The Gospel depictions of Martha and Mary symbolize two paths: vita activa and vita contemplativa. Ancient philosophers and theologians have traditionally viewed contemplative life as the Christian ideal, while vita activa, though virtuous, was not held in such high regard. Within Christian ascetic practice, contemplation and prayer are seen as routes to encountering God “as He is” (1 Jn 3:2), and achieving theōsis.
Following the Second World War, the western world witnessed yet another resurgence of interest in contemplation. Thomas Merton, for instance, believed that contemplation leads to the discovery of God, which, in turn, leads to the discovery of our true selves. Another significant ascetic author and monastic father, St. Sophrony (Saharov), reintroduced Eastern Christian hesychast spirituality in the West.
However, 20th-century modern philosophers like Hannah Arendt challenged the hierarchy of vita contemplativa over vita activa, contending that it led to the separation of spiritual life from politics.
The Christian concepts of contemplation and theōsis remain relevant today. For instance, practices like meditation and mindfulness, which have gained widespread popularity as a cure for stress and anxiety, can be seen as secular forms of contemplative practice. Many artists also find contemplative practices helpful in overcoming creative blocks. Moments of silence, aiding concentration and tranquility, are incorporated into educational and professional settings. Nevertheless, Christian ascetic theology is an endless resource for concentration and mindfulness, and reconnecting with these roots can be enriching.
This conference aims to explore the theology of contemplation and its manifestation in Christian art. We seek to discuss whether the division between vita activa and vita contemplativa is the most appropriate interpretation of Martha's and Mary's story; what the ideal balance between these two should be; whether it's necessary to withdraw from active life in order to contemplate; and if modern art, including religious art, helps to find one's true self. Furthermore, we will examine whether contemplation inevitably leads to spiritual escapism and detachment from pressing worldly matters. You will find out more about how to connect with your true self, and how to see the world as a true contemplator, even if you lead a busy life.