“Martha, Martha!”

In the National Gallery in London, you will find a painting by Velazquez entitled Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. I never fail to visit it when I visit that gallery and that painting when I cross the pond.

Last year I made some comments about that painting, to which I return this year.  Also, before I dig in, at the blog Idle Speculations there is an entry which picks up on my comments in the past, which I am revising here, but which adds a great deal more, including a story based on the painting!

Ad rem, and I may ramble a little.

Velasquez painting – a variation on the bodegón or kitchen/tavern scene, and a Flemish combination of domestic and sacred scenes – is a puzzle. It has layers. It is hard to tell if we are looking from the kitchen through a window into the room beyond, where the Lord is sitting with Mary and Martha, or if this is a painting within a painting, or if -and this may be the most likely – the scene in the square on the right is a reflection in a mirror showing what is going on in the other room.  Velasquez uses mirrors in other paintings.  If so, the young kitchen maid is watching the scene in the other room.  It is hard to tell whether this is a scene where the action in the kitchen is taking place simultaneously with that of the other room, or it this represents different chronological events.

Take a good hard look. The pouty look on girl’s face, almost that of a child, shows her displeasure.

In the other scene, Mary of Bethany is seated before Christ in the attitude of a disciple. Her hair, the “women’s glory”, is loose, which probably reflects her contemplative role.  Martha is remonstrating, her hand pointing.  Her hair is covered, probably to keep it out of the way as she works, so is doesn’t get burned, dirty and in her eyes.  Christ is seated on a chair, as befits a teacher.  If this is a mirror His right hand is elevated in a teaching gesture.  His cloak drapes an arm, just as the ancient philosopher’s robe would so as to demonstrate that the person’s primary concern was not manual labor.  Mary, seated below, is similarly garbed.  Mary’s hand from under her cloak is rotated toward herself, perhaps in a gesture of a question, such as “What must I do?”  Use the link at the top to zoom in on the details.

In the kitchen, the young woman is focusing her attention elsewhere, probably on the scene in the other room unless she is daydreaming.  She is put out.  Was she just terrorized a bit by Martha who is on edge?  The girl seems to be on the point of frustrated tears.  The household must be well-to-do and she must be pretty well treated, since she has a pretty earring. with a good sized dark stone of some kind.  Her is bound up for work, and also no doubt to show off the earring, but is still partially uncovered, the opposite of her opposite the old woman.  She seems to have made an effort to make herself pretty, but here she is, with the red hands and the garlic and fish and mortar.

The old woman is calm. Her face shows lines of age and toil.  Is the old women at the left telling the girl to pay attention to her work. She, like the small image of Martha, is pointing, creating a pair of bookends in the painting.  Is she pointing to the girl to warn you, the viewer?  She seems to be looking out of the painting, looking out at us.  Click here for a close up of a detail.  She is looking out, but her hand, which has a discreet bracelet, is point to her young underling.

What is the old woman saying to us?  Is this you?  This is you!”

In the other room, Christ’s hand is raised because He is teaching.  His hand will soon be bruised in falling and pierced with a spike. The hand is raised as if to say, “Wait! Be silent a moment! There is more to this than meets the eye.” The hands all convey a deeper point.  I think the old woman’s hand is also raised to remonstrate and to teach.

The girl upset because she is removed from the action.  Perhaps she wants to be near the Lord.  Perhaps she wanted to catch His eye with her earring.  In any event, she is not her own mistress and must do things she doesn’t want to do.

Her sleeve rolled up, exposing her forearm. Her hand is raw. There is a little bit of decoration on her rolled up sleeve which she won’t be able to show off, along with her earrings. When you are a servant girl, these little vanities are a big deal.

Mary can just sit there and be pretty, and calm, in the presence of the desired One. Martha must work, be less fetching, even grimy and sweaty as she works for the ease of others.  This is the state of the girl as well.

And the old woman has already been there and done that for a long long time.

Isn’t it true that sometimes we resent the joy or good fortune of others, even to the point that we want to strip them of their joy?  “If I am unhappy then, by God, no one will be happy!”  Have you ever resented that someone else was chosen for something?

On the work table are instruments of labor, the girl’s and Martha’s.

Fish and eggs are Christian symbols. The oil flask calls our mind to the Passion, or else the coming death and burial of Lazarus as well as that of the Lord. The cloves of garlic are a symbol of the resurrection, much like an orange is in art of the period: because of peeling and the sections they breaks into. The pepper with its seeds can burn.  However, in the iconography of some painters fish can also be a symbol of acedia, sloth.

Most significant is the large mortar, which breaks things down.  The girl seems to be using it to create a paste of garlic, oil and spicy peppers as a dressing for the fish and eggs.

But most importantly, this mortar is the daily grind.

The old woman on the left, seems to be our conscience which we are at our daily grind.

In this painting, as in life, there is always a tension between the active and the contemplative, the daily grind and a true Christian’s desire for silence, recollection and prayer. There is a tension and trap in the desire to be recognized or to have this or that position which is not to be had, to be ambitious… for what?  For God’s greater glory or our own?

These tensions force us constantly to examine our consciences and motives, as well as to prayer and reflection into our daily work.  We are challenged to find the space for prayer and reflection within our busy tasks. How do we make quiet stillness fruitful by means of action, perhaps through corporal works of mercy? How can we make action into some contemplative?  And how to let go of vanity and ambition?

In this life these things will always be a struggle, and very often we will fail.  Only in heaven are action and contemplation not in conflict, not divided as they are for us here. We are nevertheless called in our lives to inform each of these dimensions of Christian life with the other.

In Patristic terms, for Augustine, Martha is a figure of the active life and Mary of Bethany as a symbol of the contemplative life. Augustine has several pairings like this, for example, Rachel and Leah and also John and Peter.

Augustine was always constantly trying to find the right balance of action and contemplation in his own extremely busy life, otium in negotio. He sometimes laments that he wanted to remain a monk, in quiet prayer and contemplation of the deeper questions, but he instead must carry out his duties and problems as a bishop well.  He describes his role as bishop as a sarcina, the heavy backpack of the Roman legionary.  How to resolve these seemingly contradictory styles of life?  How to find otium in negotio… free space within busy-ness?

Augustine’s examination of Mary and Martha is found primarily in Sermons 179, 103 and 104. In s. 179 Augustine explains James 1,19;22 using an exegesis of Luke 10, the episode of Mary and Martha we see in the painting. He emphasizes the deep attention we ought to give Scripture: factores verbi… et auditores… contrasting the former who put what they hear into practice with the later who listen only and then do nothing about what they hear.

S. 179 shows Augustine’s deep regard for his flock. He would rather be a listener but he must also be a doer. He sacrificed his own desires for the sake of his flock. Augustine says that it is dangerous to be a preacher, and exercise ministry. He placed himself and his soul in danger for the sake of his flock.

For Augustine, contemplation must necessarily lead to action in this life. While the ideal would be to sit and listen (Mary) there nothing wrong with acting (Martha).  Indeed, it is necessary to act!  Martha the busy “ministrix” is therefore doing something great, and she has a great gift… magnum ergo ministerium, magnum donum.

What Mary does is still greater.  What Mary does takes nothing from Martha, and what Martha does enhances Mary.

Augustine explains that there is a unity between the two lives because they come to the same eternal reward. The Person of Jesus is the focus of both Mary and Martha. In heaven their focus and roles will overlap and combine perfectly.

One must arrive at the “better part” precisely by means of the active life. That is her lot. Heaven will be the perfect “fusion” of the active and contemplative dimensions of Christian life, though here in this vale of tears they are difficult at times to reconcile.

Finally, if you are chaffing under the grind, consider your lot as someone who has to get the work done in light of a question.

Where’s Lazarus?

When the Lord came back to the house, days after the death of Lazarus, it was Martha who went rushing out to meet the Lord on the road when He was still some way off.  It was Martha who spoke with the Lord first, not Mary.  It was Martha who made a great profession of faith, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Then it was Martha who brought Mary out of the house to the Lord, so that Mary could repeat, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

So, some bullet points:

  • Have you been jealous of the good fortune of another? I offer this especially to clerics who are suffering from the dread fault of proud ambition.
  • Have you resented your state because you think you should have had a different lot in life?
  • Have you chaffed under what God’s will is for you in your vocation?
  • Have you neglected prayer in your daily grind?
  • Have you lacked generosity or been small of soul?
  • Have you thanked God for the graces that come with the challenges?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. benedetta says:

    Thank you Fr. Z this is really interesting, the reflection of St. Augustine and the Valazquez. I have been struck by Our Lord’s relationship and recognition of each of us, already known to Him and called by name, in His interactions with this family and household of siblings whom He loved. Sometimes it has seemed to me that Our Lord wishes to give Mary the space for realizing who He is which is a process He is aware that has already taken place for Martha. Martha knows who He is, it is recognized for her in her being already and she is prepared to proceed in that Light and reality.

    I also sometimes think of these sisters as similar to the brothers in the story of the prodigal son. One has always been with the father and everything the father has is his; the other has come home at that moment and must be shown a welcome. Both are in equal and the same need of the mercy of God which is love and forgiveness itself, not something that we invented or concoct of our own devices. To appreciate the gift or mercy we also must recognize who God is and who we are before God who has created us and called us into being in the first place, who has loved us first with an infinite love.

  2. MJ says:

    Wow…thank you SO much for this post Fr Z. Wow.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    I must confess that I am slightly jealous of an good acquaitence (who I hope will be a good friend later on) who has been to accepted to study for the Priesthood with the FSSP whilst I am still searching for Bishop/Congregation that will have me, just hoping against hope that I have a vocation. Also as one congregation rejected me for being slightly Autistic and coming from a single parent family I sometimes wish that Either Bl Louis and Zelle Martin or Rene and Gabrielle Lefervbre had been my parents and that like my sister I was normal.

    I try to pray at least half of the Little Office each day but it can be really hard trying to fit 2 hours of the little hours in before going to work and another 2 hours during my lunch break in a busy office(especially as I know that I haven’t prayed them as well as I could say……… in a Monastary), often I’m so exausted by the time I get home that Vespers doesn’t get a look in. Also with a 09:00 start it can be really difficult to get to Mass each day.

    What graces? I’m a slightly autistic 22/23 yr old from a single parent household who has as much chance of joining a traditional Diocese/Congregation as Richard Sharpe has of being accepted as a gentlemen, yet I’m too Orthodox for even a reasonably conservative diocese and to be honest my previous plans of becoming a Naval Officer, settling down with a nice Catholic girl and raising a family look very unapealing (its not that I dislike kids its just that I’ve fallen head over heels in love with Jesus).

  4. AnAmericanMother says:

    My Christian name is Martha, and I am definitely one of her daughters.
    Thanks for the reminder, Father.

    The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
    But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
    And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
    Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.
    . . . .
    And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessed — they know the Angels are on their side.
    They know in them is the Grace confessed, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
    They sit at the Feet — they hear the Word — they see how truly the Promise runs.
    They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and — the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!

    -Rudyard Kipling

  5. nfp4life says:

    I remember this reflection last year- I thought it was a sermon I heard! Thank you Father, for posting this last year, and this year- and for helping me remember where it came from!

  6. priests wife says:

    I love to ‘visit’ favorite pieces at museums, too— one favorite is ‘Peter and John running to the tomb’ at the Musee d’orsay

  7. cblanch says:

    This is the reflection that hooked me on this blog last year. Wow, just so good. Thank you!

  8. pewpew says:

    @Priests wife
    Wow, I just visited the Musee d’Orsay and was struck by that painting as well. Seeing those paintings made me sad that I know so little about art. What is Peter pointing at, for example? I should read about that one.

  9. lizaanne says:

    I will be at the National myself this Fall with my husband, I will be sure to put this on our list of “must see”.

    When going to my husband’s office today to pray Evening Prayer with him and his co-workers (he works for an apostolate you are familiar with, Father), I realized it was Martha’s feast day. I joked (only slightly) that it was a bit of a feast day for me, and my husband softly laughed, and said we should celebrate. :-)

    I’ve always been a frustrated “Martha” among our friends. I am always the one who takes care of others who work for our Lord, and SO gratefully so!!!! It is what I prefer to do, and yet I do struggle that perhaps I need to be more of a Mary in my life – giving more to Christ directly, and not using my work through those who work FOR Him, as my point of effort. But I do what I do, so that they may do what they do, which I find far more important that anything I could do personally. Does that make sense? Often I wonder myself.

    Anyway – thank you, for a beautiful meditation on this work of art. I truly do look forward to seeing it in person in a few weeks.

    God bless you, Father, and thank you for your priesthood.

  10. terryprest says:

    Many thanks for the link, Father

  11. Grateful Catholic says:

    The artwork and your reflection on it make a wonderful and piercing combination, Father. Thank you so much.

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