Mary the Contemplative

In our final installment in this mini-series on contemplation we offer a reflection on Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Our Blessed Mother is such a prominent figure in our spirituality and faith.   She must have been a powerful presence in the course of her earthly life.  One might expect that a person like that would have been a powerful speaker and, while she may have been, her voice is curiously silent in Sacred Scripture.  Surveying the New Testament, we find her speaking only seven times, and some of those are Gospels quoting the same words.   Others are Mary quoting the Old Testament (for example the Magnificat is Hannah’s Song of Praise).    I am reminded of the old expression that “Actions speak louder than words”.  One can be heard without words.

The last time we hear her voice in Scripture is at the Wedding Feast of Cana when she turns to the wine steward and says, “Do whatever He tells you”.  She always directs us to her son.  She always tells us to follow him.  For us Catholics, it is our joy to be directed by her to Jesus…Ad Jesu per Mariam (to Jesus though Mary).

The use of models and types in contemporary Marian theology has become a standard for analysis, expression, and explanation of theological principles and spirituality.   Mary as the Model of the Church and Mary as the Model of the Perfect Disciple are prime examples.  Mary as the Model Contemplative is the image that prompts us to imitate her in our desire for a genuine encounter with God.  Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, are frequently presented as the emblematic expression of contemplation and action.  In Mary, the Mother of Jesus, we see the perfect integration.

The Scripture tells us that ”she treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:19).  Some translations say “she pondered these things”.  This treasuring, this pondering is the functioning of contemplative prayer.  Sitting with, being quiet with, being open and receptive to God are the very attributes she models for us.  Spiritual writers have suggested that this openness and receptivity are the disposition of prayer that marked her conception of Jesus.  It is said that she conceived of Him in her heart before she conceived of Him in her body.  As the Model of the Perfect Contemplative she invites us to be mothers of God.  As Meister Eckhart, the German Medieval Mystic has reminded us: “We are all meant to be Mothers of God, for isn’t God always needing to be born?”

Some are immediately intimidated by the very mention of contemplative prayer.  They think that it’s only for very advanced souls, for Religious Sisters or Nuns or Monks, and not for the ordinary person in the world.  Some of the most learned and yes, holy, people have written reams of words trying to encourage us that prayer, deep prayer, meditation and contemplation are available to everyone.  This intimate closeness with God is not a prize to be won or earned.  Rather, it is, we believe, the fondest desire of our loving God, if only we would allow that desire into our hearts and be open.  The very desire to encounter God is itself His gift first to us.  If only we would allow ourselves to be enveloped by that desire, God would do the rest.

Mary, the Theotokos, Mary, the Mother of God was also Mary of Nazareth who lived in the most humble of circumstances.  She cooked, mended, drew water and went about the everyday concerns and activities of the most common life.  She found God in and through those activities and not in spite of them.  She found no divide between prayer and activity but rather found a union in the harmony and integration of her life and prayer.  Would it not be this perfect openness to God’s Presence in all things and circumstances that prepared her to conceive of Him through the power of the Holy Spirit?  Her contemplation and union with God led her to resolute action.  We continue to look to her as our exemplar and model…Ad Jesu per Mariam.

We conclude our mini-series on Contemplation where we began.  In our first blog we noted Laurence Freeman and his reminder of the necessary elements of contemplative prayer.

*     Interiority: going into “our inner room” (Mt 6:6)

*     Silence: prayer is about brevity, simplicity, and trust

*     Calmness: freedom from anxiety and obsession with material things

*     Mindfulness: focusing on God’s Kingdom before all else

*     Presentness: living in present moment, free from fear of the future

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

 

Waiting for the Lord

As Jeff Marlett commented last week on this page, now is an opportune time for Christians to draw again to the well of Christ; who is our spiritual drink in the desert of this world. One of the beauties of the liturgical calendar, in this regard, is that its regularity and cyclical nature points us continuously back to the mysteries of the faith. Amid natural, social, and political disturbances, the calendar always reminds of the unchanging and eternal nature of God. And that this God does not forsake us to the seemingly haphazard and tumultuous events of history. Rather, He entered human history in order to sanctify it, to draw us into communion with Himself and, thereby, with each other.

Channeling the beginning of Dr. Marlett’s last post, then, I would state: “in case you missed it,” we’ve begun a new liturgical year! The first Sunday of Advent marks the start of every liturgical year and, perhaps now in a most needed way, directs us to anticipate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. By commemorating the anticipation of his arrival, we are reliving the history of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers, i.e., ancient Israel. In many and various ways, the liturgical celebrations of the Church remind us of this communion we have with ancient Israel. Just as they longed for the coming of the Messiah, so too do we anticipate his return. And not only us but, as St. Paul vividly and strikingly phrases it, “the whole of creation has been groaning with labor pains together” (Rom 8:22) in anticipation of redemption.

adventA key word which is often used in the study of liturgy is anamnesis. While this word literally means “remembering,” in a liturgical context it does not simply mean this. In Christian worship, anamnesis refers to “making the past a present and lived reality by remembering.” One way that we Catholics do this during Advent is by reciting – ideally, chanting – the “O Antiphons.”

The “O Antiphons” are those antiphons sung for the Magnificat during vespers between December 17th and 23rd. They all petition the coming of the Lord using a foreshadowed title for Christ found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though these titles appear scattered throughout the OT, they can also all be found somewhere is the book of Isaiah. For example, the “O Antiphon” for December 17th asks: “O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge” (cf. Is 11:2; 28:29; Wis 8:1; Sir 24:3). Here is the beginning of each “O Antiphon”:

December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)

December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)

December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)

December 21: O Oriens (O Dawn)

December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)

December 23: O Emmanuel (O God with Us)

Significantly, when the first letter of title is taken in reverse order it spells out E-R-O-C-R-A-S. In Latin, ero cras translates as: “I will be [there] tomorrow.” Thus, like the disciples before Pentecost (Lk 24:49), we await the fulfillment of the promise of the Lord.

By reciting the “O Antiphons” we make ancient Israel’s anticipation of the arrival of the Savior our own. With them we pray: Maranatha, “Come, Lord” (1 Cor 16:22). And like them, as today’s Gospel reading reminds us, we should be prepared for his arrival. “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.