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Symbols - What does heaven look like

Martha and Mary

"Martha and Mary" by Johannes Vermeer

In medieval Europe, there was a belief that there were two approaches to spiritual life.  Allegorically they were represented in the Bible by the story of Martha and Mary:

John 12 (King James Version)

1 Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha.

Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.

Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.

When he had heard therefore that he was sick, …. he saith to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again. 11  Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.

20 Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house.

[Jesus then raises Lazarus from the dead]

12 Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead.

There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him,

Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?

Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.

For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

In essence Martha is the active practical approach to spiritual life, in which one serves and Mary is the passive devoted approach to spiritual life, so this was then translated in medieval times to mean

  • Mary - the avid dedicated approach of the so called contemplative in which you spent your time pursuing the spiritual path in the hope of getting this unity of spirit.
  • Martha - Then there was the so called ‘active’ life in which you actually did something useful with your life, were not supported by anyone else but paid your way as it were, but still did certain things that made it easier to move onto the contemplative life if you so desired.

In effect the active life was a precursor to the contemplative life. 

In theory I suppose it could be a combined approach, the two running in parallel, but this may well be a lot harder to achieve.

The approach is extraordinarily similar to the Hindu system.  The Hindu way of life contains a structure that divides the Hindus’ entire life into 4 stages [asramas].  These stages – Student, Householder, Forest dweller and Renunciation - are related to the four aims of life [purusarthas] - aims which are intended to give you a happy and meaningful life.  The Student and Household stages might be compared to the ‘Martha’ stage of Christian life, and the Forest dweller and Renunciation stages to the ‘Mary’ stage.

In the Hindu system the objective is to earn enough money during the ‘Martha’ stage that you can then follow the ‘Mary’ stage without having to call on anyone to support you.  Furthermore, during the Martha stage you also have children and contribute to society.

Unfortunately it is abundantly clear that by medieval times, everyone wanted to be a Mary without performing the Martha stage.  It is also clear that this somewhat selfish approach to life was roundly criticised, by those who were dutifully completing the Martha stage.

The Cloud of Unknowing

…. so he will prompt others to provide him with food and clothes and life’s necessities and  will not leave the work of love to see about such things for himself. 

I say this specifically for there are those who maintain that no one should devote himself to the contemplative life before he has provided for all his material needs.

They say ‘God sends the cow, but not the horn’.

And in this I am going to agree with these people, because there was no intention in the Bible story to imply that people should sponge off others. 

Observations

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