Martha Tames the Beast

It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep. 

Night Prayer, (Psalm 127:3), New Zealand Prayerbook
Anxiety, like the common cold, is catching. In community one person’s anxiety infects the esprit de corps like a rampant infection. An unnamed anxiety can attach itself to a perfectly solvable problem and rise from an individual’s phantasms like yeast in the common loaves of bread in the course of a morning. 

I’ve seen anxiety diffused through humor and insight during our morning Bible studies. We ask: what word or phrase leaps to your attention? What is this text saying to you personally? What does this text call you to today? And often the brooding demon hiding in our hearts can’t bear the honesty and repeated confessions of weakness, hope, and the laughter over our character flaws. How do communities manage without such a ritual or without laughter? 

I inherited anxiety biologically. When I gratefully consume my daily dusting of medication for depression and anxiety I often think with regret that my father struggled without meds, pacing and pacing around the house in worn paths of worry over things beyond his control. I have to watch my anxiety, feeding on me and offered by me for others to feed on, my own version of the bread of anxiety. (I must say to my credit, however, that many disasters have been averted by my detailed, all-consuming hard work of worry.) 

In Sunday’s Gospel, Martha finds that anxiety sabotages her own hospitality during a visit by Jesus. 

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:40-42 

Like a ballet master, Jesus offers the correction Martha needs to put her in the right balance and direction. I’d like to think of her laughing, if not in the flush of the stressful moment, at least by the time she’d sat down to eat supper herself.  I did it again, didn’t I ? And maybe she took that rebuke and turned it into a discipline of virtue. How else do you explain the taming of the horrible Tarasque? 

Martha und Drache, Church of St. Lorenz, Nuremburg

The Golden Legend tells about Lazarus, Mary, and Martha escaping persecution in the early days of the church by sailing to Gaul. Mary preaches and eventually retires to a cave to live the ascetic life in a cave within a cliff, where angels lift her seven times a day to sing the Opus Dei in heaven. Meanwhile, a monster terrorizes the countryside. The destructive human-eating Tarasque has six bear’s legs growing out of an ox’s body, a lion’s head, a back like a turtle shell with spikes, and a tail ending with a scorpion’s stinger. Martha faces the ancient monster alone and charms it, armed only with holy water, a cross, and her own character. Good thing Jesus clipped her over her anxiety all those years ago! 

Saint Martha prayer card misses the point of the story - oops! - watch that cross, Martha!

Tamed, the she-monster comes back to civilization leashed by Martha’s girdle. But a sad ending awaits the Tarasque. The frightened people destroy Martha’s pet. Southern France immortalizes the Tarasque in fiberglass or paper mache parade floats and in village statues and church paintings. Sadly, ubiquitous holy cards portray a willowy white-skinned Martha and a small, lovely unthreatening dragon curled round her feet. Neither look like they’ve conquered anything, especially a monster like anxiety.

2 Responses to “Martha Tames the Beast”

  1. claire Says:

    Yes, anxiety is also a daily companion. Garrison Keillor had written a monologue for Mother’s Day on his mother’s worrying habits. By worrying for others she felt she protected them from catastrophes. And so do I. I will think of Martha and Tarasque when I am visited in the night by my tormentor.

    Thank you for a delightful post.

  2. Bill Murray Says:

    As as an Argentine (in more ways than one) friend of mine once said, “People worry about things that they don’t have to worry about”.

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