What I’m Learning Wednesday: Praying, & Feasting

July 29 is the feast day of Sts. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.

FYI: Baptists don’t generally celebrate saints’ feast days. In the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran traditions it’s a more common practice, I think. Earlier this year I joined Martha’s House–an online ecumenical “Benedict-ish” community, made up of all of the above, plus this Baptist. We follow the Rule of St. Benedict and the model of St. Martha. I soon learned that the birthday of our community falls on the feast day of our patron. And that’s today.

Coincidentally (or not, you know, Spirit||coincidence), yesterday I came across an online class about the tradition of Anglican prayer beads. In the free class I watched from ChurchNext, the teacher shared her own experience (and experiments) of praying with the beads, especially the way the tactile nature of the beads helped her to settle down and come into silence.

Lately I’ve been realizing the need to practice silence—not just in my environment, but (mostly!) in my head. So this seemed like a perfect…

…Feast Day project!

The last thing I need right now is another project. But as I considered how to observe St. Martha’s feast day—and my own need to renew my commitment to prayer and to participation in the community—this seemed like a small but powerful way to honor the day, and give myself a prayer aid that I hope will help me in the days ahead.

BUT I didn’t want to go shopping! So I started scrounging the house for possible supplies. First I pulled together a Canterbury cross (purchased in a pottery shop near Canterbury Cathedral 20 years ago this year—this WEEK, in fact), an antique key (one of St. Martha’s symbols), and a pendant stamped with the words “at home.” Martha’s practice of hospitality was both her gift and her challenge in the scriptures, and she is the patron saint of homemakers.

Sadly the 20-year old leather cord from Canterbury didn’t survive the assembly process, so I still had to go shop for cording. Sigh.

I then found a multistrand beaded necklace that I recently talked myself out of donating to Goodwill. I cut the cords and ended up with a slew of beads to choose from.

Assembly.

I sorted the beads into like types. In some cases there weren’t enough of one style of bead—the Anglican rosary uses sets of 7 of each of the individual prayer beads—so I put like sizes together, knowing I could mix and match if they were similar enough.

The Anglican rosary begins with a cross pendant (or other relevant symbol) and an “invitatory” bead to invite the pray-er and the Spirit to come together. These are followed by 32 prayer beads in a circle: four larger “cruciform” marker beads segmenting four sets of seven smaller “weeks” beads.

I had more than enough beads, so I decided to make two complete strands: one with chunkier beads to suit my pottery cross, and one smaller strand that I can keep in my purse. For the smaller strand, I found an anchor charm (formerly an earring!) that resembles a cross. Confession: I had to assemble the beads twice, because I didn’t check the instructions and I left off the “invitatory” bead. Check your notes, people!

Pro tip: Use an orthodontic flosser-helper-thingie to thread the beads! I thread them on a simple hemp cord. You could use elastic cord for a stretchable/wearable bracelet. You could also add knots between some of the beads to add space and make the rosary longer.

Praying with beads, and with St. Martha.

I own a couple of Catholic rosaries, and books like Praying by Hand (M. Basil Pennington) and The Practice of Prayer (Margaret Guenther) have helped me understand the tradition of praying the rosary. But this adapted Anglican rosary speaks to me, not only as a Protestant believer, but as a person who loves symbols in general.

I learned that the four cruciform beads are symbolic not only of the shape of the cross, but of the seasons of the year and the solstices. Not only that; they’re also representative of the points of the compass. (You might guess that’s my favorite interpretation!)

It seemed appropriate to spend time on St. Martha’s feast day making something by hand, and to do it with the intention of learning to balance the Mary-ness that I do need (after all, it’s her day too!). Benedictine monastics seek a life of “ora et labora”—prayer and work—a perfect description of the two sisters’ story in Luke 10. Neither one outranks the other; we are called to hospitality and to discipleship, to work and to prayer. And, spoiler: both can become sources of worry and distraction if we let them!

One thing.

Personally—I believe that when Jesus reminded Martha of the “one thing,” he didn’t mean “one or the other.” I think he meant that she—and we—need to do the one needed thing in any given moment. It may be the work of our hands and minds, or it may be the devotion of listening and learning. But the only way we can know what that “one thing” is right now, right where we are, is by paying attention. Being focused, not worried, and present, not distracted.

I’m convinced Martha learned this lesson, because this worried, distracted woman was the same one who went out single-minded to meet Jesus on his way to Lazarus’s funeral. It was she who uttered the powerful confession:

Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.

John 11:27

I’m feeling joyful to have spent St. Martha’s feast day making and meditating with her story. I’m grateful to be part of a community that honors both her work and her prayer. And I’m hopeful that in this year ahead, I’ll learn to work and pray as she did—with conviction, so that I too can confess faith in the One who is still coming into this world… and be ready to welcome him home.


Last year I wrote and preached a sermon on the Mary & Martha story in Luke 10. My favorite discovery? That the sisters’ story is bookended between the Good Samaritan and the Lord’s Prayer… the perfect setting for the balance of “ora et labora”!

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