The Chief Good

From The First Conference of Abbot Moses, The Conferences, 1.8 (ca. 420)

This then should be our main effort: and this steadfast purpose of heart we should constantly aspire after; namely, that the soul may ever cleave to God and to heavenly things. Whatever is alien to this, however great it may be, should be given the second place, or even treated as of no consequence, or perhaps as hurtful.

We have an excellent illustration of this state of mind and condition in the gospel in the case of Martha and Mary. For when Martha was performing a service that was certainly a sacred one, since she was ministering to the Lord and His disciples, and Mary being intent only on spiritual instruction was clinging close to the feet of Jesus which she kissed and anointed with the ointment of a good confession, she is shown by the Lord to have chosen the better part, and one which should not be taken away from her. For when Martha was toiling with pious care, and was cumbered about her service, seeing that of herself alone she was insufficient for such service, she asks for the help of her sister from the Lord, saying: “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone: bid her therefore that she help me”— certainly it was to no unworthy work, but to a praiseworthy service that she summoned her. And yet what does she hear from the Lord? “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things: but few things are needful, or only one. Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

You see then that the Lord makes the chief good consist in meditation; i.e., in divine contemplation: whence we see that all other virtues should be put in the second place, even though we admit that they are necessary, and useful, and excellent, because they are all performed for the sake of this one thing. For when the Lord says: “You are careful and troubled about many things, but few things are needful or only one,” he makes the chief good consist not in practical work however praiseworthy and rich in fruits it may be, but in contemplation of him, which indeed is simple and but one. He declares that few things are needful for perfect bliss, i.e., that contemplation which is first secured by reflecting on a few saints: from the contemplation of whom, he who has made some progress rises and attains by God’s help to that which is termed one thing, i.e., the consideration of God alone, so as to get beyond those actions and services of saints, and feed on the beauty and knowledge of God alone.

Mary therefore chose the good part, which shall not be taken away from her. And this must be more carefully considered. For when he says that Mary chose the good part, although he says nothing of Martha, and certainly does not appear to blame her, yet in praising the one, he implies that the other is inferior. Again when he says “which shall not be taken away from her,” he shows that from the other her portion can be taken away (for a bodily ministry cannot last forever for any human), but teaches that this one’s desire can never have an end.

St. John Cassian (ca. 360-433) was a monk and spiritual theologian, who writings deeply influenced Eastern and Western moral and spiritual theology. He was probably an Eastern European, and traveled extensively among the earliest monastic communities in Palestine and Egypt. He founded the Monastery of St. Vincent in Southern France in 415, one of the first in the West. His Conferences are a series of dialogues, which recount the teachings of the Egyptian Desert Fathers. The work deeply influenced Benedict, who insisted on it as a primary text of monastic formation. His feast day is February 29 in the East and July 23 in the Episcopal Church.

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