St. Martha and the Apostolate of Polite Society

Many years ago I recall reading a story about Red Cross volunteers in Britain during the War.  As they were being assigned tasks, the society women who had presented themselves were appalled at the roles they were being asked to take on.  Many of these well-to-women were being told to do extremely menial, often very dirty jobs, which would normally be assigned to their domestic servants or manual workers.  Folding linen or arranging flowers was one thing, but to have to get down on one’s hands and knees and scrub out toilets (and what tends to fall onto the floor surrounding toilets) was simply beyond their comprehension.

Realizing that nothing was going to be accomplished this way, a duchess who was the highest-ranking society lady among them – possibly the Duchess of Devonshire but I cannot recall for certain – volunteered to scrub out the latrines.  The ladies around her then realized that if a woman of such a high place in society would willingly humble herself in this way, then they themselves could not but swallow their pride and imitate her example.  After that, things rolled along smoothly.

I was thinking about this tale this morning in reflecting on the life of St. Martha of Bethany, whose feast day is today.  St. Martha as the reader may well know was  the sister of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus, who the Bible tells us were all friends of Jesus.  Indeed, St. John specifically tells us that Jesus “loved” these three siblings, meaning they were very close friends indeed.

Unfortunately, St. Martha is thought of in an off-hand sort of way.  We get the impression that she was a fastidious hostess, a kind of Margo Leadbetter of Scripture, because of Christ’s famous admonition to her of, “Martha, Martha…”, when she was striding about the house getting things ready, while her sister sat at the feet of Jesus.  We think about that instruction and how it applies to us at times, perhaps, but we forget that Christ’s message was first applied directly to St. Martha herself, and that she must have taken in His words and thought deeply about them.

In focusing on that particular part of what we know of St. Martha’s life, we ignore what happened later.  Keep in mind that St. Martha is recognized as a saint in Heaven.  And she did not reach that point by throwing the best dinner parties in suburban Jerusalem, but rather as a result of the fact that she rose to the occasion by humbling herself.

After the death of her brother, when Jesus returns to Bethany to pay His respects, St. Martha does several highly unusual things for someone of her (assumed) character:

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
[But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”

(St. John 11:20-28)

Note that when she learns Jesus is arriving in Bethany, St. Martha was in official mourning.  No doubt she was dressed in black, receiving visitors, and performing all the duties which the woman who is the head of a household was expected to perform upon the death of a close relative.  Keep in mind how rigid the social customs and conventions of her day were, and how far more stringent they were under these circumstances compared to today.  

Just to raise a couple of points among many which we could consider, note instead of waiting for Christ to come to her, which would have been the proper and customary thing to do, St. Martha leaves the house full of relatives and guests and comes out to meet Jesus on the road. This would no doubt have been considered extremely improper by her peers. Yet just by that one act, it shows us that St. Martha has internalized Christ’s earlier message to her about knowing when to stop worrying about conventions and social proprieties and start thinking about what people actually need, like the example of the highly proper and socially upright Miss Deborah Jenkins in “Cranford”, walking in a funeral procession alongside a devastated young woman who has just lost her only sibling, in complete rejection of the accepted standards of the time, because she was needed and regardless of her personal feelings on the matter.

And then there is the kicker.  For when Jesus declares that “I am the resurrection and the life,” a statement which is so often reflected upon by Christians in times of crisis, and which we forget was said in the context of this conversation with St. Martha, how does St. Martha respond to His question?  By committing what the chief priests, scribes, and her own neighbors would have considered an act of blasphemy: she declares that she believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and not just that, but the Son of God.

By stating what she did, in public, in front of witnesses, St. Martha could have been stoned to death on the spot.  St. Martha, society hostess, always worrying about things which two thousand years later we would expect someone like Martha Stewart to be fussing over – whether the soup is the right temperature, or if the new linen will be ready in time for her next social event, or whether this new wine is going to be too bold to go with the fish – suddenly finds herself making an extraordinary act of faith that could quite literally have gotten her killed.  She humbles herself and puts her own life at risk, so as to glorify God.

On her feast day then, let us take a step back and look at St. Martha in a bit of a wider perspective than what we often call to mind with respect to her role in salvation history.  There is nothing wrong with having high standards for behavior, speech, dress, etc., or taking care of the needs of life in such a way as to want to do them well.  Yet St. Martha learned, and clearly internalized, what Jesus taught her, which is that one must be willing to put all of that aside, and to humble oneself before God, rather than let the concerns of this world obscure the goal of the next.

And as a postscript, I like to think that St. Martha was allowed by Our Lord to see that British duchess on her hands and knees, scrubbing toilets with as much care as she would normally have put into adorning her own person or arranging flowers in a crystal vase, and that she recognized a bit of herself in it.

Fantin

“White Roses” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1875)
York Art Gallery, York, England

The Way of St. James: Suffering, Prayer, Service, and Joy

As many of my readers know, I have not been writing or on social media much over the past week or so due to a serious accident which my friend Thomas Peters, a.k.a. the American Papist, suffered last Tuesday.  I know many of you have sent prayers and encouragement for him and his family, and they are deeply grateful for your support.  You can follow his progress and learn of ways you can help, both spiritually and materially, by bookmarking and regularly visiting the Update and Information Center for the Recovery of Thomas Peters.

What many of my readers may not know is that you probably would not be reading this blog right now, following me on social media, listening to me on podcasts, or seeing me on TV/speaking publicly, if it were not for Mr. Peters’ initial encouragement and promotion of my efforts.  It was he who persuaded me to start this blog, whose 5th year anniversary is coming very soon.  And on that point, don’t forget that you still have time to enter the blog birthday contest for a special thank-you prize for being my readers.

However if I know Mr. Peters at all, he would not only expect me to get back to doing what I do in new media, but I guarantee you that today in particular, if he could, he would be blogging about the horrific train crash that occurred last night just outside the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  What you probably will not be made aware of by most of the (alleged) mainstream media is that today is the Feast of St. James the Apostle, who is buried in the city of Santiago and is the Patron Saint of Spain.  Because his feast day is a holiday, it is reasonable to assume that a number of those killed on last night’s train were pilgrims, who were traveling to Santiago to take part in today’s annual celebrations at the magnificent Cathedral-Basilica of St. James, inside which his tomb stands.

Even when we ourselves are going through a trial, there are always others who are suffering, and who need our support.  As we were reminded this morning in the readings at mass, Christ told St. James and his brother St. John specifically, as well as the other Apostles, that their first concern must be one of service, not of preeminence:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,
and the great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.
Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

(St. Matthew 20: 25-28)

The famous Camino de Santiago or “Way of St. James”, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine at Santiago, is a long and often difficult road, and in his own life Mr. Peters is going to have to walk a path marked by similar difficulties.  It will not be easy, and he will need much support.  Yet the same is also true for all those suffering today as a result of last night’s accident in Spain, so let us continue to remember them as well.

In the end, the true Way of St. James is not a road, but rather a path marked by suffering, prayer, and service.  As we make our way along that path, we are called to fearlessly spread the Gospel through both our words and through our actions toward others.  And just as the actual Way of St. James leads to a spot known as Mount Joy, where one can see the many spires of the Cathedral for the first time after an arduous journey, so too the way trod by St. James and the Apostles is one which, if we choose to follow it, will lead us to the joy of eternal life with Christ.

Santiago

Cathedral-Basilica of St. James the Apostle
Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The Example of Martha Washington

This morning a good friend posted a quote from the first of First Ladies, Martha Washington, which I wanted to share with you, gentle reader. We perhaps don’t think of Martha much as an influential figure these days, though she was certainly well-thought of not only in her own day, but as a model both for American First Ladies and indeed for American women who came after her, for many years. Of course, now that even the Daughters of the American Revolution are facing internal controversy over whether they should mention Jesus or not, it is not surprising that we find Martha is not as highly esteemed as she once was, and this is indeed a great shame.

Martha spent most of her life living in the countryside among the Virginia gentry, but she was a woman who rose to the occasion whenever the moment commanded it.  She was both emotionally and physically there, at some of this country’s darkest moments, during the War of Independence.  Yet whatever difficulty beset her, she continued to trust in Divine Providence that God would provide what was needed, and that it was her task to simply pick up and carry on.  In writing to her good friend, the writer and Revolutionary propagandist (and mother of five) Mercy Otis Warren, Martha observed:

I am still determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may be. For I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not upon our circumstances.

Perhaps because she comes off as somewhat grandmotherly, seemingly less dynamic than Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison, Martha Washington does not attract the attention she once did. In an age when women who embrace traditional roles are openly mocked in certain quarters, Martha may seem too much a relic of the past, when women tended the home fires. And as it happens, one of the reasons we know less about her is because after her husband’s death, she burned as many of their letters to each other as she could lay her hands on, as they had agreed. When you consider how long they were married – 40 years – and how often he was away from home, you can imagine the voluminous correspondence that has been lost, which would have given us an even greater insight into her character.

Yet as is so often the case, actions speak louder than words.  For Martha was there at Valley Forge during the famous winter encampment, just when all seemed lost – something which might surprise those who simply think of her as this tiny, country lady who happened to be George Washington’s wife, and who assume (wrongly) that she did little but live in his shadow. She tried to rally and encourage the officers and men, and those of their wives who came to join them, through prayer, song, putting on plays and organizing dinners, visiting the sick, and trying to help the men find relief and the strength to go on despite severe poverty, cold, and deprivation. It is said that at one point she herself ran out of pins, and rather than complain or ask to send for them to Philadelphia, she began to use thorns from brambles around the camp to hold together her clothing.

Whatever contemporary society may tell you about the role of women, remember this great lady, who clearly had the courage to come through unbelievably difficult circumstances to help bring about the birth of this nation. She was a wife, mother, patriot and Christian who was too concerned with doing her duty by God and her neighbor to stay focused on negatives. And for that reason she is an inspiration for all of us, regardless of our sex.

VF

Detail of “Washington at Valley Forge” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1854)
Private Collection