The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. by Evelyn Underhill, , at sacred-texts.com
The true exposition of this gospel word, “Mary hath chosen the best part.”
WHAT meaneth this; Mary hath chosen the best? Wheresoever the best is set or named, it asketh before it these two things—a good, and a better; so that it be the best, and the third in number. But which be these three good things, of the which Mary chose the best? Three lives be they not, for Holy Church maketh remembrance but of two, active life and contemplative life; the which two lives be privily understood in the story of this gospel by these two sisters Martha and Mary—by Martha active, by Mary contemplative. Without one of these two lives may no man be safe, and p. 145 where no more be but two, may no man choose the best.
But although there be but two lives, nevertheless yet in these two lives be three parts, each one better than other. The which three, each one by itself, be specially set in their places before in this writing. For as it is said before, the first part standeth in good and honest bodily works of mercy and of charity; and this is the first degree of active life, as it is said before. The second part of these two lives lieth in good ghostly meditations of a man’s own wretchedness, the Passion of Christ, and of the joys of heaven. The first part is good, and this part is the better; for this is the second degree of active life and the first of contemplative life. In this part is contemplative life and active life coupled together in ghostly kinship, and made sisters at the ensample of Martha and Mary. Thus high may an active come to contemplation; and no higher, but if it be full seldom and p. 146 by a special grace. Thus low may a contemplative come towards active life; and no lower, but if it be full seldom and in great need.
The third part of these two lives hangeth in this dark cloud of unknowing, with many a privy love pressed to God by Himself. The first part is good, the second is better, but the third is best of all. This is the “best part” of Mary. And therefore it is plainly to wit, that our Lord said not, Mary hath chosen the best life; for there be no more lives but two, and of two may no man choose the best. But of these two lives Mary hath chosen, He said, the best part; the which shall never be taken from her. The first part and the second, although they be both good and holy, yet they end with this life. For in the tother life shall be no need as now to use the works of mercy, nor to weep for our wretchedness, nor for the Passion of Christ. For then shall none be able to hunger nor thirst as now, nor p. 147 die for cold, nor be sick, nor houseless, nor in prison; nor yet need burial, for then shall none be able to die. But the third part that Mary chose, choose who by grace is called to choose: or, if I soothlier shall say, whoso is chosen thereto of God. Let him lustily incline thereto, for that shall never be taken away: for if it begin here, it shall last without end.
And therefore let the voice of our Lord cry on these actives, as if He said thus now for us unto them, as He did then for Mary to Martha, “Martha, Martha!”—“Actives, actives! make you as busy as ye can in the first part and in the second, now in the one and now in the tother: and, if you list right well and feel you disposed, in both two bodily. And meddle you not of contemplatives. Ye wot not what them aileth: let them sit in their rest and in their play, with the third and the best part of Mary.” p. 148