Peter & John, Martha & Mary — The Symbolism of the Active and the Contemplative

Jean-Philippe MarceauSymbolic World Icon
September 21, 2023
The following is a translated and transcribed version of a french podcast recorded in July 2021 by Jonathan Pageau and Jean-Philippe Marceau.

JP: Welcome everyone to this new episode of The Symbolic Life with Jonathan Pageau and JP Marceau, after a few weeks of vacation.

I saw this morning (July 29th) that it’s the feast day of Mary, Martha & Lazarus, so it’s a good day to talk about the symbolism of the active and the contemplative.

There are plenty of interesting stories in the Bible about this, and especially in St John’s Gospel. So that’s what I’d like to start with: a story from John’s Gospel. More precisely, the Last Supper, where you see an interesting relationship between the active and the contemplative through Saints Peter and John. Peter is depicted as the more active figure, whereas John is the contemplative.

We’ll draw out a few aspects of this relationship. Now, what happens in the Last Supper is that Christ tells His disciples that one will betray Him. Obviously, the disciples want to know who that is. So Saint Peter asks, but he doesn’t ask Jesus directly. He rather asks John. Then, Saint John, who is laying on Jesus’ heart, asks Jesus who will betray Him. And then finally Jesus answers.

Thus, what we see in this story is that the active goes through the contemplative who is at the heart, at the center of things.

Jonathan: Yeah we see a kind of hierarchy; you can really imagine it as a mountain. Jesus is the summit, then John is at the center, and Peter receives information from John and then seeks to act on it. Especially at Gethsemane, after the Last Supper, where Peter is the one with the sword. He’s really in the active mode.

When you see that, you can also notice that the story of Mary and Martha has the same structure. You have Mary who is kneeling at the feet of Christ, while Martha acts. Jesus says that Mary has the better part, because Christ is there.

We can understand it as the idea that action must come from attention. Attention is the first aspect. Action comes from attention. It’s as simple as saying that you can’t derive morality from facts; an ought from an is; a principle from multiplicity. Attention, the capacity to see the unity of things, is what generates the world, the world of action.

We have versions of this today that are a bit vulgar, like The Secret. Like, if you want to make a lot of money, you must think about it, contemplate it. You must write a letter and put it somewhere in your room, etc. This idea of focusing your attention on something, so that the world can unfold from this attention.

There’s an idea in there that is true. Sadly, making money is not an attention that can generate a full world. It’s fragmented.

On the other hand, Mary attends to Christ. So you could imagine the same situation as in the story of St John, even if it happened differently. You can imagine Martha coming to ask Mary about what Christ wants them to do. And then Mary, who is already attending, will say that.

JP: That’s pretty much what happens in fact, but in another story, before the resurrection of Lazarus. Again in John’s Gospel.

So, Jesus doesn’t come to Lazarus in time to heal him before he dies. But when Jesus reaches the city where Lazarus is buried, and Mary and Martha are grieving, it’s Martha who comes to see Christ first. She’s the active one, who goes to see people first.

She tells Christ that if He had come in time, then her brother Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Jesus responds that Lazarus will resurrect. Martha isn’t really reassured, she thinks Jesus might be speaking about the final Resurrection. So what she does is go see her sister Mary, who had stayed inside, and tells her to go see Christ.

Then when Mary sees Christ, she cries at His feet, she implores Him. The heart speaks to Christ. Then, Christ cries too. He’s moved by Mary’s prayer; by the prayer of the people who are close to Him. And then He brings Lazarus back to life.

So, that’s the same structure as the Last Supper. The active goes through the heart to ask things to the head.

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s a great way to see it, the idea of the heart and the head. St John is exactly that, the place where heaven and earth meet, that point is the heart, and it’s what informs reality and makes multiplicity meaningful.

There are plenty of everyday situations where you can see it. Even in the cliché of the family where the slightly authoritarian father is above, and the mother will soften the father for the children. And the mother will also be attentive to the specific problems of the children and will be able to present them to the father. Because, for the dad, it’s often just noise! Hahaha! At least for me! Plenty of things, just noise to me, but then my wife comes and tells me “ok, there’s this thing, that thing, etc.”. So she gets my attention in a more focused manner, and it unfolds towards the children hahaha.

JP: hahaha

You mentioned The Secret earlier, but I’d like to mention a more legitimate example of this process, which is something that your friend Jordan Peterson has done with his Future Authoring program. That’s what he asks people to do. He asks them to craft a story for themselves, oriented towards a certain goal. They write about how that goal is worthwhile, to focus their attention towards that goal. He then asks them to write down concrete actions they can take to reach that goal. This will oriend different aspects of their life towards that goal.

Then, after having done this contemplative exercise for an hour or two, they will unfold it in their life. Now, Jordan backs himself up with lots of empirical research about this showing that it works. It increases student performance, for instance.

That’s a very concrete example, far from The Secret, that nonetheless shows how positive action rests on contemplation. You can really multiply your concrete fruits if you can contemplate correctly first.

Jonathan: Yeah and you can take something else, like when St Paul speaks of faith. Faith is confidence in things unseen, an attachment to things unseen. You can understand it at a very high level, but also at lower ones. You even see it in movies. If you can’t conceive of something, you’ll never reach it. That’s just not possible.

You also see it in sports, where there’s a limit that holds for a long time, but then when someone breaks it, tons of other athletes break it too. You can really see that this is how reality works; it’s anchored in faith. You need confidence in something that you don’t have yet.

Even scientific advancements often happen this way. There’s a kind of intuition for something that isn’t demonstrated yet. Even Galileo. He hadn’t proved that the earth orbits the sun. People are wrong. Galileo and Copernicus were still lacking a lot of evidence. But they were so confident that they pushed until it broke through.

Sadly also there are times when people try to use this structure but it doesn’t work, because there is no potentiality to support their desire, their faith. For instance, I could say that my goal is to become a billionaire by playing guitar, but it won’t work! My faith and my potentiality don’t connect.

JP: And we can also see it in organizations, groups of people. One that surprised me is in the company I work at, in tech, we sometimes gather for large events, 3-4 days, where we mainly listen to presentations. The liturgical aspect of this struck me. It’s all surrounded by a kind of feast, but at the center are presentations about the story of the company and its goal. Then we also have peripheral activities around this.

We really spend enormous amounts of money for such events; to focus our attention towards the same thing. But now, having done this contemplative exercise together, we can then go back, each one of us in our little corner, to be active, but still informed by the contemplation that just took place. This allows us to make plenty of decisions at our scale without having to always ask questions higher-up. Our concrete, low-level actions are informed by the contemplation we did together.

Jonathan: Yeah that’s it, it’s a very good example.

And also even just how trust is important. To trust a leader, say, is a kind of attention. You’re not acting yet, and your capacity to pay attention to your leader will increase the odds of success of the project, regardless of the project. It could be a sports team, for instance. If the players don’t trust the intentions or the capacity of the coach, the team will do worse. That’s another version of the same phenomenon; of the capacity to perceive the unseen, to trust in something unmanifested, followed by the manifestation of that thing in the world.

Once we’ve understood this, we can also understand why in the Church there are two hierarchies. There’s an explicit hierarchy, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and then there’s a more hidden or implicit hierarchy, which is a hierarchy of saints who have no official position in the Church. The saint is someone recognized, someone given attention to, because of their capacity to manifest Christ on earth.

So, saints don’t have the authority to create canons, to decide how liturgy works, etc. That’s not in their explicit responsibility. But they’re always the ones informing the explicit hierarchy. A good example is Saint Catherine of Sienna, who lived most of her life in a cell and had no official authority. But when there were three Popes in Europe and no one knew who was the real one, in the middle of a huge political conflict, she’s the one who was asked to support who she believed to be the real Pope. So even if she had no official authority, it’s the one she pointed out who was selected to be Pope.

History remembers her as the one who recognized the real Pope. Everyone trusted her due to her reputation as a faultless contemplative. And also, one of the reasons why contemplatives have this ability is because it’s not linked to the multiplicity and political conflicts, in theory. Because the attention of the contemplative is pure, we can trust their judgment. They have no interest in the world of action.

Another example is, if I recall correctly (I’m not 100% certain), at the end of the council of Nicea. They brought the text of the council to Saint Simeon the Stylite, on his pillar, for him to validate the council.

JP: For those who don’t know, Saint Simeon spent most of his life on a pillar!

Jonathan: Yeah, 40 years, 60 years, I don’t know, on a 60 feet tall tower, and he just stayed there all day doing prostrations. People counted he would do something like 1000 prostrations a day. That’s all he did! (laughs)

For us moderns, it seems so absurd to think that this person could be the one deciding whether a council is orthodox or not. But we must really understand that everything about him made him a beacon, like the fact that he’s high up on a tower, alone, praying all day. It’s also related to why monks often climb up on mountains, why their cells are high up in mountains.

JP: Another example is anchorites in the Middle Ages. These were often women, very pious, who would get walled into a cell in a Cathedral and would just pray all day. So, in this example, again, you have a purely contemplative figure, with no official power. But these anchorites would nonetheless end up having a large influence on the bishop of that cathedral, who is the active, official power. So, here, the anchorite is the heart, just praying all day, who has a lot of hidden influence on the structuring, officially authority.

It’s like Saints John and Peter. Peter is the visible head of the Church, the visible rock on which Jesus puts a structure, whereas John has an invisible influence. He isn’t even named in his Gospel.

Jonathan: That’s right, we now say that it’s Saint John, but we must not forget that nowhere, not even once, in that Gospel does it say that we’re speaking about Saint John. Whether it be when he’s lying on the breast of Christ, or in other moments about him. It’s a kind of secret tradition that we know it’s Saint John, speaking about himself. So all of this adds to the imagery we have of Saint John as the mystical, hidden apostle.

JP: And as long as they work well together, then the church flourishes. Like in the other examples we talked about, where the active and contemplative aspects must cooperate well. All organizations need both sides to flourish, whether it be an individual, a family or a business, whatever.

You can see in Christ Himself that he had this right harmony. In some moments He retires by Himself to pray to His Father, on the contemplative side. And then on the active side, He goes out, teaching and ultimately sacrificing Himself.

Besides Christ, you can see Saints John and Peter as the two branches of this in the Church, and who have a complementary relationship. We can see it in John’s Gospel, and also in Acts. There are moments when both are together and they perform many miracles. But mainly, I’d like to cover some stories in John’s Gospel.

In the last chapter of that Gospel, the apostles are fishing. It’s after the Resurrection, but Christ isn’t with the apostles at that moment, and Peter, the active one, proposes that they go fishing, that they do something. Having not caught anything, they’re making their way back to shore when someone on the shore tells them to throw their nets into the water. Then, they catch a very large number of fish.

At that point, John recognizes that the person on the shore is Christ. So, here again, it’s John, the heart, the contemplative, who is first to notice Christ, the center. But then, it’s Peter who jumps into the water to go see Christ first, because Peter is the active one.

Not long afterwards, Jesus takes Peter separately and tells him what will happen. This is the passage where Jesus repeatedly asks Peter whether he loves Him, and after Peter responds, Jesus keeps telling him to do something active, namely to tend to Christ’s flock.

Then they go by John, and Peter is curious about what will happen to John. Christ answers that John will remain, and Peter shouldn’t worry about it.

Jonathan: That’s one of the most mysterious passages in the Bible! Christ says that if I want this one to remain until the last day, that’s none of your business. And then in the text it says that this brought the idea that John wouldn’t die.

But you can understand it in a more mystical way, in that Christ will preserve the soul of Christianity. It won’t happen through external actions, which is Saint Peter’s temptation. That is, Peter’s positive side is to be the foundation, the shepard, all of those images, but his negative side is to want to control the mystery, let’s say. You can see this in part when he says that Christ won’t die. There’s something that Peter doesn’t get about the interiority of the mystery.

That’s Saint Peter’s mystery; he’s the one who goes out of the boat and sinks, the first one to recognize Christ, but also the one who denies Him. It’s really mysterious; you can see the duality of the manifestation. He can be attached to the center, or turned towards the outside and detached from the center. In contrast, Saint John, because he’s in the heart, is less in danger of falling into the duality of action.

JP: Yeah, Christ tells Peter that Peter will be martyred. He’ll go to the end. He’ll lose himself, whereas John will remain stable in the heart.

This brings us to another story that we weren’t sure we’d discuss, because it’s a difficult one. But it’s too interesting, we need to try! (laughs)

Right after the Resurrection, still in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles that Jesus isn’t in His tomb. Immediately, Saint Peter starts running towards the tomb. He’s then passed by Saint John. But then, when John reaches the tomb, he waits outside. When Peter arrives, he enters the tomb and looks. Finally, it says that John enters and looks, but also believes.

Jonathan: That’s such a mysterious story. I’ve been meditating on this for decades. It’s clearly trying to show us a relationship between Peter and John, about their ontological function. It has to do with action, with exteriority, but the exchange that happens is hard to grasp and apply elsewhere.

Because what I always try to do to check that I understand is to see whether I can apply my analysis elsewhere. Can I take the pattern and apply it elsewhere? In that case I have a really hard time applying it.

JP: Yeah, the only thing I saw that I could apply was about the relationship we must maintain between reflection and action. If you want to learn something, you’ll need a kind of race between those two. You can have an idea of something, which is more on the contemplative side, but then you must also run towards that thing. You need to actually try, actively. Then you fail and you must contemplate again.

Jonathan: Yeah, well, I think I can explain things until the tomb.

Alright. So Mary Magdalene arrives and poses a problem. She brings up something that is incomprehensible. Something outside the norms. The first one to notice this will probably be someone active, because someone who is in multiplicity will see the problem.

Like when Mary tells Christ that there is no more wine. That’s a very particular problem in the world.

So, it’s in the world of action that things start. But you can’t get there through action. You need intuition, you need contemplation to perceive the mystery that will solve the problem.

And then maybe it is that once you arrive, to solve the puzzle, you need action to, let’s say, fill up the problem. Answer the question, answer the frame, let’s say.

It’s still not totally clear! (laughs)

And maybe you could say that once action and contemplation are united, then John perceives the world, the union of the two. The story is finished, let’s say.

You have the problem, then you start running because there’s a problem, then you have an intuition of the solution, but your intuition must match with the problem, which happens through action. So then you have the fruit, which is the union of the two. You understand, “get it”.

But that’s the best I can do here! (laughs)

JP: Related to that, an explanation I had heard about the moment when they enter the tomb is that the contemplatives submit to the official hierarchy.

You said earlier that Saint Simeon, even if he had implicit authority, he submitted to the official ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church.

Jonathan: Yeah, in fact, in the story of Saint Simeon, this happens. Initially, some people thought that Saint Simeon was only doing this out of pride. So one of the bishops or some other Church official came to see him and told him to descend from his tower. And immediately Saint Simeon started climbing down! So the Church official said “No! No! No! Stay there, we’re good!” (laughs) It’s like, “since you’re ready to climb down, I no longer want you to climb down”.

That’s a good image to understand what I’ve mentioned elsewhere regarding the difference between real and false mystics. The real mystic remains submitted, even if only exteriorly, to the structure of the world, because he doesn’t want to destroy it. His goal isn’t to destroy the world.

JP: Yeah, and I had heard mainly catholics say this: once at the tomb, the contemplatives are nonetheless submitted to Saint Peter. Saint John won’t go beyond what he can do officially. He can stay outside, he can even understand, but he’ll wait for the discernment of the Church.

Jonathan: Really interesting, that could be a good way to understand it. John needs the exterior structure to give body to his intuition. He doesn’t want to derogate.

That’s the problem of contemporary, new-agy mystics, or the psychedelics thing we’re seeing now. People have intuitions, but they have no body in which to put them, and it can drive them mad. Things start to separate. And not only that, but they become subversive. A mind without a body is really dangerous.

JP: And even for themselves. We can see this around some traditionalist thinkers. It’s really tempting to fall into your own world of symbolic ideas, to become a kind of cyclops where you only see things with your third eye, losing contact with your body and with reality.

I’m mentioning cyclops now to think about this symbolism, but do you know of Biblical symbolism to understand this; people who lose their body in going too high into abstraction?

Jonathan: Well, yes there are people who are taken up, but it’s seen more as a cosmic phenomenon. Take the prophet Elijah, who holds the world together by his intuition, by his mystical capacity. And then to punish the world it seems, so that the world changes or ends and a new one starts, this intuitive capacity gets taken away. Then the world fragments and restarts.

It’s also what happens in Enoch. He’s taken away from the world, which is one of the things that causes the flood. Even Jews, as you can see in Josephus, have the story that Saint James’ death caused the destruction of Jerusalem. They considered Saint James to be a just man, and because he was killed, taken away from the world, the world dissolved.

So you can imagine it either like God taking up the prophet into heaven to dissolve the world, or you can see it as people killing the just before things explode.

So yes, in that sense, but I don’t know if I’ve seen exactly what you’re looking for…

Well, maybe in Solomon. He went too far into a kind of knowledge or wisdom, and eventually the kingdom fragmented. One of the causes of the fall of Israel is the sin of Solomon, who went too far into knowledge without keeping his feet on the ground.

JP: Well I think that’s good, unless you have something more to add about the active and the contemplative Jonathan, I think this would be a wrap.

Jonathan: No, I think that’s good.

One thing for the people watching is to remember that we’re talking about real life. Yes we use stories where we talk about Christ, the apostles, about the spiritual life, etc., but for something to be really true, you must be able to see how it refracts fractally in all the different structures.

So you can understand the reason why we talk about things this way, always finding examples in everyday life or in other fields. That’s to validate that our intuition about the meaning of the story is accurate. It’s not just a matter of moral application, but really an ontological application about the structure of reality. The first thing that Christ, the divine Logos, manifests or incarnates is the structure of reality. All of Christ’s stories and parables first show us the pattern of reality, and then we can derive other kinds of interpretation.

JP: It’s funny what you just said because it fits the pattern we’ve been laying out here. If you look at the story itself, in its pure form, it’s a kind of contemplation. We receive something. But then we must test our intuition to see whether it actually has body. So we do the more active work of going to see whether the pattern holds in a family, in a business, etc.

That’s what we did here today. For our conversation to work it also needed to unite contemplation and action. First, look at stories from which to derive pure patterns, and then see whether those patterns land in the world at different levels.

Jonathan: Yeah and it’s really important, especially in a world where people, due to materialism, have a hard time grasping traditional stories. Because of that, those stories can be dangerous, if they’re only seen at the first level, in a very tight frame. That’s the sort of thing that creates fissures in the Church, creating sects. People take a story and, rather than seeing how it integrates in the puzzle of reality, they just persist without being able to understand, let’s say.

JP: Alright, that’s great. It ends better than I thought, I didn’t think we’d…

Jonathan: go this far! (laughs)

JP: Thanks Jonathan and everyone for your attention!

Jonathan: See you soon.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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