The great man of God, Pope Emeritus Benedict, has put himself in a sort of self-imposed isolation, for sake of prayer, to prepare himself for meeting God. This is what all Christians should be doing, at least to the extent that befits their vocations.
The life of contemplation is not something the world has a great deal of sympathy for. It’s not the way of the world. The world fills its time with accumulation, action and domination. A Christian needs to make room for what is essential to his human nature: listening to God and coming to know Him more fully.
A lot of strange interpretations have been offered of the story of Mary and Martha. (Lk 10:38-42) I cannot agree with the one that has almost become standard in the Catholic tradition: that Mary represents the contemplative life (the life of the Carthusians, for instance) and Martha the active (Franciscans, for instance).
What the tradition did get right, though, was that the parable meant that contemplation was more important than action. These two women can’t represent the two religious types of vocation, because the Lord only praises Mary here, not Martha.
The Lord isn’t talking about two types of lives. He is simply telling us what’s most important in life: listening to God. Only one thing is needed, He says: listening to Him.
Pope Benedict has done his part for the world by means of his tireless acts of teaching and judging the Church. He has fought the good fight, as St. Paul said. (2 Tm 4:7) It is not strange that a great Christian has removed himself from directly ministering to the world. Many great saints ended their lives in monastic orders. They might have spent their youth as parents, scholars, bishops, or politicians, but they knew when to let that stuff go. My hero, St. Augustine, as old age set in, appointed one of his priests to take over the day-to-day work of his diocese so that he could devote more of his time to prayer. That’s fitting.
But you know, we don’t need to wait, in fact, we should not wait until old age to follow the Lord’s instruction in Luke 10. Paul has some more advice for us too: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands…” (1 Thess 4:10) It’s a funny passage actually: make it your ambition not to have ambition, he is kind of telling us. This is one of the great things about the Christian vocations – marriage and religious life – they are set up for living the quiet life. I mean, sure, you can do these vocations poorly, and let them rob you of your peace. But in a nutshell, the vocations promote healthy circumstances; they are very human-centred because they are very God-centred. They are just the kind of things that encourage us to set up peaceful atmospheres.
The married person’s place is in the home; the religious man’s or woman’s place is in the church or monastery. Now, sure, there are a lot of things that make a quiet life difficult. Some of these things we have little control over – like traveling for work, scarcity of resources, inhuman working conditions, sickness, persecution, war, etc. But some things we do have control over. Being too involved. Being at work too often and for too long. Constantly looking to get ahead. The fact is, most people have to work. Some people do not have to work as much as they do. I’ve met some. Or, if work is not your problem, perhaps socializing too much is. For some parents, running their kids around too much is. A quiet life does not only mean praying a lot. It means being where you are supposed to be. It means being free of too much noise and commotion. Some of us are introverts by nature, some of us extroverts. Being quiet comes more easily to the introverts, but this is not to say that they have it all figured out. You can be selfish and self-centred even as an introvert, even in prayer. But being where you are supposed to be is a good start: being in the home, being with your family, being in your room with the door closed, praying to your Father, who is unseen. (Mt 6:6)
There are a lot of busy people in the world. This is not building up the Kingdom. There are also a lot of busy Christians. That’s not necessarily building up the Kingdom either. You can’t build anything unless you know the blueprints. God only shares those in prayer.
Parishes are often evaluated according to how busy they are – how many programs or ministries, everyone asks. Does it matter? Is the church unlocked, are people inside praying – this is all you need to know about a parish’s vitality.
Families are often esteemed by how much its members have accomplished. A spelling bee, a concert, a hockey tournament, experiences experienced, vacations taken to exotic, ‘educational’ or even sacred locations, good clothing, neat appearances, well-ordered everything, polished manners, up-to-date on current events, balanced diet, so many church events attended. Yet all of this may be in vain if there is not quiet inside and unity in the home. No amount of activity can assure these things, and sometimes even the best kinds of activities can undermine them. A family pilgrimage to a shrine – what could go wrong with that? Ask a family who has done it. They might answer: everything.
A priest or a religious may also have it all wrong. You also know that priests are most often praised according to their tangible accomplishments: how many degrees does he have, how many changes has he brought to the parish, how many new things has he brought in? Has he written books? Does he know famous people? Has he increased the revenues of the parish? Is he in charge of important things in the diocese? Is he good speaker? Frankly, these things are as essential to his vocation as those things I listed above are essential to the vocations of married people. A priest will not have quality time to put into his parish if he has not first found quality time for himself with God.
He must cloister himself in the church; the family must cloister itself in the home. These are the right places to start. It’s not exotic, but it’s right. This is Pope Benedict’s last teaching.
I thought that if I ever have the opportunity to live in another home, and could afford it, I would buy a house with some land. Walking about and sharing time with my family sounds just about right. Cutting wood with my sons, something we can do together, that’s productive, and that’s not video games. Everyone making a contribution, together, to the common good.
I talked a lot of married people and religious here. Single people need to cloister themselves too. They are usually the worst offenders at busyness.
Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.