Mary of Nazareth
Mary: Fragments of a Life: Part Nine
Reflecting on Mary’s life, we have come to know a woman who opens herself to be the mother of the chosen one, knowing nothing of the ecstasy, the agony, that call will hold for her. We see a woman who treasures in her heart, who ponders the mysteries that unfold at her son’s birth, and in the years that follow. We stand with her, wondering, as ancient Simeon, holding her son, speaks to her of the sword that will pierce her soul. We know the story of the wrenching fear, the relentless searching when the twelve- year-old Jesus becomes lost during the feast of Passover in Jerusalem, only to be found sitting cool and serene among the doctors in the temple, asking, “Why did you look for me? Didn’t you know?”
Luke’s Gospel adds: But they did not understand what he meant….His mother stored up all these things in her heart.(Luke 2: 46-51 JB)
We see Jesus work the first miracle of his public life at the wedding of Cana in response to his mother’s hint: “They have no wine.”
We search in vain for more words from Mary as the Gospels unfold the story of her son’s public ministry of teaching and healing. Once, Mary comes looking for him, but he is busy teaching and does not go to her.
Only the fourth Gospel mentions her presence as her son is dying:
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, this is your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home. (John 19: 25-27 JB)
And finally, the Acts of the Apostles mentions Mary among the disciples who return to Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus:
All these joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus… (Acts 1: 12-14 JB)
And that is it! No great wonder that in the 16th Century Reformation, when the Protestant choice was for “Sola Scriptura”, Mary almost disappears from that stream of Christianity.
But for the Catholic Tradition, Mary’s story is just beginning in that scene from Acts in an upper room in Jerusalem. For nearly two thousand years, Church councils, theologians, popes and bishops will struggle manfully to describe/ define/ promulgate/dogmatize her role in the Christian story.
In the fifth century, the Church Council of Ephesus will proclaim Mary to be Mother of Jesus, both in his humanity and divinity, giving her the title: Mary, Mother of God.
Saints and mystics will speak of Mary from their deep intuitive knowing. Hildegard, writing in the 12th century, sees Mary in her Cosmic Presence, calling her “Luminous mother, holy healing art” who has “indeed conquered death”. For Hildegard, Mary is “Mother of all Joy, ground of all being, a glowing most green verdant sprout”. Reflecting on these words, Matthew Fox exclaims, “This is goddess language”. (in Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for our Times Namaste Publishing, Vancouver, Canada 2012, p.120)
Of all the titles, all the dogmas, proclaimed over the millennia, most stunning, and perhaps for us in this 21st century most significant, is the declaration of Pope Pius XII in 1950, that Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven after her death. This was not a new idea, but rather an affirmation of a belief that can be traced back through the centuries to the earliest Christian teachers and writers. It rests on the knowing that Mary, as Christ-bearer, is herself a sacred being, one whose body should not be subjected to the decay of death. (For a well-researched, brilliant essay on this, available on Google, read “The Assumption” by Denis Vincent Wiseman, OP, July 19, 2002)
Carl Jung called this pronouncement of Pope Pius XII “the most important religious event since the Reformation”.
(A)nyone who has followed with attention the visions of Mary which have been increasing in number over the last few decades, and has taken their psychological significance into account, might have known what was brewing. The fact, especially, that it was largely children who had the visions might have given pause for thought, for in such cases, the collective unconscious is always at work. One could have known for a long time that there was a deep longing in the masses for an intercessor and mediatrix who would at last take her place alongside the Holy Trinity and be received as the Queen of Heaven and Bride at the heavenly court. For more than a thousand years it has been taken for granted that the Mother of God dwelt there. (Carl G. Jung, “Answer to Job” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, trans. By R.F.C. Hull (New York, Pantheon Books, 1958 pp 464, 461-2)
Commenting on these words of Carl Jung, Eugene Kennedy writes:
Jung grasped the profound and fitting symbolism of such a declaration at mid-century. The world had already turned its attention towards the endless vistas and wonder of space and astronauts would leave boot marks on the moon’s surface a generation later. (Jung) sensed that the Assumption symbolized the mystery of human destiny and the end of the pre-Copernican era at the same time.…
The Assumption proclaimed the Mystery of the century, the return of Mother Earth to the Heavens and the end, therefore, of the split between Earth and Heaven and all the divisions, such as between flesh and spirit, that flowed from that. It heralded the unity of the universe and the unity of human personality.
(Eugene Cullen Kennedy, emeritus professor, Loyola University, Chicago, in National Catholic Reporter July 15, 2010)
For the final words on Mary, we turn to the poet who gave us a glimpse of her heart at the time of the Annunciation.
Here is John O’Donohue’s poem, “The Assumption”:
Perhaps time is the keeper of distance and loss,
Knowing that we are but able for a little at a time.
And the innocence of fragments is wise with us,
Keeps us from order that is not native to our dust.
Yet, without warning, a life can suddenly chance
On its hidden rhythm, find a flow it never knew.
Where the heart was blind, subtle worlds rise into view;
Where the mind was forced, crippled thought begins to dance.
As if this day found for her everything she lost,
Her breath infused with harvest she never expected
From the unlived lives she had only touched in dream;
Her mind rest; memory glows in a stairs of twilight.
Her hair kisses the breeze. Her eyes know it is time.
She looks as young as the evening the raven came.
(from Conamara Blues)
Mary: Fragments of a Life: Part Eight
The elderly Irish nun is passing through airport customs when, with raised eyebrows, a customs official lifts a bottle from her luggage.
“Only water,” she says, with a sweet smile.
The official opens the bottle, tips and tastes. “Wine!” he corrects.
“Glory be to God,” she exclaims, “another miracle of Cana!”
It’s one of the best known, as well as the first, miracle of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. And it is his mother Mary who initiates it. Here is how it comes about:
M to J: “They have no wine.”
J to M: “Why ask me? My time hasn’t come.”
M to servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”
This brief exchange at the Wedding at Cana, from the second Chapter of John’s Gospel, is so cryptic that Mary and Jesus might have been texting. The story goes on to tell of Jesus asking the servants to fill the stone jars with water, then to draw some out for the steward of the wedding. Upon his first taste, the steward exclaims to the bridegroom: “You’ve kept the best wine till now!”
This fragment of Mary’s life holds depths that a quick reading might miss. The woman who remained silent, treasuring in her heart the shepherds’ story of angel song announcing her son’s birth, speaks here with clarity and power. This is no passive, shy, wallflower of a woman, but one who notices an embarrassed young couple’s need and responds. She speaks to Jesus.
Mary must have known what power for good was in him when she stated the need. She must have known – who better?—that her son was not ready to reveal his power. She must have had immense trust in him, in his love for her and for the young couple, for despite his apparent refusal, she tells the servants to do as he asks…
Reflecting on this fragment of Mary’s life leads me to look at how I ask for what I need. My requests can be overlong, repetitive, using way too many words. Like the Pharisees whom Jesus accused of substituting length for sincerity in prayer, I at times go on and on about my need as though trying to persuade someone in a court of law instead of revealing my heart to a beloved friend. Doesn’t Jesus assure us that God knows what we need before we ask?
Well, yes, but…
Suddenly, words of Julian of Norwich, spoken in James Janda’s play Julian, come to me:
Some of us believe that God is almighty, and may do all;
And that God is all-wisdom and can do all….
But that God is all-love and will do all…
There we stop short.
There is where I too often stop short.
I look at this woman, Mary of Nazareth, of whom I know so very little, and I am in awe at her immense confidence, her unwavering trust in the son she loves, in the One who called her into a life of mystery, of beauty, of pain…
I remember that not long after the arrival of singing angels, and gold-bearing kings, Mary would stand in the Temple of Jerusalem allowing Simeon to take her baby into his arms. She would listen as the ancient one spoke prophetically to her:
You see this child: he is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected—and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare. (Luke 2: 34-5 JB)
We can be certain that these words, too, were inscribed in Mary’s heart. They might have led her to hide her son away, to keep him from harm, to prevent or at least delay his “time”. Instead, we see her at Cana, hastening on the work that he himself was not ready to begin. And why? Because a young bride and groom were embarrassed. Because they had a need they had not even expressed. Because the one who loves us knows our need before we ask. Because the heart that is pierced is a heart of compassion.
We are people of the story, and as the Irish feminist scholar Mary Condren says, stories are often as important as facts, for people act upon what they believe. For nearly all of Christian history, we have believed that Mary, Mother of Jesus, holds our lives, our needs, even our small moments of embarrassment in her heart, and that she, as one face of the Beloved, not only may, not only can, but will do for us what her compassionate heart draws her to do.
Knowing this, trusting this, becoming ourselves like Mary who treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart, (Luke 2: 20 JB) we may find our joy expanding. We may even discover the water of our daily lives turning into wine!
Mary: Fragments of a Life: Part Seven
Like Harry Potter, I stand with you before an ordinary brick wall in a London train station, gathering courage to push the luggage cart through and beyond to Platform 9 ¾, where the Hogwarts Train awaits us. That’s how it feels to re-enter the mystical, yet more-than-real, world of spirit, journeying into the mystery of Mary’s story, seeking there guidance for the mystery of our own stories, our own lives.
Today, the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6th, Feast of the Epiphany, I seek in vain for “Mary’s discourse with three wise persons from the East who have followed a star to her son’s birthplace…” Not one word exists from Mary about that encounter. Of the four evangelists, only Matthew even tells the story of the Epiphany.
But there is one stunningly-beautiful moment in Luke’s Gospel about other visitors that will serve as our fragment for reflection:
In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Listen. I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to (those) who enjoy (God’s) favour.”
Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke: 2: 8-19 JB)
The angel, the heavenly host, the shepherds, all have lines to say.
Mary has only her silence.
But there is in her silence a shining gift of twofold guidance for us.
What do we “treasure” from the days of this Christmas? How does the creative act of “pondering” these treasures deepen our awareness, our gratitude, our surprise and wonder? open our eyes to the gifts that are around us each day?
We might carry these questions within us as we move beyond the Christmas Season into the cold winter of ordinary time.
Here, from the poet Jan L. Richardson, is an Epiphany Reflection: “Wise Women Also Came”
Wise women also came.
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
under the light of the moon.
Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
from any king.
by their own authority,
their own desire,
their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
Wise women also came,
and they brought
water for labor’s washing,
fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.
Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her
in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings
into her ear.
Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.
Jan L. Richardson
Mary: Fragments of a Life: Part Six
It is a breach birth. The child’s life hangs on a breath. The young mother, screaming with the pain, understanding the danger, is overtaken by terror.
“No!” she shouts, “don’t let my baby die!” The young nurse, clothed in the white habit of a nun, uses all her skill to turn the baby, to draw him alive, whole, and show him to his mother.
This fragment from the new film “Philomena”, brings alive the raw pain and terror that can accompany giving birth, raising some new questions within me about Mary’s birthing of Jesus.
But this is Philomena's story. I watch the film, and wonder, was Mary standing near this achingly young woman, so terrified, so alone? Was she perhaps standing behind her, holding her, as Philomena gave birth to her son Anthony? Was Mary guiding the skilled hands of the young nun who delivered him?
If so, I believe her heart would have broken at the unfolding story as did Philomena’s. Mary would have wept tears of compassion to see Anthony taken away by his American adoptive parents from the Irish convent where he was born, where he lived for a few short years, while his mother worked off her “debts” in the Convent Laundry, permitted only one hour with her son each day.
The true story of Philomena is a wrenching tale of a fifty-year search for her son, finally ending when a journalist takes on the search with her in hopes of a good story.
Secret dealings. Cover-ups. Burned records. As the treachery of the “Sisters of Little Mercy” is revealed, what is most horrifying is the cold righteousness of an older nun who justifies it all because these young women got what they deserved for their sins, whereas she herself, true to her lifelong vow of celibacy, is ready to welcome the Lord Jesus…
In what I consider the best line of the film, the journalist tells her that when Jesus does come, “he will overturn that (^&*%ing) wheelchair and dump you on the floor.”
“Philomena” shows the power, the passion, the aching tenderness of a mother’s love for her child, love enough to fuel a lifetime’s search and longing.
Philomena’s all-consuming love for her child sheds light for me on Mary’s passionate love for her infant son. The film brings emotional intensity to an aspect of Mary’s life that can be missed when the story focuses on the struggles of Joseph to understand, on the dangerous, cold, uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem. We sigh over the no-star accommodations in the stable, the rough bedding, the hovering odours of the animal companions, but do we ever really take time to focus on the heart of the story?
What must it have been for Mary to embrace the beloved one, drawn forth from her body, to press his small mouth to her full breast?
John O’Donohue comes closest to imagining both the pain and the bliss:
No man reaches where the moon touches a woman.
Even the moon leaves her when she opens
Deeper into the ripple in her womb
That encircles dark to become flesh and bone.
Someone is coming ashore inside her.
A face deciphers itself from water
And she curves around the gathering wave,
Opening to offer the life it craves.
In a corner stall of pilgrim strangers,
She falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears.
A red wire of pain feeds through every vein
Until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn.
Outside each other now, she sees him first.
Flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.
(John O’Donohue Conamara Blues)
To carry us through these final pre-Christmas days with their so-un-Christmas capacity to draw us away from the heart of our lives, let us hold this fragment within us:
“She sees him first, flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.”
Mary: Fragments of a Life: Part Five
I write these two words, and come to the end of what I know about this time in Mary’s life, as she awaits the birth of her promised son. It is not possible for me to imagine myself into her time of waiting, nor to summon up any experience in my own life that might help me to understand what was in Mary’s heart as she waited.
Frustrated, I put on high boots and a warm jacket. I go outdoors on this snow-melting day to walk along the Nature Trail that winds between stands of evergreens to the ruined railway bridge above the Bonnechere River.
What I notice first is utter stillness. Not only the trees, their limbs, branches, twigs and needles, but even the left-over tall weeds of autumn are motionless.
Waiting, I think. They are waiting. But for what? for whom? and why?
As my boots sink deep into wet snow, creating a fresh pattern beside the marks left by animals, I continue to wonder about the trees. There is a quality of presence in these woods that speaks of quietly-held strength, invisible energy.
A memory returns from late last winter, when there was still no visible sign of spring. I was standing beside a delicate silver maple that hovers just at the river’s edge. I had placed my palm on the strong slim trunk that erupted above me into a rack of apparently dead branches. I wondered how the tree felt knowing she appeared to be so lifeless. As though she were responding to my question, I suddenly knew that the tree’s sense of herself came not from this barren outer form but from her inner life, her sap already rising, preparing for the new life of spring. She knew herself by her energy, by the movement of life within, only barely contained, ready to push beyond this apparent death out into fullness of life.
That evening, I came across a poem from Hafiz, a promise to the tree, to me:
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,
For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown in an ancient fertile plain
You hold the title to.
Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy…
A life–giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come…..
(Daniel Ladinsky trans. in The Subject Tonight Is Love)
Now, today, as I begin the walk home, the early darkness already rising around me, I feel I have begun to understand something about waiting: the trees’ waiting, Mary’s waiting and my own. Expectant waiting is an active experience. It is rich with joyous anticipation, strengthened with deep trust in the promises given, and busily engaged in the work of nurturing the “divine seed” that Hafiz speaks about.
For “Love will surely bust (us) wide open into an unfettered blooming new galaxy” bringing “a life–giving radiance”, bringing “the Friend’s gratuity”.
This time of waiting in Mary’s life invites us to wait with her,companioned by her barely-contained anticipation.
But there is more.
For, if we can begin to know that Mary has become for us in our time, when our need is so great, an expression, a manifestation, a presence of the One in whom ancient peoples lived and moved and had their being, our waiting is turned inside out! Then we glimpse that the winter trees, the snow-covered earth, the entire aching planet, and we ourselves are held within a womb, nurtured from the life, the body, of the Great Mother. And that what we are each awaiting is our own birth into the fullness of life to which we are called.
The mystic-poet Jessica Powers expresses this beautifully:
I live my Advent in the womb of Mary.
And on one night when a great star swings free
from its high mooring and walks down the sky
to be the dot above the Christus i,
I shall be born of her by blessed grace.
I wait in Mary-darkness, faith's walled place,
with hope's expectance of nativity.
I knew for long she carried me and fed me,
guarded and loved me, though I could not see.
But only now, with inward jubilee,
I come upon earth's most amazing knowledge:
someone is hidden in this dark with me.
(Jessica Powers 1948)
November 28, 2013
Mary: Fragments of a Life - Part Four
Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Gospel of Luke: 1:39-45)
This moment in Mary’s story is so familiar that we may miss its deeper meaning. As a child, I was taught that it was about Mary being so unselfish that her first act following the angel’s visit was to rush over to assist Elizabeth who was six months pregnant.
I see it differently now. Now I know that when annunciation happens, when life is upturned with an unexpected invitation to gestate, nurture, birth newness, our hearts, like Mary’s, long for the presence of someone with whom to share the joy. Each of us experiences in those moments the absolute requirement of being with someone who knows mystery in the depths of her own being, as Elizabeth does.
Would not each one of us set out at that time and (go) as quickly as (we) could to the embrace of a friend whose gaze mirrors our wonder and delight?
John O’Donohue puts words to Mary’s longing in this poem:
In the morning it takes the mind a while
To find the world again, lost after dream
Has taken the heart to the underworld
To play with the shades of lives not chosen.
She awakens a stranger to her own life,
Her breath loud in the room full of listening.
Taken without touch, her flesh feels the grief
Of belonging to what cannot be seen.
Soon she can no longer bear to be alone.
At dusk she takes the road into the hills.
An anxious moon doubles her among the stone.
A door opens, the older one’s eyes fill.
Two women locked in a story of birth.
Each mirrors the secret the other heard.
(John O’Donohue in Conamara Blues)
As we take this fragment of Mary’s story, holding it in the firelight of our communion, seeking for a likeness between her story and ours, what do we glimpse? How does her song resonate with ours? When have we known what it is to awaken as “a stranger to (our) own life”?
Is there not in each one of us the fragility of something so utterly unimagined, yet wholly real, appearing in a morning’s glimpse, disappearing in evening’s shadow…. that we require a mirroring presence to affirm its existence?
In this experience we are at the heart of our call to the Communion of Creative Fire. Each of us has been invited, and has agreed to provide, the inner space for newness to gestate in preparation for birth. Each of us knows the need to nurture this newness in times of solitude. Yet we know also the absolute requirement of being companioned by one another if our hearts are to remain open, nourished, and (as Hildegard says) juicy!
For now, we must find companionship in an imaginal way on this website. When we meet weekly in the Gathering Space of Iona’s ruined nunnery, we engage with one another in silence, in prayer, in awareness of a shared dream, a shared call, a shared desire to respond. We listen to words written for us by our companions. We add our own words when we feel moved to do so. We know ourselves as valued and loved members of this Communion of Creative Fire.
Know that in the days and weeks and months ahead, there will be other kinds of opportunities to gather. One is the Winter Solstice Gathering December 20-22, 2013 at Stella Maris, twenty minutes west of Pembroke. With the blessing of clear roads, I hope to welcome many of you there for this celebration in ritual, song, story and shared meals, as we greet the rebirth of the sun’s light. For those of you who are unable to be there in person, I will send out a ritual that you may use on your own or with a gathering of friends.
Each of us, like Mary, is walking a wholly new path, one whose gifts, ecstatic joys, shuddering griefs, are as unknown to us as Mary’s were to her. But I believe Elizabeth would bless each one of us as she did Mary:
Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.
Mary of Nazareth: Fragments of a Life: Part Three
Today, November 21st, celebrates a moment in Mary’s life known to us only through legend, her Presentation in the Temple when she was three years old. First celebrated in Jerusalem in the sixth century, the Feast of the Presentation became part of the Catholic Church Calendar in the sixteenth century.
An apocryphal second century document called the “Infancy Gospel of James” reaches back in time to tell the story of the birth and childhood of Mary. Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, childless, bereft, longing, prayed for a child, promising to dedicate the child to God. In a tender telling, we find Anna reasoning with Joachim, delaying the day when the child would be brought to the Temple:
And the child was two years old, and Joachim said: Let us take her up to the temple of the Lord, that we may pay the vow that we have vowed, lest perchance the Lord send to us and our offering be not received. And Anna said: Let us wait for the third year, in order that the child may not seek for father or mother. And Joachim said: So let us wait.
And the child was three years old….
They went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.
Every detail in this imagined story of Mary’s Presentation tells of the actions of others: her parents offer her; the priest welcomes and blesses her; the house of Israel loves her… every detail but one: and she danced with her feet!
It is only a glimpse, but what it reveals of the heart of Mary is stunning in its clarity and perception. Mary dances. It is a child’s response to a joy that fills her whole being. This is not a passive child, not a resigned child. This is someone who knows love and delight in the house of God, who expresses with her body what fills her heart.
Whoever imagined this story of her presentation grasped the essence of Mary. The woman who said yes to an invitation to become mother of the long-promised Saviour of Israel was someone who had been preparing for that destiny since early childhood. And her “yes” was not one of resigned passivity but a readiness to participate fully, to be actively engaged in the great story that was about to unfold. Her “yes” sprang from a heart alive and dancing.
Both these fragments of Mary’s life offer light to our own stories. The three-year-old girl who danced before the Lord reminds us of the necessity of preparing for astonishing invitations, of the requirement that we live ever in readiness for a newness that will be asked of us. When our “yes” is called for.
For each one of us, Mary’s Presentation resonates with our call to be actively part of a new story in the Communion of Creative Fire. Like Mary, we are called to birth newness for our time. The beautiful image from Christine Lore Weber, to be “a cup to catch the sacred rain” is like Mary’s call. We respond, as Mary did, with a commitment to be actively engaged in this “catching”. Each day we make a time, choose a space, and open ourselves to be recipients of the sacred rain. Rain which will be drawn into the earth of our being where it might bring about miracles of new growth.
Today, some nine months after we said “yes” to that invitation (did we dance on that day?), we continue to hold ourselves in readiness for the more that will be asked when the time is right.
That “more” is compellingly described in the teachings of Jean Houston:
“We are godseeds planted in a space/time vehicle….always yearning, and questing, and drawn by the lure of becoming until we reach the destiny that has been guiding us all along.”
This requires us “to present the availability of an unobstructed universe both within and without”.
And Jean promises: “When you do this, you become a beacon, an evocateur of new patterns, new relationships, new discoveries, bringing new mind and new matter to an old world and serving as a catalyst of change, a pathfinder of deeper realities.”
(Jean Houston in “The Holographic Butterfly Retreat” December 2012)
Mary and the Communion of Creative Fire
The night following the writing of last week’s Reflection on Mary, I had a dream.
I am in a High School where the teachers are a Community of Men Religious. I am walking along a corridor when I come to a steep flight of stairs. I begin to climb but the steps become narrow, steep, ladder-like, treacherous. I cannot go further but look up to the floor above. It has icons, books, statues, paintings, every item about Mary the Mother of Jesus. I understand that this is where the priests and brothers have stored everything they know about Mary. I only glimpse what is there, then turn to go back downstairs.
As I think about this dream, I decide it is a cautionary tale for me. Despite my great admiration for theologians, both women and men, I know that theology is neither my call nor my gift.
My gift is story, and my experience is that story saves us. I share a memory to illustrate the power of a good story.
I am eighteen years old, a novice, in my second year of preparation to become a Grey Sister. I walk into the huge kitchen of the Motherhouse, on my way to do some task, perhaps to get the huge metal pitchers of milk from the walk-in refrigerator to fill the smaller milk jugs on the dining tables. I see now in memory the red slate-tiled floor where I am standing, just inside the kitchen door, when suddenly everything about this life seems too difficult for me. All the idealism, all the joy, all the hope of a life lived for God…drains away from me, like spilled milk. I know I have to give up.
Suddenly a story comes to my memory, one of my Dad’s stories about his own great-grandfather. I do not know his name, only that he was a very big man physically, weighing around 350 pounds. He was a Sergeant Major in the Irish Brigade of the British Army and fought in the Peninsular Wars with Wellington, in the early 1800's. Dad used to tell the story of a battle in which many of the men, including his great-grandfather, had their horses shot from under them and had to take local ponies of under normal military weight. As they were crossing a stream the Sergeant-Major's small horse refused to carry him, to the delight of the soldiers. Said the S/M, "Well boy, if you won't carry me, I'll carry you", which he proceeded to do, thus ending the horse-laughs he was getting from his men.
There, in the Motherhouse Kitchen, the power of the story physically rose inside me. I stood tall, lifted my shoulders, and knew that if my Irish ancestor could pick up his pony and carry it over a stream, I could do this!
What we know of Mary’s life is fragmentary, and yet, as with that of my Dad’s great-grandfather, her story holds the power to illumine and grace our lives. During these months of darkness, we will draw light from the fragments.
When we first meet Mary in the Gospels, she is being offered an invitation. Here is how the Irish poet John O’Donohue imagines the scene:
Cast from afar before the stones were born
And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,
The words have waited for the hunger in her
To become the silence where they could form.
The day’s last light frames her by the window,
A young woman with distance in her gaze,
She could never imagine the surprise
That is hovering over her life now.
The sentence awakens like a raven,
Fluttering and dark, opening her heart
To nest the voice that first whispered the earth
From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.
She offers to mother the shadow’s child;
Her untouched life becoming wild inside.
Where does our story touch Mary’s? Where are the meeting points? What are the words waiting for the hunger in us “to become the silence where they could form”. This might be a question to ask in our daily contemplative time… when our hearts open, will they also become a nest for a new birthing of the Holy?
From Jean Houston, I have learned that now there is no time for us to modestly refuse any call that smacks of greatness. The urgent needs of our time require a “yes” to the conception, followed by the birthing, of newness.
Here are Jean’s words, reflecting upon the call of Mary, the call of each of us:
Just think of the promise, the potential, the divinity in you,
which you have probably disowned over and over again
because it wasn’t logical, because it didn’t jibe,
because it was terribly inconvenient (it always is),
because it didn’t fit conventional reality,
because... because… because….
What could be more embarrassing than finding yourself pregnant with the Holy Spirit?
It’s a very eccentric, inconvenient thing to have happen.
(Jean Houston in Godseed p. 38)
Eccentric. Inconvenient. Perhaps. But nonetheless it is our call. Mary’s story gives us the courage to say “yes” without knowing where that “yes” may lead. It is enough to know that certainly our own life will become, like Mary’s, “wild inside”.
Mary, Companion for a Dark Journey
Egypt. November 2008. With my co-travellers on this spiritual journey, led by Jean Houston, I am on the Island of Philae in the Nile River. As we stand crowded together in the tiny sanctuary dedicated to Isis, Jean is reading aloud from the writings of Apuleius, a second century Roman, not a Christian. In the story, a hapless magician named Lucius has cried out to Isis for help. She responds.
The way the Sacred One identifies herself to Lucius startles me:
“ I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity…. I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names…
“Behold, I am come to you in your calamity. I am come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow packing. Soon through my providence shall the sun of your salvation rise. Hearken therefore with care unto what I bid. Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”
After the reading, we are invited to call out all the names by which we have known the Sacred Feminine. I hear voice after voice calling out wonderful names. Many of these names are familiar to me, titles I’d learned as a child, and they refer to Mary. I listen: Mystical Rose. Tower of Ivory. Gate of Heaven. My own voice calls out: Star of the Sea. I hear Jean’s voice, strong, certain: Mary in all her forms.
Mary, in all her forms….
As Hildegard of Bingen was our inspiration in autumn’s gilded days of harvesting, we have now another woman whose life and legacy are in harmony with the season. For these darkest days of the year, we have Mary of Nazareth, the woman wrapped in silence, the one who waits in the shadow for the great birthing, who “ponders in her heart” the wonders that follow upon the coming of her child.
Though Hildegard left us a legacy in writing: her theology, her herbology and medicine, her music and plays, Mary has left us no written word. The little we know of her from the Gospels is sketchy at best, her appearances brief, her words cryptic. Yet her influence on Christian spirituality is staggering in its power. Who is this woman, and how has she risen from a quiet life in the outposts of the Roman Empire to become, as the Church proclaims her, “Queen of Heaven and Earth”?
If you grew up Catholic in the years before the Second Vatican Council, chances are Mary was at the very heart of your faith. You prayed the “Hail Mary” many times daily; you sang hymns to Mary as you walked in May processions carrying flowers to decorate her statue; in every trouble and doubt, in every dark moment of your own life, you turned to her as to a mother whose love for you was unconditional. You probably knew by heart the “Memorare”, a prayer to Mary that says, in part, “Remember…Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided…”
At the call of Pope John 23rd , 2600 Roman Catholic Bishops gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960’s. Believing they were restoring a balance, they invited Mary to step from her throne, and guided her gently to a place among the faithful, the followers of her son, Jesus. The “excesses” of Marian devotion were curbed… and then what happened?
Over the past fifty years we have seen a burgeoning of interest in the “Sacred Feminine”; a recovery of ancient stories of the Goddess; archaeological finds that create renewed interest in the time when the Sacred One was honoured as a woman; an explosion of writing among theologians, historians, cultural storytellers, seeking to understand the power and presence of “Mary” in the Christian story. I will cite a few here: The Virgin by Geoffrey Ashe; Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak; Untie the Strong Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Truly Our Sister by Elizabeth Johnson.
Though I am no theologian, I have a consuming interest in the many aspects of this mystery. What I glimpse is this: the human heart longs for a divine mothering presence. Ancient cultures honoured a feminine divine who over millennia was called by many names: Isis in Egypt; Inanna in Sumeria; Ishtar in Babylon; Athena, Hera and Demeter in Greece, Anu or Danu among the ancient Celts; Durga, Kali and Lakshmi in India; for the Kabbalists, Shekinah; for the gnostics, Sophia or Divine Wisdom. Christianity had no “Mother God” to put in the place of the Goddesses whose worship it was determined to eradicate. Geoffrey Ashe’s theory is that Mary’s gradual ascension in Christianity was not an initiative of Church Leadership, but rather a response to the hunger of the early Christians for a sacred feminine presence.
How it came about is less interesting to me than the reality that Mary became for us an opening to a loving feminine sacred presence. Or, put another way, a loving sacred feminine presence responded to the cries of her people when they called her “Mary”, just as that presence had responded over the millennia to other names cried out in love or sorrow or desperate need.
Over these darkening days as we descend to the longest night of the year at the Winter Solstice, Mary will be our companion. We reflect on her pregnancy, her waiting, her uncertainty, the doubts of those who love her, the trust that sustains her while she opens Deeper into the ripple in her womb That encircles dark to become flesh and bone, as John O’Donohue has written.
This is profound mystery. For Mary. For each one of us who carries the Holy within us, seeking a place of birth. We walk the dark road, with Mary, in trust.
We walk companioned by one who knows our struggles to maintain our trust in the face of inner doubts and outer calamity. We walk with one who loves us and encourages us until we are ready to welcome “the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”