Action and Contemplation
Three men at a pub, and two of the men are talking about the control they have over their wives, while the third man remains silent. After a while, the first two men turn to the third man and ask: “What about you? What kind of control you have over your wife?” The third man turns to the first two and says: “Well, I’ll tell you, just the other day I had her on her knees”. The first two men were dumbfounded. “Wow! What happened next?” They asked. The third man takes a healthy swing of his beer, sight and mutters: “Then she started screaming: get out under the bed and fight like a man!”
Nowadays it seems to be all about control. On the one hand, we easily know when we come across a control freak: they are annoying, and invariably able to draw responsibility to themselves but push out anxiety. Perhaps we all experienced that at some point in our life. On the other hand, the experience seems to tells us that a control freak who is under the control of a non-control freak is potentially very helpful. Unfortunately, there is enough evidence to proof that especially those control freak leaders who are competent but lack the less egocentric qualities of personal modesty and disinterested passion for the aims of an organization, tend to be those who are promoted to the most senior positions in organizations who have become anxious and uncertain.
However, today’s gospel isn’t about people management in big organizations. It is more a metaphor of two essential sides of our soul. And so our questions are not: “How do I handle the control freaks that surround me?” or How do I manage to keep close to the people who make my life interesting?” but: “Is there a control freak hidden in the shadows of my own inner being?” and “Is there a contemplative side of my soul that draws people to me and makes me relevant to their lives more than my social and economical status?”
Martha and Mary perhaps represent metaphorically those two sides of our soul: the active and the contemplative ones. We may have to look again at this scene depicted in so many paintings over the centuries, and discover that Mary symbolizes the attitude of the one who listens to Jesus sitting calmly at his feet, while Martha is rushing back and forward in the house, setting up the table, keeping an eye on the meal and paying attention at any single detail of this important dinner with the Lord. This is what we would do if we had such an important guest in our house. She has got to have everything under control. I can imagine her going back and forward, and looking at Mary, growing anxiously and thinking: “Why is she not helping me out? She would certainly have enough time to listen to him during the dinner after all”.
There is certainly nothing wrong with being active, but here Martha is more than active: she symbolises the need for control, power and ultimately domination. “Tell her to help me”, Martha says to Jesus. In her effort to keep it all under control she tells Jesus off being rather bossy to him. This is the tragic side of our soul when our precise and analytic attention has lost its context and humility, together with its sense of relatedness, and rationality. When the active side of our soul becomes tragically power-hungry and in desperate need for control and domination, there will be a denial of the contemplative side of our soul. This is the one that gives a sense of wholeness, of pattern, beauty, tolerance of ambiguity, irony, humour, empathy, a sense of the special significance of works of art and of human beings. The contemplative side of our soul flows from our inner encounter with Jesus, it permeates our lives and deeply humanises us. We cannot live without it and have to be aware of the importance of this side of our soul, especially when we feel that it is constantly under the threat of the power-hungry and freak-control side of our soul, that will always try to deny it.
What are the consequences of this unbalanced relationship between the two sides of our souls? The tragic and horrendous attack in Nice is sadly -and perhaps the most tremendous- example of this unbalanced relationship between the active and contemplative sides of our soul.
It is extremely difficult to be optimistic in a world where the increasing atmosphere of violence is not just threatening our lives, but as a result of any new massacre, it forces us to leave in fear. In what kind of world are we raising our children, where a man can slaughter entire families and children crushing them with a lorry -as it happened in France? And it doesn’t make us feel any better saying that we know that are always the bad news the ones that make more noise and not the good ones, because it could have been any one of us! It may be time to look at this tragedy as the one that happened in Corato, my hometown, from a different perspective. When the freak-control and power-hungry side of our souls prevails on our contemplative side, the consequences are hugely dramatic. This is true on a personal level as well as on a social one, as individuals as well as society. It triggers a process of dehumanization that leads to the reduction of other human beings to be target of our hatred, and eventually to their destruction.
Control deserves its place. It is a natural and necessary desire, but tragic when it predominates. A balanced relationship between the two sides of our soul, the active and contemplative, is not just a Christian value: it belongs to the whole humankind. However, we find in the Gospel and the Eucharist the main favourite sources of this balance. The encounter with Jesus in the Scripture and the Eucharist is a wonderful source of humanization. This is why in a world of violence and hatred we still have hope, and it is a realistic hope. Although we do our best to unbalance this relationship and dehumanize our lives, we experience that every time we gather around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist God still trust us and give us a second chance to learn how to make this world a better place for our children. Let ask God to make us aware our control-freak side, accepted it, and strengthen our contemplative side. And keep a live memory of all those who have died because of this horrendous and tragic attack in Nice.