Years ago, I was struggling in my faith, longing for the experience of God that others seemed to have but that was lacking in my life despite years of Catholic practice. I knew by faith that God was there the way one knows that the sun is there, even on a cloudy day when it is completely hidden–I knew that He had to be there, but I couldn’t feel any warmth or light or personal sign of His Presence. As my desire to encounter Him grew (I did not then know that this was a good sign of His already working in my life!) I became more and more frustrated and depressed, and so sought out spiritual direction.
“You need to talk with God about why you are angry with him.”
“What!?!” I spluttered indignantly. “I am not angry with God! What are you talking about?” I was trying hard to be a good Catholic girl. How could he accuse me of harboring anger towards God?
Only I was.
It was not a conscious anger, but rather a series of defensive walls I had built up to lock away those parts of my life that were troublesome or unholy—unhealed wounds, moral failings, pain and emptiness and frustration that I “knew” were not godly.
In practice I limited prayer to polite praise and petition, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady who was constrained to converse only about “the weather and your health.” It didn’t go well for either of us! My prayer life was so limited that it barely continued.
Later as I sat there alone, I felt my frustrations welling up within me, years of waiting and feeling abandoned came rushing out in tears.
Then I began to talk to God not as I thought I ought to, borrowing prayers above my pay grade to express pious ambitions I never actually felt, but telling Him what I really thought.
There are not adequate words to express certain things that we default to in clichés as “life-changing,” but from that moment things began to change. Later on, l learned that we must “pray as we can, not as we can’t” and that honesty with God is the first step. If we want to know that God is real, we must start by being “real” with Him.
Saint Martha, whose feast we celebrate today, is a beautiful icon of what it means to pray “for real.”
When we first meet Martha, she is “burdened by much serving” and “anxious about many things.” But rather than stewing in secret resentment, she brings her concerns to Jesus, asking directly, “Lord, do you not care…?”
The Lord, rather than being bothered by her protest, calls to her by name, twice: “Martha, Martha…!” Yet He calls her to the higher life, “One thing is required…” He does not take away her burden by demanding her sister help. Rather, He invites Martha to surrender the anxiety of her work by placing it in the context of prayer, of relationship with Him. This will include also making time to sit with Him, be with Him.
The second Gospel story involving Martha includes one of the most fascinating lines in Scripture: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more days…”
Because he loved Martha, he waited. Meanwhile, Lazarus dies. The heart of Martha, whom Jesus loves, is broken. Why does Jesus do this? Mysteriously, this is for her sake.
“Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” Martha confronts the One who loves her.
Jesus wants her to bring Him her pain, her anger, her fears. For Jesus knows, that when we bring these things into dialog with Him, when we allow Him into the dark spaces, the graves within our hearts, He will bring new life.
Martha also needs resurrection, healing.
“I have come to believe that you are the Christ.” Martha has changed since we last saw her. She has received His rebuke, His invitation to the better part, and has grown. Now as she brings her grief and anger to Jesus, He invites her to hope in His power to bring good, even in a situation that looks hopeless. “I AM the resurrection and the life.” It is not merely what He will do; it is what He is.
He doesn’t merely stand outside her grief and anger but joins her in it. Outside the tomb, Jesus weeps.
There is a tragic lie that sometimes circulates in Christian circles, that our emotions are not holy, that anger (the emotion) is not good. But we see Jesus himself becoming angry. We see him “deeply troubled.” He is not okay with death. We must not rush too quickly past our pain, as if it doesn’t matter, as if, like Lazarus, it is to be buried.
When we bring our emotions to Jesus, He will recognize them and then purify them.
Image Credit: Joseph Bergler the Younger [Public domain]