in the world. Other commentators, however, have given more nuanced views. Augustine, for example, sees Martha’s activity not as inferior to that of Mary but as a necessary service that allows Mary to sit at the feet of Christ. “Martha has to set sail in order that Mary can remain quietly in port.”17


Still more balanced views between the two sisters were developed by the twelfth-century Cistercian monks Bernard of Clairvaux and Aelred of Rievaulx. For Bernard, the home of Mary and Martha symbolizes the womb of the Virgin Mary, which received both the human Jesus and the divine Christ. He thus sees in the Virgin the perfect synthesis of both sisters. Aelred extends the allegory of the home to represent all Christian souls in whom both sisters (i.e., contemplation and action) are united. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas argued that verse 42 of Luke’s narrative demonstrates the preeminence of the contemplative life but insists that it is better still to share the fruits of contemplation with others through preaching and teaching. Clearly, Aquinas is drawing comparisons between religious orders, not between monastics and contemplatives in the world. Still, as a Dominican, not a cloistered monk, it is easy to see a defense of the Order of Preachers behind his interpretation! Thus, he concludes, “For just as it is better to illumine than merely to shine, so it is better to give to others the things contemplated than simply to contemplate.”18


These are just a sampling of interpretations of Luke 10:38-42 over the course of Christian centuries. But Meister Eckhart’s interpretation in Sermon 9 is perhaps most unexpected in its elevation of Martha’s role over that of Mary. Underlying his reading of the story is the idea that the written word is vulnerable to misinterpretation because it does not always convey the correct inflection of the spoken word. Thus in verse 40 when Martha asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Eckhart suggests that she is not being spiteful as other interpretations have implied: “Rather, she said it because of endearment; that is what motivated her. We might call it affection or playful chiding.”19 Later, when Martha further insists, “Lord, tell her to help me,” Eckhart observes, “This last remark was said with tender regard, but this could not be gathered from the words themselves.”20 Arguing in this way he highlights two central features of his spirituality: the first is his concern that meditation can too easily become an end in itself rather than a means to an end; the second is his understanding of detachment as the highest virtue of the spiritual life. I will address each in turn.


First, Eckhart opens his sermon by describing three motivations that led Mary to sit at Jesus’ feet: the goodness of her soul, a deep longing for something she could not yet identify, and the “consolation and delight” that flowed from listening to the words of Christ. Fearing that “Mary was sitting [at the feet of Jesus] more for enjoyment than spiritual profit,” Martha’s “tender regard” was rooted in her concern that Mary would remain “stuck in the pleasant feeling of sitting at Christ’s feet and progress no further.” In other words, Eckhart was cautioning that a person can become so attached to the delightful feelings of spiritual consolation in prayer that they meditate because it feels good rather than for God alone. Thus, one’s spiritual “practice” can itself become an obstacle to knowing God. In another of his sermons he makes this point forcefully and colorfully:


Indeed, if a [person] thinks [they] will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable, that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around His head and shoving Him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it. But whoever seeks God without any special way gets Him as He is in Himself, and that man lives with the Son, and he is life itself.21


The “special way” Eckhart refers to here is any approach to prayer that confuses spiritual feelings, experiences, or particular methods with attaining God. As we have seen, for the Christian contemplative there is nothing to attain. Through the incarnation God has already rendered a divine-human union that need only be realized in any given moment. So, it seems if a lack of monastic structure and communal accountability present some of the greatest obstacles for living as contemplatives in the world, by contrast the rigidity of structure and overt monastic trappings may present the greatest obstacles for professed religious who would more easily be tempted to over-identify with them.22 The Cistercian way, the Benedictine way, the Ignatian way, the Carmelite way can be as much a help as a hindrance to one’s spiritual progress. If we become attached to any spiritual way, method, or discipline that stifles the movement and freedom of the Spirit within us, Eckhart cautions we will be left only with the method (“the way”) but miss God “who lies hidden in it.”


In contrast to Mary, who is perilously close to this kind of attachment, Eckhart holds out Martha whose service is also motivated by three things: her advanced age and life experience, a maturity that enabled her to serve with perfect love, and, finally, the dignity of her guest, who was Christ. With these in mind, Eckhart concludes that Martha had matured beyond the need for spiritual consolations. She was not attached to any spiritual way but remained fluid and flexible in her ability to carry out her service in complete serenity as love demanded in any given situation. Martha’s perfect embodiment of action and contemplation is signified by the fact that Jesus names her twice when he addresses her concern in verse 41. The first “Martha” refers to “her perfection in temporal works.” The second “Martha” indicates that “she lacked nothing of all that is necessary for eternal happiness.”23 Martha, in other words, has grown beyond seeking God in a “special way” and thus “gets Him as he is in himself.” To live nimbly moment to moment as the Spirit calls and love demands is to live in perfect union with God. Here again is contemplative discipleship.


The “dear guest” whom Martha served is the same Christ we each serve in one another. This is the significance of deification for contemplative discipleship. The contours of Christ’s body are fluid and expansive, at once fully identified with the historical Jesus and also a corporate reality in which we participate. This participation constitutes our deepest identity even as it transcends our individuality. Thus, deification in Christ is at once a union with all members of Christ’s body who together form a unified humanity. As Henri de Lubac observed, “If Christ is the sacrament of God, the Church is for us the sacrament of Christ; she represents him, in the full and ancient meaning of the term, she really makes him present. She not only carries on his work, but she is his very continuation.”24


If the Church is the incarnatio continua, then the ministry of the church must be the labor continuus—the continuation of Christ’s work in the world, not our work on behalf of Christ. As the Mystical Body of Christ, the church is most authentically an instrument for the work of the Spirit in the world. Understood properly, the faith-versus-works debate fought for so long between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians collapses in on itself. It is not I who work but Christ who works in me. It is not I who serve but Christ who serves in me.25 And again, it is not I who love but Christ who loves in me. Eckhart likewise concludes his sermon insisting it is impossible “to achieve freedom from works.” He assures us Mary herself would eventually realize the same. He explains, it was only after Christ was resurrected and she received the Holy Spirit that “she really for the first time began to serve.”26


We turn then to a second feature of Eckhart’s spirituality that underlies his interpretation of Martha. It comes in part from his treatise on detachment. He writes, “I find no other virtue better than a pure detachment from all things; because all other virtues have some regard for created things, but detachment is free from all created things. That is why our Lord said to Martha: ‘One thing is necessary’ (Lk. 10:32), which is as much to say: ‘Martha, whoever wants to be free of care and to be pure must have one thing, and that is detachment.’”27 Eckhart goes on to elevate the virtue of detachment above that of love, humility, even mercy. He employs a number of rich images to explain what a state of detachment looks like. It is the immovability of a mountain against a “little breath of wind.” It is the hinges of a door that remain still even as the planks of the door swing open and shut. It is the receptivity of a blank writing tablet, because any tablet already filled with words, no matter how sublime, must be erased if one is ever to write on it again. Immobility, stillness, emptiness. These are the virtues of detachment that Martha embodies, allowing her to live in total freedom: to love as love is.


This is what Eckhart calls in Sermon 9 the “wayless way,” by which he really means the total absence of a way (or method) because there is nowhere to go and nothing to achieve. Martha embodies this wayless way, indicated by the fact that she no longer has need to sit at the feet of Christ. She is simply present to Christ in everything she does. Or, better, she knows Christ, her “dear guest,” is present to her. Thus, she is free to do what love demands in the moment, which is to serve her guest rather than simply sit at his feet. This, Eckhart says, is to live “without Why,” to live no longer in need of anything. It is the way of pure detachment. She lives only in the present moment, in mystical union with God, desiring nothing but what is given in the moment, free of the need for spiritual techniques, methods, disciplines, or practices. There is nothing to strive for, nothing to desire, not any goal to be met.


By contrast, Mary’s contemplation of Jesus’ words indicates that she still possesses desire. Namely, she desires the bliss that comes from sitting at the Master’s feet. This may well be a pure desire, but it is desire nonetheless. And because of this she is still not purely detached and thus not entirely free. To interject an insight from Maximus the Confessor: even the smallest string tied to the leg of a sparrow will prevent her from taking flight.28 As Mary sits on the ground, Martha has taken flight. For her, and those who are truly detached, Eckhart says,


Here God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s Ground. Here I live from my own as God lives from His own. . . .Out of this inmost ground, all your works should be wrought without a Why. I say truly, as long as you do works for the sake of heaven or God or eternal bliss from without, you are at fault. It may pass muster, but it is not the best.29


Notice the manner in which Eckhart’s language blurs the distinction between divine and human: “God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s Ground.” It is the same blur inherent in Paul’s theology of the Body of Christ and in Jesus’ own teaching: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Mary, however, still seeks Jesus outside of herself, desiring “eternal bliss” that she believes is beyond herself. Martha has no such desire or need for anything external because she “lives from [her] own as God lives from his own.” Somewhat provocatively he argues in his treatise on detachment that a purely detached heart like that of Martha does not even know how to pray.


What is the prayer of the heart that has detachment? And to answer it I say that purity in detachment does not know how to pray, because if someone prays he asks God to get something for him, or he asks God to take something away from him. But a heart in detachment asks for nothing, nor has it anything of which it would gladly be free. So it is free of all prayer, and its prayer is nothing else than for uniformity with God.30


So it is, if we want to fulfill the vocation to “pray always,” even prayer must drop away. As long as there is an “I” praying to God, there is necessarily an “I” who believes themselves to be outside of God and therefore in need of something from God. And thus, like Mary, the “I” is still stuck in longing or desiring, failing to realize there is really nothing to long for or desire. If we imagine Eckhart’s pure state of detachment is the destination at the end of a spiritual journey, the desire we feel along the way compels us onward even as it reminds us we have still not arrived. But when we do arrive at a state of pure detachment we realize that “God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground.” There is no longer desire and thus no longer a need to pray for anything. Like Martha, we are simply living in uniformity with God’s will as every moment demands. One has, in a sense, become prayer. This is what it means to become another Christ in the world.

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16. Origen, Homilies on Luke: Fragments on Luke, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard in The Fathers of the Church, v. 94 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 192–93.


17. See Augustine of Hippo, “Sermon 103” and “Sermon 104,” in The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century: Sermons III/4 (94a–147a) on the New Testament, ed. John E. Rotrans, trans. Edmund Hill (Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1991), 76–87.


18. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, v. 47: The Pastoral and Reli- gious Lives (2a2ae, 183–9), trans. Jordan Aumann, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1973), 205.


19. Bernard McGinn, ed., Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986), 338.


20. Ibid., 339.

21. Eckhart, “Sermon 13(b),” vol. 1, trans. M O’C. Walshe, 117–18. 22. Though penned over fifty years ago, Thomas Merton’s essay “The Inner Experience: Problems of the Contemplative Life” (VII), Cistercian Studies 19, no. 3 (1984): 267–82, offers a critique and comparison between the monastic life and contemplative life in the world that still resonates today.


23. McGinn, Meister Eckhart, 340.


24. Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 76. See further, Adam G. Cooper, Naturally Human, Supernaturally God: Deification in Pre- Conciliar Catholicism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 171–81.


25. Emile Mersch, The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition, trans. John R. Kelly (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce, 1938), 518.


26. McGinn, Meister Eckhart, 344.


27. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, trans., Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981), 285.


28. See John Anthony McCuckin, ed. and trans., The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives (Boston: Shambhala, 2002), §79, 53.


29. Meister Eckhart, Sermons and Treatises, vol. 1, “Sermon 13(b),” trans. M O’C. Walshe (Boston: Element, 1987), 117.


30. Meister Eckhart, “On Detachment,” in Colledge and McGinn, Meister Eckhart, 292.

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