St. Martha

Women of the Beatitudes: St. Martha and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

St. Martha is counted as one of the blessed, despite her fears and anxieties, and difficulties in understanding her vocation. What she and Mother Seton teach us is that only in Christ’s call for our lives do we find true joy and consolation.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”

Well, that certainly speaks to the times, doesn’t it? How many of us reading Luke 10:41 think to ourselves, “Lord, you don’t know the half of it.”

Of course, He does know, but we can be excused for the instinctive jibe, particularly at this moment, with social unrest taking both positive and negative forms and an unwieldy virus bringing fast, startling changes to how we live our day-to-day lives, and even how we worship.

Both men and women can understand Martha’s tension; we can identify with her worries about a fair distribution of the work that needs doing, about trying to get everything “just right.” We know what it’s like to feel put-upon, or taken advantage of, even by family members, even if (especially if) they are unintentionally making our own burdens heavier, simply by following their own callings. For all we may want to encourage them, we can’t help but feel left behind, and left out, our own sore feelings left unconsidered.

This is particularly true when we’re not wholly in touch with what we ourselves are being called to or have not yet made peace about answering.

Because, sometimes the thing we’re called to involves being the under-appreciated “do-er” rather than the celebrated “be-er.” When Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen “the better part, and it will not be taken from her,” it’s hard not to imagine Martha throwing up her hands and heading back to the kitchen muttering, “And what am I, chopped liver?”

Seeing to all the duties and details of an ordinary life may not be “the better part” (though a contemplative sort of life certainly has its own challenges) but still, things have to be done, every day; social expectations must be answered. And, hey, somebody has to feed all these mouths, too, right?

This is an eternal conversation between those who honor and understand contemplative religious forms and those who believe a Christian life cannot be fully lived without apostolic action.

The truth is, both sorts of religious life are fully necessary. The contemplatives give prayerful, constant support to the apostolic movement; the active religious often help others to hear the call to contemplation. It’s a fascinating sort of closed loop, and therefore a wholistic aspect of the life of faith, because — very much like Mother Seton — most of us are called to be both active and contemplative, by turn.

It is not easy being Martha, and we can be forgiven for wondering a bit at Jesus’s response to her, too. Isn’t he being a little dismissive of her? Why, we wonder, did Jesus not simply say, “Martha, sit down next to Mary, take a load off, all the rest of it can wait?”

More importantly, why did he deliberately make a distinction – implying that the women, and their callings, were not equal?

Why did he not make a point (as we would, in the 21st century) of reassuring Martha that she mattered, that her work was not only important to the gathering, but equally so to Mary’s “work” of sitting before the Lord in rapt attendance?

Pondering all of this, perhaps we can understand Jesus’ response to Martha a little differently. For all we know — Scripture does not say — the Lord did invite Martha to sit with Mary, and she, cognizant that things needed doing, refused. Perhaps she believed, resentfully — and humanly, whether true or not — that her sibling was always getting the better part, while she was left with the dregs.

Or perhaps Martha simply wanted to vent a little; maybe she had a habit of doing just that, and Jesus knew it and was gently telling her to pipe down. Certainly, when next we see her (John 11:20-23), Martha is again letting loose. Grieving her brother, she rushes to Jesus and lays the fault for Lazarus’ death at his feet: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Or perhaps Jesus was rightly annoyed with Martha, because her own role — to be the one who provided the meal — was performed not with love but out of a mere sense of duty, a fault that many of us may recognize, and with more than a little regret.

What does all of this tell us about Martha and her anxiety, her apparent need to put the world to rights or find someone to blame for all the wrongs?

It tells us that she certainly had not fully recognized and embraced her own calling, which was to be counted among the blessed as Jesus outlined them in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), but not (as we might suppose) as one of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The truth is, Martha — precisely because she seems unaware of her own calling and therefore does not wholly embrace it — cannot accurately identify what is righteous.

Ignorance of oneself – who I am, and what I’m being called to – tends to distort everything else we see. Martha knows what she feels but has little sense of how her life serves the Lord’s greater purpose. That will only become apparent to her if she actively seeks to understand by, paradoxically, standing down.

But Martha is one of the blessed who mourn — not just for Lazarus, but for the world as it is: broken, messy, constantly in need of renewal, backbreaking and spirit-sapping, a place of hurt and disappointment and woe. She is one who looks at the world and sees all the pain and disappointment, all the deferred dreams and unfulfilled potentialities, and mourns for all of that, in her own life and in the world.

And it makes her cranky; it makes her turn to Christ in doubt and fear and resentment, because she has no idea she is about to be consoled, doubts that there is ever consolation for one such as her.

We can all identify with Martha, whose brief appearances in Scripture can teach us so much. Elizabeth Ann Seton surely had her moments too, where she — busy tending to her ill husband while Catholic processions went on in the streets outside, or building a religious community and raising up schools, hospitals, orphanages, and her own children — turned to the Lord and pleaded for help.

But Mother Seton, unlike Martha, knew who she was and understood her calling, and that meant going forward in peace, feeling both justified and fully consoled.

ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.

Image: Christus im Hause der Martha, attributed to Georg Friedrich Stettner