If you wear the lauded Iron Ring of the engineer on your little finger, you have St. Martha to thank… or rather St. Martha via the poet Rudyard Kipling. In 1922, a group of senior engineers decided to develop an initiation ceremony for new engineers to promote a sense of the importance and responsibility of their professional calling. Kipling was asked to write the ceremony and he accepted the commission. His creation, The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, which includes the imparting of the Iron Ring isused to this day. Why Kipling? He had written a poem celebrating the work of engineers. And how, you may wonder, is this connected to the saint we commemorate on July 29? In his poem, “The Sons of Martha,” Kipling compares engineers to St. Martha. (Back in the 20s there were no “daughters” of Martha.)
In his poem, Kipling reflects on Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Marv. In the well-known story, Mary sits at the feet of Christ, while Martha prepares and serves the food. When she complains, Jesus tells her not to be so troubled and worried, that her sister had chosen the better part.
As the eldest child in the family of girls (and self-appointed task-master), I always felt a little slighted on Martha’s behalf when I read this story. The world would fall apart if we all sat and talked to the Lord all day. Someone has to do the work! Kipling revealed similar feelings when he wrote:
The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.
Kipling then proceeds to recount the many ways in which engineers do the hard and even dangerous work of levelling mountains and raising valleys so that the “Sons of Mary” may rest completely unaware of all the hard work that has made their comfortable life possible. In defense of Martha and behind-the-scenes labourer everywhere, he declares their workplaces to be altars of worship.
Who are the children of Martha? Engineers, yes, but also all those who engage in what Kipling calls “simple service simply given” for the greater good. The children of Martha are those who work tirelessly, often unacknowledged, so that others may enjoy their “better part.”
The children of Martha are:
- caretakers and window washers and cleaning staff and garbage collectors, who clean and sanitize and tidy so that others can live in comfort and health.
- migrant workers who toil in the hot sun, often in poor working conditions so that others can have fresh vegetables for our meals.
- essential service workers in today’s pandemic world, sacrificing their own health so that the basic needs of others are met.
- construction workers, builders, city planners, and engineers of all kinds who prevent all manner of tragedies so that roads, houses, bridges are as safe as possible.
- support staff in so many fields – education, health care, church ministry, government – who do so much of the important work but who are often unacknowledged when the lauds and honours are delivered.
Most of us have moments of being children of Martha and moments of being children of Mary. We both serve the Lord and rest in the presence of God’s goodness. On this memorial of St. Martha, however, we might think of ourselves as the children of Mary and take the time to acknowledge the children of Martha who provide for us in our rest. Perhaps we could send a note or make a call to express our gratitude and, of course, we can offer a prayer of thanksgiving for their service.
–Christine Way Skinner is a lay minister and an author. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theology degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Christine loves trying to find inclusive, compelling and creative ways to pass on the church’s 2000 year old traditions. She also loves art, playing music, reading, gardening and playing board games with her children. Christine’s numerous publications can be found and purchased here.
The author would like to thank her engineer friend, Samantha De Souza, who informed her of this tradition in engineering. Rudyard’s Kipling’s poem “The Sons of Martha” can be found here.