Martha and the dragon

Martha Und Drache, Chruch of St. Lorenz, Nuremburg

I have, in the past, considered myself a less than adequate hostess.  For most of my life I have not had a guest room for people to sleep.  I don’t own pretty little scented soaps.  My guest towels are the ones that happen to be clean (folded only if you’re lucky).  Cooking has never been a forte.  Receiving guests for me used to be an extended period of scurrying around, shoving unsightly dust bunnies under rugs and apologizing for all that I lacked.  Appearing busy was the best I could do to make it seem like I was dedicated to being a good hostess.

When I was in seminary my college roommate came to visit with her boyfriend.  He was a poet, a beautiful man, the starving artist type.  He owned little and said relatively little for being such a master with words.  When he came to stay in our little two room seminary apartment I sank into that familiar scurrying anxiety.  He said to me at some point, “I am so glad to be here!  Angie has told me so much about you.  I can find the towels.  Sit down.  I want to know about you.”  I could feel something inside of me revolt!  Sit!  Hostesses don’t sit!  Does he see that sink full of dishes?!  But his presence was so inviting.  My guest taught me hospitality that weekend.

Hospitality is here at SCF, embodied in you.  Frank and I often marvel at the gifts that walk into our midst.  We were once talking about a new member and Frank described him as having a “guest room” in his presence.  When talking with this person you feel welcome, not hurried.

Hospitality of the heart exists here in among us, but Martha’s story also rings true.  Who among us hasn’t known the familiar rising of anxiety – a stirring in your gut or a palpitation in the heart?  Even in our works of ministry and service (sometimes especially there) we scurry around, well-meaning, looking for the clean towels that will be evidence that we’re doing something right.  Thomas Merton, 50 years ago, wrote this to folks like us:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork.  The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.  To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.[i]

This was written 50 years ago, and if anything the world has only sped up since then.  Contrary to cultivating a guest room in our presence, anxiety and busyness takes our good intentions and build walls of resistance, barricade our hearts from things we perceive to be nuisances, make enemies with the very people we seek to work with.

Today, the great enemies of any such universal hospitality are busyness, fear, and professionalism. If I don’t have time to talk to the person calling for help, hospitality is out of the question. The advent of a guest, like the unanticipated needs of fellow monks [or family member or co-worker], is a gauge of our use of time. If we have no time for the guest, our day is too full. [ii]

Jesus does not chide Martha for her intention to serve and offer hospitality, but calls her attention to the monster of anxiety that robs her of the very thing she seeks to be and give.  Suddenly, this issue of domestic dispute can be seen for the large insidious beast that it is.  Anxiety even on a small scale can disrupt our sleep, give us gas – but more than that, it alienates us from the person we seek to be, and alienates us from one another.

Is there hope for Martha and for us.  Does she face her anxiety?  Does she put her wash rag down?  Does she make up a guest room in her heart for both Jesus and Mary?  According to legend she does what we all must do… face the beast.

The Golden Legend[iii] tells about Lazarus, Mary, and Martha and their friend Maximillus 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 sweet character. Good thing Jesus clipped her over her anxiety all those years ago! 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. Sadly, ubiquitous holy cards portray a willowy white-skinned Martha and a small, lovely nonthreatening dragon curled round her feet. Neither look like they’ve conquered anything, especially a monster like anxiety. [iv]

We can deny the power of anxiety or we can “cope” in various ways to protect ourselves from fright, but it is our dreams that reveal the truth of the violence of anxiety.  Have you ever had an anxiety dream where something is chasing you?  You wake up and your heart is racing.  The monster of anxiety is real.  I learned in a dreams workshop that the monsters of our dreams need not terrorize us forever.  When we, in meditative time during waking hours or in our sleep, choose to confront the monster it has the potential to become our ally, a wisdom figure.  We can ask it… why do you chase me?  What message do you have for me?  Our own anxiety can become the guide that helps us to see where our lives are too full, the monster can help us to clear a space for a “guest room” in our hearts.  The growling in our gut, our racing heart give us signs that we need to pay attention.  The Tarasque is on the move ready to consume our life and energy unless we learn to tame it.

In a little while we will celebrate the Eucharist, remembering the night before Jesus died.  A man familiar with the stalking of beasts and demons, he faces the reality of his situation, evidenced by the hospitality of heart he shows to his friends.  We in our daily lives might see the unexpected interruption of a coworker or a common domestic dispute as small or petty, but be on guard.  You may be called on to face a monster… so have courage and take heart.  If Martha can do it, so can you!

Rev. Jessica Rowley
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 20, 2013
Focus text: Luke 10: 38-42 (Martha and Mary)


[i] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.

[ii] Hugh Feiss OSB, Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life.

[iii] The Golden Legend was a popular medieval book of hagiographies, lives of the saints.

[iv] Summary and reflection by Suzanne Guthrie from “Soulwork to Sunday: A Self-guided Retreat” edgeofenclosure.org.

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