What with so many heads ‘splodin’ in so many directions this morning—see this wise, sane, unexploded post from The Anchoress Elizabeth Scalia if you’ve somehow escaped getting brain matter on you thus far—I am in grave need of the intercession of a holy buttkicker. As the grace of the Catholic calendar would have it, today is the Feast of St Martha. Couldn’t be a better cavalry to call in.
Wait, you say, St Martha of Martha, Martha, you worry too much? St Martha who appeared to get her officious activist butt kicked by Jesus in favor of her more compliant and contemplative sister? Martha who, though she confessed belief in Jesus as the life-giving Messiah, still worried about the stench of opening her brother Lazarus’s tomb? Yup. We think of her as the friend of the Lord, the patroness of hospitality, a fussbudget who learned to chill, but to medieval Catholics she was a tamer of dragons. (In this guise, she lives on in the santeria figure of Santa Marta Dominador, St Martha the Dominator, to whom women pray for relief from abusive husbands.)
Dragons? It might help to know that this dragon part happened, according to the medieval hagiography The Golden Legend, in . . . France. Some of the most interesting stories of saints, and the ones that inspire the most fascinating religious iconography, occur when Middle Eastern folk wind up, by chance or misfortune, in France. It’s as though France were the medieval equivalent of Las Vegas, only what happened there didn’t stay there. Mary Magdalene living out her days naked in a cave, contemplating a skull and fed on the Bread of Angels by angels themselves? France. The Virgin Mary’s two half-sisters (each by an earlier marriage of St Anne, who apparently didn’t have a good baby names book), Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe (aka Mary of Cleopas), start a convent in Aix where the risen Lazarus is a bishop? Bien sûr! Mary Jacobe’s servant, Sarah the Black Egyptian, becomes the patron saint of Gypsies? Oh, of course. It was France. Joseph of Arimathea carries the Blood of Christ to the Provencal shores, either in the miraculous Grail, which later becomes an object of quest by secret societies, Cathars, Nazis, Indiana Jones, and Dan Brown, or in the pregnant Magdalene, whose seed will go on to found the Carolingian dynasty—but no, not even the France-ness justifies that last one. It’s no wonder SNL‘s Conehead family could excuse any sort of bizarre alien behavior by simply saying, “We are from France.”
Here’s Martha’s French dragon story, as told in The Golden Legend. It takes up after the Ascension, when she, her sister (whom the legend conflates with Mary of Magdala), the other two Marys, Lazarus, Sarah the Egyptian, Joseph of Arimathea, and maybe a bishop named Maximin who had baptized the little Lazarus family, were cast into the sea in a rudderless, bare-masted, oarless boat by the paynim (which in medievalspeak could mean either pagans or Muslims, though the latter seems, um, unlikely). With the help of the Holy Spirit, the ship came ashore at Marseilles, and the little party gradually made their way to Aix, where they went their separate legendary ways. Martha became an evangelist; she was “was right facound [prodigiously eloquent] of speech, and courteous and gracious to the sight of the people.” (She also “eschewed all flesh and fat meat, eggs, cheese and wine,” which makes her my heroic model in the gall bladder battle.)
There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones ne with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships. He came thither by sea from Galicia, and was engendered of Leviathan, which is a serpent of the water and is much wood, and of a beast called Bonacho, that is engendered in Galicia. And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire. To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives of the people. The dragon was called of them that dwelled in the country Tarasconus, whereof, in remembrance of him that place is called Tarasconus, which tofore was called Nerluc, and the Black Lake, because there be woods shadowous and black.
It’s hard to tell from the grammar, but it was the dragon, not Martha, who stood still as a sheep and later was slain with spears and glaives. Referred to as the tarasque, the dragon lives on in stone in the French town of Tarascon, and an annual pageant/parade dramatizes Martha’s leading the tamed beast into town by her girdle. (That’s belt or sash, for those of you who are old enough to imagine, as I did as a child, a dragon bound up in Maidenform or Playtex.)
I love this story especially today, when the blogosphere and the media and the comboxes, like the dragon of Tarascon, are casting out of their bellies acres of shit that glitters like glass and burns like fire. Martha, Martha, get here on the double with your holy water and your cross and your girdle! Bind up the beastliness of Catholics devouring one another! The woods be shadowous and black, and we need your faith, your courage, your ability to deal with stench!
There’s another great Martha story included in The Golden Legend, one that comes from Eusebius. It’s the story of Martha’s death, and how in dying she was eased into eternal hospitality with the demon-fighting powers of her sister:
Our Lord came to her a year tofore her death, and showed to her that she should depart out of this world, and all that year she was sick and laboured in the fevers, and eight days tofore her death she heard the heavenly fellowship of angels bearing her sister’s soul into heaven, and anon did do come all the convent of brethren and of sisters, and said to them: My friends and most sweet fellows, I pray you to rejoice and enjoy with me, for I see the fellowship of angels bear the soul of my sister Mary unto heaven. O most fair and sweet sister, thou livest now with thy master and my guest in the blessed seat in heaven. And then anon Martha said to them that were present, that her death was nigh, and bade to light the tapers about her, and that they should wake unto her death. And about midnight tofore the day of her death, they that should watch her were heavy of sleep and slept, and there came a great wind and extinguished and did out the lights. She then, seeing a great tourbe of wicked spirits, began to pray and said: My father Eli, my dear guest, these deceivers be gathered for to devour me, bringing written, all the evil deeds that ever I did. O blessed Eli be not withdrawn from me, but intend in to mine help; and forthwith she saw her sister coming to her, holding a brand in her hand, and lighted the tapers and lamps, and as each of them called other by their name, Christ came to them saying: Come, my well-beloved hostess, for where I am thou shalt be with me. Thou hast received me in thine harbour and I shall receive thee in mine heaven, and all them that call upon thee, I shall hear them for thy love.
Dragon buttkicking and holy hospitality—in this pardoxical combination I see the pull-no-punches candor and the merciful outreach of Pope Francis. As he leaves the trail of exploding heads to go home to the House of St Martha, let us call upon today’s saint, that for the love of her Christ will grant us that same spirit of truth and mercy. St Martha, pray for us!