St. Martha and Tarasque
(painter unknown—circa 1895)
“Tarasque” was its name—a giant dragon that, according to legend, terrorized the region of Provence in southern France in the first century CE. The dragon was said to have six short legs, head like a lion, an enormous body covered with a tortoise-like shell, and a scaly tail with a scorpion-like sting. Tarasque was said to live in swamps and in the Rhone River and would devour alive any humans or beasts that came anywhere near, tearing them apart with massive teeth or belching fire that turned them to cinders. Many had tried to kill this beast, but all to no avail. Those who tried were never seen or heard from again.
Enter Martha of Bethany. Martha of Bethany in Provence, France? Perhaps. Legend has it that Martha and Mary and Lazarus, along with some others, had fled persecution in their homeland in a small boat that eventually landed on the southern shores of France.
Legend further claims that, in due course, Martha learned of the dreaded dragon and took it upon herself to seek it out. Taking with her only a crucifix and some holy water (the legends, of course, don’t worry about how Martha obtained these!), Martha confronted the dragon, and chanting hymns and psalms, she quietly sprinkled him with holy water and tamed this ferocious beast. She then tethered the dragon with her belt and led the now docile Tarasque into town. Overjoyed, the townspeople rushed upon Tarasque and butchered him to death, in spite of Martha’s pleas to let the tamed creature live. Later, perhaps expressing a bit of remorse for their hasty actions, the townspeople re-named their town Tarascon.
So interesting to me that Martha, the one whom Jesus gently reprimanded (“Martha, Martha!”) for her undue busy-ness at her home in Bethany, is depicted in this legend quite differently. Here she is a woman who accomplishes her task, not through frenzied action, but rather through a quiet, almost meditative stance. Martha doesn’t carry a sword. Martha doesn’t rush upon Tarasque in a burst of energy reminiscent of her time cooking for Jesus and washing up the dishes. Instead, Martha simply holds up the cross, quietly sprinkles her holy water over the dragon, and softly chants some hymns and psalms. It seems that Martha had taken Jesus’ chiding very much to heart. Seems that she had learned from Jesus the power of quiet, the power of trust, the power of strength beyond her strength.
Dragons. They still roam through our world. Not in the shape of the legendary Tarasque, to be sure, but real nonetheless. Dragons of violence and hatred. Dragons of ignorance and poverty. Dragons of unchecked power and prejudice. They lurk, as well, in the darker corners of our personal lives. Smirk through our illnesses and our worries. Breathe fire through our depressions and our fears. We want to be rid of them, and we often muster all of our resources to tackle them and destroy them before they destroy us.
Before we confront these dragons, however, perhaps we would be wise to remember what Martha learned in her encounter with Jesus. Remember increasingly to let our actions grow out of time spent in Quiet. Time spent in listening to the cadences of hymns and psalms. Time spent in meditation and prayer. Time spent in sprinkling our souls with the holy waters of trust and confidence in the One who taught in Bethany that quiet listening and quiet trust are often what is needed most. Indeed that quiet listening and quiet trust are, and always will be, more powerful than fretful, anxious activity that strikes out on its own and often ends only in wretched self-pity or defeat.
Martha, Martha. Tamer of dragons. Thank you!