by Saint Ignatius Briantchaninov.
The Saviour of the world, during His pilgrimage on earth in this vale of our exile and sufferings, visited two pious women, natural sisters. Martha and Mary, living close to Jerusalem in the village of Bethany. They had their own house in Bethany. They had a brother. Lazarus, who was granted to be called the friend of the God-Man and of His Apostles (Jn. 11, 11). From the Gospel it appears that the Lord often visited the house of this pious family. On one of these visits He raised Lazarus, who had already been lying four days in the grave.
St. Luke relates that during the Lord’s visit to that house of which we are speaking, Martha was busy with the entertainment of the longed-for Guest, while Mary sat at His feet and attended to His word. Anxious only that the hospitality should be perfectly satisfactory, Martha asked the Lord to order her sister to help her. But the Lord replied: Martha, Martha thou art anxious and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful. And Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Lk. 10, 41-2). According to the explanation of the Holy Fathers, Martha mystically represents pious bodily labour, and Mary — spiritual, The story of the present visit of the two sisters by the Lord is read, according to Church rule, on all the feasts of the Mother of God. For these two reasons, the investigation of the event and of the lesson contained in the story must be both particularly significant and particularly edifying.
Martha was the eldest sister and is represented by the Evangelist as the mistress of the house. It is she who receives the Saviour into the house, provides the hospitality, prepares the food, clears the table, brings the dishes. And bodily labour, in point of time, occupies the first place in the ascetic life of every disciple of Christ. “Bodily labour,” said St. Isaak the Syrian, “precedes spiritual service, as the creation of Adam’s body preceded the creation of his soul. He who does not perform bodily labour cannot perform spiritual labour; the latter is born of the former, as the ear is born of the mere grain (of wheat).” Bodily labour consists in the fulfilment of the Evangelical commandments with the body. It includes the giving of material alms, the reception of pilgrims, participation in the various needs and sufferings of needy and suffering humanity. It includes chastity of body, refraining from anger, luxury, amusements and distraction, from mockery and gossip, from all words which express malice and impurity of heart. It includes fasting, vigil, psalm-singing, prostrations, standing at prayer in church and in the cell. It includes monastic obediences and other outward labours. Bodily labour requires continuous bodily activity: it passes from one bodily good work to another and is sometimes made up of several good works performed at the same time. Bodily labour gradually cleanses the soul from the passions and acquaints it with the spirit of the Gospel. The Evangelical commandments, when put into practice, little by little transmit to the doer Truth, Spirit and Life. Bodily labour has its limit and end. The limit and end consist in the resolute passing of the ascetic to spiritual labour. The gradual change is crowned by a decisive change. Martha’s service ended when the entertainment of the Lord had been completed.
Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His word. The position assumed by Mary serves to represent the state of the soul who has been deemed worthy to enter the spiritual contest. This state is a state both of calm and humility, as has been said by St. Barsonuphius the Great: “True silence of heart is produced by interior activity united to pain of heart ‘with weeping of heart. Such a silence generates humility; and humility makes man a dwelling of God.” He who has reached the state of spiritual service to God, abandons outward works, abandons the care of pleasing God by other means, or uses them moderately and seldom, in cases of special need. With his spirit he lies prostrate at the feet of the Saviour, attends exclusively to His word, acknowledges himself as a creature of God and not a self-made being; he acknowledges himself to be cultivated by God, the husbandman or farmer; he entirely surrenders himself to the will and guidance of the Saviour. It is evident that such a state is granted to the soul through more or less extensive bodily labour. Mary too could not have sat at the feet of the Lord and concentrated all her attention upon His teaching, if Martha had not taken upon herself the cares of hospitality. The service and worship of God in Spirit and truth is that good part, that blessed state which, though beginning during our earthly life, does not cease, as do bodily labours, with the end of earthly life. The good part remains the inseparable property of the soul in eternity; in eternity it receives its full development. The good part is not taken away from the soul which has acquired it, but remains for ever its own.
Bodily labour is very often deprived of its fruit by a grave defect. This defect occurs when the ascetic practises the labour unreasonably, when he ascribes to the labour an undue value, when he accomplishes bodily labours for their own sake, erroneously including in them and limiting to them all his manner of life, all his service of God. Depreciation of spiritual labour, the endeavour to draw away from it those who practise it, is always combined with such wrong evaluation. This happened to Martha. She considered Mary’s behaviour incorrect and insufficient, and her own more valuable, more worthy of esteem. While not rejecting Martha’s service, the merciful Lord pointed out to her condescendingly that in her service there was much of what is needless and vain, and that Mary’s activity was the essential activity. By this remark the Lord cleansed Martha’s labour from high-mindedness and taught her to perform bodily service with humility. Bodily labour which has not yet been enlightened by spiritual knowledge, always contains much that is vain and needless. He who toils in it, though he does it for God’s sake, toils in the old man; on his field the tares grow with the wheat; he cannot be free from the influence of a carnal outlook on his manner of thought and activity. All need to pay due attention to the lesson given by the Lord, and perform our good works which are accomplished by means of the body with the greatest humility like slaves who are obliged to fulfil the will of their Lord, but who cannot accomplish this will as they ought by reason of their weakness and corruption by sin. It is very useful for those who practise bodily labour to know that there is another labour incomparably higher, spiritual labour, labour overshadowed by Divine grace. “He who does not perform spiritual labour,” says St. Isaak the Syrian, “is devoid of spiritual gifts,’ whatever his bodily labours may be. This great guide of monks likens bodily labour in itself, and without the co-operation of the activity of the mind in the inner cell, to a barren womb and dry breasts; because bodily activity cannot bring one any nearer to the knowledge of God. We see this in Martha. She was so engrossed in her work, so sure of its importance, that she did not ask the Lord for directions pleasing to Him, but offered her own understanding and direction and prayed that they might be fulfilled.
Why is the reading of this Gospel story appointed by Holy Church for all the feasts of the Mother of God? Because the Mother of God offered the God-man the most sublime bodily service and the most sublime service of the spirit, and treasured all His sayings in her heart, kept everything which happened to Him from His infancy and everything concerning Him and pondered them in her heart. In explanation of this, the cry to the Lord of a certain woman who had heard the Lord’s teaching is added to this story from the next chapter: Blessed is the womb that bare Thee, and the paps which Thou hast sucked, and the Divine response to this cry: Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it. God’s reply to human judgment! Human judgment regarded the Mother of God as blessed solely for the birth through Her of the God-man. The God-man raises the dignity of the Mother of God by calling especially blessed those who hear the word of God and keep it. The Mother of God had this happiness above all men, by attending to the words of the God-man and keeping them with such love as no one had. Here again is shown the superiority of the service of the spirit over bodily service, contrary to human judgment.
The merciful Lord calls all men to His service. The service of the Lord combined with the crucifixion of the old man with the rejection of his fleshly and sinful desires has its labour; but this labour has also its consolation, the comfort granted by a good conscience and Divine grace. The yoke of Christ is sweet, and His burden is light. Those who wish to enter the service of the Lord with the aim of receiving Him in the house of their soul and to give Him rest in the way He has commanded, must begin with bodily labour, with the performing of the Evangelical commandments by means of bodily actions. Our soul is in union with the body by creation; it is in dependence on it on account of the fall. It is infected with sinful diseases, passions, on account of bodily actions; passions are destroyed in it, good habits, virtues are implanted in it by means of bodily actions. He who allows himself to act at the impulse of anger is enslaved on account of the habit of anger which has been formed by repeated acts; he who allows himself to act at the suggestions of covetousness is infected with the passion of cupidity, stinginess, avarice. In a similar way all the passions enter the soul by being founded on the outward activity of man. Hence the necessity of bodily labour is obvious; it is absolutely necessary in order to expel the passions by actions which are contrary to the demand of the passions; it is necessary for the planting in the heart of virtues according to the direction of the Gospel. Prudent bodily labour, based on the word of God, enlightened by the word of God, liberates man from sin to a considerable extent, makes him to a considerable extent a friend of virtue, a servant of Christ. Such bodily labour awakens in the shortest time spiritual labour, which is able to impart salvation. Bodily labour, both cold and heated, is alien to spiritual things, is alien to that spiritual knowledge which is required by the word of God and which should be the soul of bodily labour. Such labour is destructive. It leads to self-esteem, to contempt and condemnation of our neighbours; it leads to self-delusion, builds up an inner pharisee, estranges from God, unites to satan.
When the grace of God abundantly overshadows the ascetic, then there is revealed in him abundant bodily labour which leads to Christian perfection. Then there is revealed to the soul its sinfulness, which hitherto has been hidden from it! Then a curtain is removed from her sight, and the vast vista of eternity which hitherto has been hidden from it appears before the soul. Then the hour of death which stood somewhere far, far away draws near and stands before the soul itself, before its very eyes! Then earthly life which hitherto has appeared endless is reduced to the briefest dimensions: past life is like a dream of the past night! The remaining lap of life dwindles down to the hour of death. Then from the depth of the soul arise groans hitherto unknown to her, arises weeping which hitherto she has never felt, arises prayer which hitherto she has not uttered. Prayer and weeping rise from the very depth of the soul, are uttered with mind and heart, the mouth being silent, ascend to heaven, cast the person praying at the feet of the Saviour, keep him at the feet of the Saviour. The soul, through the confession of its sinfulness and the endless majesty of God, enters into perfection, is led to perfection by the right hand of the all-gracious God Who created man and recreates him. Bless the Lord, O my soul, Who forgives all thy sins; Who heals all thy diseases: Who redeems thy life from corruption; Who crowns thee with mercy and compassion. Thy eternal youth is renewed as the eagle’s by the omnipotence of the Saviour Who renewed our nature in Himself and renews us through Himself. Amen.
Source: Orthodox Life Magazine 1950 Vol 2, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville