Saint Martha was sister to Mary and Lazarus, and lived with them at Bethany, a small town two miles distant from Jerusalem, a little beyond Mount Olivet. Our Blessed Redeemer had made his residence usually in Galilee, till in the third year of his public ministry he preached chiefly in Judæa, during which interval he frequented the house of these three holy disciples. Martha seems to have been the eldest, and to have had the chief care and direction of the household. It appears from the history of the resurrection of Lazarus that their family was of principal note in the country.
In the first visit, as it seems, with which Jesus honoured them, St. Luke tells us that St. Martha showed great solicitude to entertain and serve him. She forgot the privilege of her rank and riches, and would not leave so great an honour to servants only, but was herself very busy in preparing every thing for so great a guest and his holy company. Mary sat all the time at our Saviour’s feet, feeding her soul with his heavenly doctrine. In this she found such inexpressible sweetness, and so great spiritual advantage, that she forgot and contemned the whole world, and would suffer nothing to draw her from her entertainment with her God, or make her lose any one of those precious moments. At his sacred discourses her heart was inflamed, her pure soul seemed to melt in holy love, and in a total forgetfulness of all other things she said to herself, with the spouse in the Canticles: My beloved to me, and I to him, who feedeth among the lilies; that is, with chaste souls, or among the flowers of virtues.
St. Austin observes that this house represents to us the whole family of God on earth. In it no one is idle, but his servants have their different employments, some in the contemplative life, as recluses; others in the active; as, first, those who labour for the salvation of souls in the exterior functions of the pastoral charge; secondly, those who, upon pure motives of charity, serve the poor or the sick; and, lastly, all who look upon their lawful profession in the world as the place for which God had destined them, and the employment which he has given them; and who faithfully pursue its occupations with a view purely to accomplish the divine will, and acquit themselves of every duty in the order in which God has placed them in this world. He is the greater saint, whatever his state of life may be, whose love of God and his neighbour is more pure, more ardent, and more perfect; for charity is the soul and form of Christian perfection.
But it has been disputed whether the contemplative or the active life be in itself the more perfect. St. Thomas answers this question, proving from the example of Christ and his apostles, that the mixed life, which is made up of both, is the most excellent. This is the apostolic life, with the care of souls, if in it the external functions of instructing, assisting, and comforting others, which is the most noble object of charity, be supported by a constant perfect spirit of prayer and contemplation. In order to this, a long and fervent religious retirement ought to be the preparation which alone can form the perfect spirit of this state; and the same must be constantly nourished and improved by a vehement love and frequent practice of holy retirement, and a continued recollection, as Christ during his ministry often retired to the mountains to pray; for that pastor who suffers the spirit of prayer to languish in his soul, carries about a dead soul in a living body, to use the expression of St. Bonaventure. The like interior spirit must animate; and some degree of assiduity in the like exercises, as circumstances will allow, must support those who are engaged in worldly employments, and those who devote themselves to serve Christ’s most tender and afflicted members, the poor and the sick, as Martha served Christ himself.