The Jewish tale of Cain and Abel often pits the aggressive and ambitious Cain against the more reflective and contemplative Abel, Abel the Shepherd, Cain, the ever-driven entrepreneur. The tragic myth ends with Cain killing his brother Abel.

If I may fast forward for a paragraph, the more benign Christian comparison-contrast of Mary and Martha highlights the contemplative Mary and the activist Martha. Jesus makes it clear who has chosen the better part.

The Western Tradition has perennially parsed the vita contemplativa / vita activa tension, the West since the Reformation giving, increasingly so, the nod to the vita

activa. Our late modern Western ethos is merely the secularized version of the protestant vita activa. Most think they are truly free but, in fact, they are victims of their often unanalyzed drivenness, completely

addicted to doing, doing, doing, incapable of deeper dives into the waiting silence of their being.

The Medieval Victorines (Hugh and Ricard), drawing typologically from the Jewish Tradition, legitimately so, suggested that Leah and Rachel represent the active and contemplative way. Jacob thought by serving Laban for seven years, Rachel would be his wife, but Laban made it clear that it was not right for the younger sister to be wed before the older sister. The seven years embody the active life that culminates in the contemplative life, Jacob working for Rachel but needing to receive Leah as part of the journey.

It is significant in Dante’s Purgatorio (XXVII) that all who will continue their ascent up Mount Purgatory must pass through the wall of fire, the fire that purges the dross from the gold of the self, the fire that burns away an unhealthy active life (Leah) from the fuller and more meaningful contemplative life (Rachel). Dante is making it abundantly clear in Canto XXVII that the earthly paradise can only be reached by the driven active life being purged so the contemplative life can be internalized—such is Dante’s 3rd dream in Canto XXVII.

Leah gave birth to 10 sons for Jacob, but it was Rachel who gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin (more beloved). It is not, of course, a case in which the vita activa is condemned and the vita contemplative idealized---it’s more a matter of how these two ways of being are to be ordered and prioritized on the journey.  What, in short, must pass through the fire so the gold will be revealed?

The contemplative vision of Richard of St. Victor is elevated and placed in the Paradisio in the heaven of the sun (Canto X).

Let me now return to Cain and Abel. Evelyn Underhill has rightly suggested that the West unduly and immaturely so diverts and wastes too much energy conjugating three verbs: to want, to have, and to do. The more substantive verb is “to be”—such is the contemplative way. Such is the way of Abel and such a way, in the West, dominated by aggressive Cains, again and again, kills the Abel within.  It is, though, Abel who is the shepherd and guardian of being, the shepherd who protects the depths from the wolves that would devour being.  Cain did not only kill Abel in the past—he does so relentlessly in the present and has been doing so for centuries.

If sin, at the deepest level, means missing the mark of being (“to be or not to be that is the question”, the tragedy of Hamlet and those immersed in the tragedy not knowing how to live from their deeper being), then to turn, to repent, is to turn from shallow notions of the self and identity to greater and often unmined depths. It is, in short, to heed the call of Abel, Rachel, and Mary. 

How is the inner Abel to oppose the aggressive and drivenness of the culture of Cain and the Cain within?

Such is the challenge of the Cain-Abel myth, the Leah-Rachel myth, and the Martha-Mary myth in their varied and various readings and interpretations. Of course, myth is a perennial truth we ignore to our peril wrapped in the garments of a story.

It is significantly counter-cultural in an ethos dominated by Cain (at crude and subtle levels) to heed and hear the still small voice of Abel—It takes much-disciplined courage and attentiveness to speak the life and light-giving word, ABEL COME FORTH—Cain, like Gollum, must be opposed—much hinges on this being done and done wisely and well. 

Amor Vincit Omnia


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