The Human Race.
It is my sense that there is right now, at this very moment, more than ever before in history, a greater percentage of the individuals comprising that group whom we have grown accustomed to referring to collectively as The Human Race, who, whenever they may happen to have some “free Time”, or, when they may take an hour, or a day, to simply relax, and be Present, find themselves quickly assaulted with feelings of guilt. Temptations. Nagging doubts. That somehow, by “doing nothing”, they are failing. That there remain many goals to be achieved. Tasks to be performed. Responsibilities to be met. That there is not enough Time. And so it is, that they are assailed both with thoughts and with feelings, that “doing nothing” is a “waste of Time”.
It is not so.
If you suffer from such feelings of guilt, such doubts, such vexing temptations, whenever you pause to rest, to love, to Be, to be still, to meditate, or to quietly contemplate, then the following passage from the 14th century mystical classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ may help you — as it helped me — to see the truth about “doing nothing” with new eyes.
All bold emphasis is mine.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary; Johannes Vermeer (1655), National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
In the gospel of Saint Luke it is written, that when our Lord was in the house of Martha her sister, all the time that Martha made her busy about the dighting of His meat, Mary her sister sat at His feet. And in hearing of His word she beheld not to the business of her sister, although her business was full good and full holy, for truly it is the first part of active life; nor yet to the preciousness of His blessed body, nor to the sweet voice and the words of His manhood, although it is better and holier, for it is the second part of active life and the first of contemplative life.
But to the sovereignest wisdom of His Godhead lapped in the dark words of His manhood, thither beheld she with all the love of her heart. For from thence she would not remove, for nothing that she saw nor heard spoken nor done about her; but sat full still in her body, with many a sweet privy and listy* love pressed upon that high cloud of unknowing betwixt her and her God. For one thing I tell thee, that there was never yet pure creature in this life, nor never yet shall be, so high ravished in contemplation and love of the Godhead, that there is not evermore a high and wonderful cloud of unknowing betwixt him and his God. In this cloud it was that Mary was occupied with many a privy love pressed. And why? Because it was the best and the holiest part of contemplation that may be in this life, and from this part her list* not remove for nothing. Insomuch, that when her sister Martha complained to our Lord of her, and bade Him bid her sister rise and help her and let her not so work and travail by herself, she sat full still and answered not with one word, nor shewed not as much as a grumbling gesture against her sister for any plaint that she could make. And no wonder: for why, she had another work to do that Martha wist not of. And therefore she had no leisure to listen to her, nor to answer her at her plaint.
Lo! friend, all these works, these words, and these gestures, that were shewed betwixt our Lord and these two sisters, be set in ensample of all actives and all contemplatives that have been since in Holy Church , and shall be to the day of doom. For by Mary is understood all contemplatives; for they should conform their living after hers. And by Martha, actives on the same manner; and for the same reason in likeness.
And right as Martha complained then on Mary her sister, right so yet unto this day all actives complain of contemplatives. For an there be a man or a woman in any company of this world, what company soever it be, religious or seculars — I out-take none — the which man or woman, whichever that it be, feeleth him stirred through grace and by counsel to forsake all outward business, and for to set him fully for to live contemplative life after their cunning and their conscience, their counsel according; as fast, their own brethren and their sisters, and all their next friends, with many other that know not their stirrings nor that manner of living that they set them to, with a great complaining spirit shall rise upon them, and say sharply unto them that it is nought that they do. And as fast they will reckon up many false tales, and many true also, of falling of men and women that have given them to such life before: and never a good tale of them that stood.
I grant that many fall and have fallen of them that have in likeness forsaken the world. And where they should have become God’s servants and His contemplatives, because that they would not rule them by true ghostly counsel they have become the devil’s servants and his contemplatives; and turned either to hypocrites or to heretics, or fallen into frenzies and many other mischiefs, in slander of Holy Church. Of the which I leave to speak at this time, for troubling of our matter. But nevertheless here after when God vouchsafeth and if need be, men may see some of the conditions and the cause of their failings. And therefore no more of them at this time; but forth of our matter.
Some might think that I do little worship to Martha, that special saint, for I liken her words of complaining of her sister unto these worldly men’s words, or theirs unto hers: and truly I mean no unworship to her nor to them. And God forbid that I should in this work say anything that might be taken in condemnation of any of the servants of God in any degree, and namely of His special saint. For me thinketh that she should be full well had excused of her plaint, taking regard to the time and the manner that she said it in. For that that she said her unknowing was the cause. And no wonder though she knew not at that time how Mary was occupied; for I trow that before she had little heard of such perfection. And also that she said, it was but courteously and in few words: and therefore she should always be had excused.
And so me thinketh that these worldly living men and women of active life should also full well be excused of their complaining words touched before, although they say rudely that they say; having beholding to their ignorance. For why? Right as Martha wist full well little what Mary her sister did when she complained of her to our Lord; right so on the same manner these folk nowadays wot full little, or else nought, what these young disciples of God mean, when they set them from the business of this world, and draw them to be God’s special servants in holiness and rightfulness of spirit. And if they wist truly, I daresay that would neither do nor say as they say. And therefore me thinketh always that they should be had excused: for why, they know no better living than is that they live in themselves. And also when I think on mine innumerable defaults, the which I have made myself before this time in words and deeds for default of knowing, me thinketh then if I would be excused of God for mine ignorant defaults, that I should charitably and piteously have other men’s ignorant words and deeds always excused. And surely else, do I not to others as I would they did to me.
And therefore me thinketh, that they that set them to be contemplatives should not only have active men excused of their complaining words, but also me thinketh that they should be so occupied in spirit that they should take little heed or none what men did or said about them. Thus did Mary, our example of all, when Martha her sister complained to our Lord: and if we will truly do thus our Lord will do now for us as He did then for Mary.
And how was that? Surely thus. Our lovely Lord Jesus Christ, unto whom no privy thing is hid, although He was required of Martha as doomsman for to bid Mary rise and help her to serve Him; nevertheless yet, for He perceived that Mary was fervently occupied in spirit about the love of His Godhead, therefore courteously and as it was seemly for Him to do by the way of reason, He answered for her, that for the excusing of herself list* not leave the love of Him. And how answered He? Surely not only as doomsman, as He was of Martha appealed: but as an advocate lawfully defended her that Him loved, and said, “Martha, Martha!” Twice for speed He named her name; for He would that she heard Him and took heed to His words. “Thou art full busy,” He said, “and troubled about many things”. For they that be actives behove always to be busied and travailed about many diverse things, the which them falleth, first for to have to their own use, and sithen in deeds of mercy to their even-christian, as charity asketh. And this He said unto Martha, for he would let her wit that her business was good and profitable to the health of her soul. But for this, that she should not think that it were the best work of all that man might do, therefore He added and said: “But one thing is necessary”.
And what is that one thing? Surely that God be loved and praised by Himself, above all other business bodily or ghostly that man may do. And for this, that Martha should not think that she might both love God and praise Him above all other business bodily or ghostly, and also thereto to be busy about the necessaries of this life: therefore to deliver her of doubt that she might not both serve God in bodily business and ghostly together perfectly — imperfectly she may, but not perfectly — He added and said, that Mary has chosen the best part; the which should never be taken from her. For why, that perfect stirring of love that beginneth here is even in number with that that shall last without end in the bliss of heaven, for all it is but one.
What meaneth this; Mary hath chosen the best? Wheresoever the best is set or named, it asketh before it these two things — a good, and a better; so that it be the best, and the third in number. But which be these three good things, of the which Mary chose the best? Three lives be they not, for Holy Church maketh remembrance but of two, active life and contemplative life; the which two lives be privily understood in the story of this gospel by these two sisters Martha and Mary — by Martha active, by Mary contemplative. Without one of these two lives may no man be safe, and where no more be but two, may no man choose the best.
But although there be but two lives, nevertheless yet in these two lives be three parts, each one better than other. The which three, each one by itself, be specially set in their places before in this writing. For as it is said before, the first part standeth in good and honest bodily works of mercy and charity; and this is the first degree of active life, as it is said before. The second part of these two lives lieth in good ghostly meditations of a man’s own wretchedness, the Passion of Christ, and of the joys of heaven. The first part is good, and this part is the better; for this is the second degree of active life and the first of contemplative life. In this part is contemplative life and active life coupled together in ghostly kinship, and made sisters at the ensample of Martha and Mary. Thus high may an active come to contemplation; and no higher, but if it be full seldom and by special grace. Thus low may a contemplative come towards active life; and no lower, but if it be full seldom and in great need.
The third part of these two lives hangeth in this dark cloud of unknowing, with many a privy love pressed to God by Himself. The first part is good, the second is better, but the third is best of all. This is the “best part” of Mary. And therefore it is plainly to wit, that our Lord said not, Mary hath chosen the best life, for there be no more lives but two, and of two may no man choose the best. But of these two lives Mary hath chosen, He said, the best part; the which shall never be taken from her. The first and the second, although they be both good and holy, yet they end with this life. For in the tother life shall be no need as now to use the works of mercy, nor to weep for our wretchedness, nor for the Passion of Christ. For then shall none be able to hunger nor thirst as now, nor die for cold, nor be sick, nor houseless, nor in prison; nor yet need burial, for then shall none be able to die. But the third part that Mary chose, choose who by grace is called to choose: or, if I soothlier shall say, whoso is chosen thereto of God. Let him lustily incline thereto, for that shall never be taken away: for if it begin here, it shall last without end.
And therefore let the voice of our Lord cry on these actives, as if He said thus now for us unto them, as he did then for Mary to Martha, “Martha, Martha!” — “Actives, actives! make you busy as ye can in the first part and in the second, now in the one and now in the tother: and, if you list right well and feel you disposed, in both two bodily. And meddle you not of contemplatives. Ye wot not what them aileth: let them sit in their rest and in their play, with the third and the best part of Mary”.
~ Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, (chapters 17-21)
*list, listy, listily – “‘List’ is best understood by comparison with its opposite, ‘listless’. It implies a glad and eager activity, or sometimes an energetic desire or craving: the wish and the will to do something. The noun often stands for pleasure or delight, the adverb for the willing and joyous performance of an action: the ‘putting of one’s heart into one’s work’. The modern ‘lust’, from the same root, suggests a violence which was expressly excluded from the Middle English meaning of ‘list’.”
[From the Introduction to the 1922 edition by Evelyn Underhill]