Do unto me according to your word. Lk.1:38
Mary: Contemplation and Preaching of the Word
29 June 2013
In the scriptures where we trace the history of our salvation story it is the evangelists Luke and John who introduces us to Mary and who reveal her significance in the mystery of the Holy Spirit, the life of Jesus and God’s revelation. In Luke 1:26-38 we read and hear that stupendous and mind- boggling story leading to the Incarnation:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you”. She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean but the angel said to her, “Mary, do not be afraid; You have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end”. Mary said to the angel, “But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?” “The Holy Spirit will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the handmaid of the Lord”, said Mary “let what you have said be done to me”. And the angel left her.
Let us pause for a moment and ask ourselves: what is my picture or experience of Mary? Who is Mary for me? By what name do I call her? What is my favourite title for her? Does she feature at all for me? Do I turn to her at given times?
In all ancient civilizations and tribal origins the peoples had founding myths which hold truths and values for their journey in life, even though they may be couched in spectacular imagery and language. In Luke’s story some may read it at a literal level or find it mythic. As Christians we are invited to read it with eyes of faith, to delve below the surface and see what it reveals about God, the workings of God and what it is to be human, as Meister Eckhart says: “human with the seeds of the divine within us”. He writes:
“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
In Luke’s account we have a young woman engaged to be married and no doubt excited about the wedding and her future with Joseph, the carpenter. And then as often happens in life something unexpected happens. Our plans are upended, our way of thinking is challenged, even shattered and we like Mary are disturbed. “She was deeply disturbed by these words.” This is not the image of a doe-like creature as often depicted by cheap art but here is a young Jewish woman, no doubt schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition, and she finds herself disturbed and questioning. What steadies her? It is a message, a confirmation of – “be not afraid” – that phrase and exhortation used by Jesus so many times in the New Testament. Jesus said it so often especially after the Resurrection as if he wanted it to be his last message to his hearers and to us. “Fear not”, “Be not afraid”. Is it not fear and its many expressions that cripple us in life and often hold us back from living to the full?
When Mary hears these words “be not afraid” she is attuned to the word of God, to the reality of God in her life. She moves to a different place, to one of trust, a place where she is open, ready to receive and so she receives the Holy Spirit and is enabled to utter her fiat – “be it done according to your word”. From then on her life is changed radically. She is set on a course that changed history. She is the vessel that brings about the Incarnation, the mother of the Son of God – the Mother of God. A friend of mine, an older woman used to say – imagine being the mother of God, sure you couldn’t be called or be anything better! Many mothers can identify easily with Mary as mother. She was a role model for them as they struggled with worries, sorrows, pain, joys and the rearing of children. In identifying with Mary they were led to faith. And I think we all can identify with Mary on her journey and our journey through life.
Here also Mary reveals herself as the contemplative “par excellence”. She is the one who is attentive to the stirrings or invitation of the Spirit. She is receptive to the Word of God, not passive, but receptive and so she responds to what she receives – the invitation to be the Mother of God, the invitation to be creative, to bring forth, to empower life.
That invitation is extended to all of us – the invitation to be contemplatives – to be attentive to the word of God, to be attentive to God’s plan in our lives and to share that experience with others. We are called to find God in pain, joy, doubt, despair, hope and love. It calls for silence and receptivity so that we may by God’s grace receive a word, an insight, a direction and from that humble, empty place we may be filled with a life-giving word and then make it manifest in our way of being and in our preaching as someone wrote: “If you would give a sermon, be a sermon”. I think it is true to say that since the age of Enlightenment our energy and stance in life is that of achievement and achieving, but the contemplative life calls for a receptive energy rather than that of achieving energy or the energy of ambition.
Our charism of “contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere” echoes this stance of receptive energy as does the call from the Order in preparation for the 800th Anniversary – Contemplation and Preaching of the Word. We are all called to be contemplatives – from our baptism as Christians we are beckoned on a path of being attentive to God in our life; to a journey of self-discovery and God discovery. Likewise by our profession in the Dominican Order as laity, sisters, nuns or friars we are called to share that journey with others as we are not here for ourselves but all are called like Mary to be generative, to be people who bring forth life. We are all called to be generative, men and women, to bring forth life in others whether by a simple word or gesture, by encouragement, praise or affirmation. We all have opportunities in our vocation in life, be it single, married; religious or cleric.
Mary also upholds the feminine in life and fills that lacuna in a male dominated Church. I think it would be an interesting piece of study to reflect on the role and influence of Mary for male religious and clergy and how they see it from a psychological and spiritual aspect.
I find the medieval mystic Johann Tauler’s sermon on the Nativity wonderfully expressive and inspiring on this subject of birth and being generative.
“when shall we find and know this birth of God within us?
only when we concentrate all our faculties within us and direct them all towards God.
Then he will be born in us and make himself our very own.
He will give himself to us as our own, more completely ours
than anything we have ever called our own.
“A child is born to us and a son is given to us”,
He is ours.
He is all our own,
more truly ours than anything else we own,
and constantly, ceaselessly, he is born in us.
There are many schools of meditation and motivation for meditation be it spiritual, psychological or self-centred but the call to contemplation, like that of Mary is a way of being, it cannot be achieved but is dependent on the gift of God, on the grace of God which is gift. All we can do is to be attentive, to predispose ourselves to be open to the presence of God, the presence of the Spirit in our lives, in events, situations and in the wonders of all that God created. From this will flow the energy to be apostles – bearers of good news. In the letter to the Hebrews 3:1 Jesus is referred to as “the one who is sent” – the “apostolos”. Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop in an interesting article on Mission states:
“That the word mission is not found written in the New Testament but there is a lot about sending and it is primarily God who does it in respect of Jesus and Jesus in respect of us”.
The sending of Jesus, into which Jesus’ followers, also apostles are now drawn, is the act of God towards the people of God, calling them to a new level of unity over and above the common keeping of the law.”
Mary as the contemplative, as the one who listens is sent to be the mother of God, she nourishes and forms God in his humanity. That is our task, like Mary, to nourish and form God in our humanity and we are sent to form and nourish humanity in others in order that we may create this ‘new level of unity’, this communion, community, church where God is found in our humanity – a place where love is found – a place and situation where the reign of God is found. It sounds like heaven! But it is meant to be heaven on earth – where God and humanity meet. How we need it today where violence is common place – in the home, institutions, the workplace, city, country and throughout the world and universe. Unfortunately, we could draw up a litany of violence opposite and contradictory to 1 Cor. Chapter 13 where we read that love is patient, love is kind…. G.K. Chesterton said “it is not Christianity that has failed but we who have failed Christianity”. We all need conversion, a turning around in order to create that communion/community, church where peace and love reigns – where all are welcome – where diversity is honoured; where both genders are respected with equality; where greed and ignorance does not ravish our earth or deprive us of reaching our potential as human beings with the seeds of the Divine. We need a place and Church where our faith is nourished in order to sustain us in the hard times and a place where we can celebrate the good times and mark the eventful occasions in life.
This year was declared a “Year of Faith” October 2012 to November 2013. The quotation chosen from Acts 14:27 states “They called the Church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith”.
Mary is often referred to in hymns and prayers as the faithful one the ‘Virgo Fidelis’. No doubt her faith was challenged many times after her initial ‘yes’. Her desire to be faithful was put to the test throughout the life of Jesus. How did she feel when she and Joseph could get no room in the inn or when they presented Jesus in the Temple? What thoughts went through her mind when Simeon told her that her son would be rejected and that a sword would pierce her soul? How would any mother or father feel when they are faced with rejection, pain and suffering for their children and for themselves? When their dreams are dashed?
Luke tells us that Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. Mary was reflective and took time and space to think about what was happening in her life. I am sure she questioned at times where God was in this and what was the plan? Her reflection led her to and helped her contemplation. It is a challenge for us today to be reflective as we are bombarded with noise, constant communication and technology – emails, mobiles, facebook. We have no place to get lost and have peace! Silence and reflection can enable and predispose us for faith. We need silence and reflection if we are to ponder like Mary on the situations, events and people in our lives. This space helps us to respond rather than react and opens us to enter the door of faith.
It was Mary’s faith that allowed her to stand at the foot of the cross. We do not read that she ran away or that she couldn’t face it. She stood. She was faithful to her son to the apparent end and afterwards.
We read “God opened the door of Faith”. We do indeed need to enter that door and keep it opened wide for others. We need to sweep the dust away and create a place where Jesus described as having many mansions – a place for everyone, rich and poor; male and female; Pharisee and tax collector. It is a call to conversion, a call to a dynamic turning around.
I like to think that the word conversation is part of the root and meaning of the word conversion. I see conversation as the action that distinguishes us from the animal world. It has such noble and wonderful possibilities. Conversation where we exchange ideas with others; relate our thoughts, ponderings and feelings with others. Conversation where reconciliation can happen. Mary ran to converse with Elizabeth, no doubt to share her news, and maybe her thoughts about the ramifications of it all but also to offer support to Elizabeth. At the wedding feast of Cana, Mary did not hesitate, when she saw the embarrassing predicament, to talk to Jesus and to the waiters.
We as Dominican Family could express our preaching as talking with each other about Faith in today’s world, sharing our questions and doubts arising from our contemplation and reflection; sharing on what nourishes our faith today. Pope Benedict’s call to open the door of faith is so very fundamental and could be seen as an urgent cry and legacy from him. No doubt he understood that without Faith there would be no church, church as communion/community. The Church of bricks and mortar is not dependent on Faith but the Christian community is based on and nourished by faith. History throughout the ages, and indeed our own Irish history has shown us that our faith can survive without many external practices, no matter how helpful they can be. If Faith is not valued and accepted as gift it is lost.
The Master General, Pere Bruno Cadoré during an address to the sisters in Rome at the Assembly of the Dominican Sisters International, when asked a question about formal preaching said that Dominicans must get out of the buildings to preach and that we must find a new language to preach in today’s world. One could say a disturbing task. Yes, so was Mary’s news disturbing.
Mary can still be a model for us today, a prototype, and an inspiration. At the Vatican Council there was a lot of discussion as to where to place Mary in the life of the Church and where to include her in the Vatican documents. They concluded by claiming her to be The Mother of the Church and included her in the document on the Church “Lumen Gentium”. Pope Francis at a meeting with apostolic sisters in Rome in May this year, encouraged those present “to be mothers to the world”. Unfortunately it was mistranslated in some of the papers as for example – the Pope says “religious women are not to be spinsters”. Pope Francis coming from Argentina has great devotion to Mary, as Madre, as Mother of life, Mother of the Church and would see her as a great role model. She is, I think the first Apostle, the one sent by God to be the mother of God, the one who reveals Jesus to us. The people in Latin America and especially where our sisters are have not got access to the sacramental church in many areas and their faith is kept alive through their devotion to Mary, as is evidenced by their many shrines, pilgrimages and devotions.
If I was Sister Wendy Beckett, the Art connoisseur, I could have depicted Mary from the numerous beautiful works of art down through the ages or if I was a musician we could have listened to many glorious and inspiring hymns but alas I am neither nor am I a theologian or scripture scholar but simply one who learnt about Mary from my mother and who was helped by that devotion at a particular time in my life and in my youth. I would like to conclude with lines from one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manly Hopkins in his poem:
The Blessed Virgin Compared ToThe Air We Breathe. I think Hopkins captures in a few words, Mary: contemplation and Peaching of the Word.
“Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.”
Sister Helen Mary Harmey, OP