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.



– the Revelations of Julian of Norwich

For our third installment on contemplation, having looked at Jesus as our model of contemplation and experiencing the twentieth-century gift of Thomas Merton and the necessary blending of action and contemplation, we go backward to medieval times and the mystics. Though her writing is of the fourteenthcentury, Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) resonates deeply within our aching modern world as she has much to teach us about contemplation, our relationship with the blessed Trinity, and love.

Julian is one of the four English Mystics of the Middle Ages – the others being Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Despite her popularity today, we know very little about her. We do not even know her name as she is known by the name of the church, St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England, to which her cell was attached.

Image of the original St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, Norfolk, England.

Julian was Catholic and an anchoress, a female anchorite. Choosing an extreme form of religious life, an anchoress/anchorite (from Greek, anchorein, to withdraw) left the secular world to live an interior life of prayer. Irreversibly walled up in a cell in which the last rites were administered before the door was sealed (talk about being “dead to the world!”), an anchoress/anchorite would participate in church services through one window which looked onto the church and often provide spiritual guidance through another window which would look onto the street. Many of us at times may want to withdraw from our lives or even the world, but I doubt we could handle the life of an anchoress/ anchorite for very long. Julian lived in her cell for over 20 years, contemplating the meaning of her visions. How could this fourteenth-century recluse have any possible meaning for us today?

Julian of Norwich’s mystical writings Revelations of Divine Love is found in two versions the “Short Text” written shortly after her mystical experiences and the “Long Text” which was written after a couple of decades of reflection on those experiences. She tells us her revelations occurred on 8 May 1373 (13 May as expressed in her writing which were based on the old Julian calendar) when she was 30 years old and a lay woman. Julian was born into and wrote during a time of great political and social unrest– the black plague was rampant, the Hundred Years War was in full swing, and the Church was in disarray with the Great Western Schism (Can you find any parallels to today’s world?) Julian’s mystical experiences have been described as near death experiences as she was so close to death a priest had given her the last rites. She had a vision of Jesus dying on the cross, and in that one night had sixteen visions or showings in which Christ spoke to her.

Julian understood that the way to union with God was through the suffering humanity of Christ (Lane 26). However, instead of trying to understand the mystery of suffering (which will be revealed in the next life), Julian chose to concentrate her energy on what has been revealed – choosing to concentrate on the revelation not the mystery. Christ told Julian, “I know how to make all things well, and I wish to make all things well. I shall make all things well. You will see for yourself: every kind of thing shall be well” (LT 31, Julian 74). Julian explains our faulty reasoning with understanding these words (note: I am using Mirabai Starr’s contemporary translation of Julian’s Middle English).

From our point of view, there are many actions in this world that seem to be done with evil intent, and we see that they cause great harm. It seems impossible to us that such things could ever have a good outcome. When we think about this, our hearts are filled with such sorrow and grief that we cannot rest joyfully beholding our God, which we would like to do. The problem lies with our faulty reason. We are too blind to comprehend the wondrous wisdom of God, too limited to grasp the power and goodness of the blessed Trinity. That’s why he says, “You will see for yourself: every kind of thing shall be well” … the loving goodness of our Lord God wishes for us to be aware that it will be done, yet his power and wisdom, which stem from the same love, choose to hide from us exactly what it will be and how it will be done…he wishes our souls to rest in ease and our hearts to abide in peaceful love…And so how could it be that every kind of thing shall be well? … it seems impossible! The only answer I could find in any of my showings was when our beloved said, “What is impossible for you is not impossible for me. I shall keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well” …This is the great blessing our Beloved will bestow, and by which he will keep his word and make everything well that is not well. Still, what that deed is and how he will do it remain a mystery to any mind inferior to the mind of Christ. (LT 32, Julian 77-79)

“More than anything else in her life, Julian needed the reassurance that well-being in an ultimate sense was possible, no matter how many terrible things happened in the world” (Rolf 384). Many of us need that reassurance as well. We should not be anxious about things of this world, though we need to take action when necessary. We need to trust God’s wisdom and “trust that we will know whatever we need to know in this life” (LT 1, Julian 4).

Julian also emphasized our oneness with God, our union with the Trinity (and as such, with each other), her description of “our soul dwelling in God” provides a fresh perspective and helps put the “all shall be well” in a new context:

We would be right to rejoice that God dwells within our own souls, and even more so that our souls dwell in God. Our soul was created to be God’s dwelling place, and he who is uncreated is also the place where we dwell. It is a sublime realization to see with inner eyes that God, our Creator, dwells inside us, and it is an even more exalted thing to understand inwardly that the essence of our soul, which is created, dwells in God. It is by this essence that, through God, we are what we are. I saw no difference between the divine substance and the human substance; it was all God. I was able to accept that our essence is in God, that our essence is a creation of God, and God is simply God. (LT 54, Julian 149).

How can all not be well if we dwell in God? Julian knew that only in the contemplation of God can our soul find rest, thus we must seek our soul in God. Everything is nothing without the love of God. As with St. Augustine, Julian knew the happy life cannot be obtained except in God. The fullness of joy is to contemplate God in everything – every form of creation, every form of life.

Julian reflects on the motherhood of God, in connection with her fourteenth revelation, as she pondered, “Do I know what such love is?” (Rolf 512). She equates the motherhood of God with Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, who gives birth to the entire creation (Col 1:16), who is wisdom, and who loves us and longs for us. “As truly as God is our Father, just as truly God is our Mother,” states Julian, for in the “It is I,” God means:

I am the Power and the Goodness of the Fatherhood. I am the Wisdom and the Loving-kindness of the Motherhood. I am the Light and Grace of all blessed love. I am the Threefold nature of the Divine. I am Unity. I am the supreme goodness in every kind of thing. I am the one who causes you to love. I am the one who causes you to yearn. It is I, the endless fulfillment of all desire (LT 59, Julian 163).

Julian goes on to state, “I saw that there is no greater statue in this life than that of a child, who is naturally humble and free from the encumbrances of power and intelligence, until our Divine Mother brings us up to the bliss of our Divine Father (LT 63, Julian 174-175). This is what Christ meant when he said, “All will be well. You will see for yourself: every kind of thing shall be well” (Julian 175).

Julian provides us the three medicines needed to heal every soul: contrition, compassion, true yearning for God. These gifts from God help us along our spiritual journey: “By contrition we are washed clean. By compassion we are made ready. By true longing for God we are rendered worthy” (LT 39, Julian 95). This is the true blending of contemplation and action. Our contrition and humility, our compassion towards all of creation (our love), and our longing for God (and finding God in every form of life) are all important.

Ultimately, the meaning of Julian’s revelations is love:

Throughout the time of my showings, I wished to know what our Beloved meant. More than fifteen years later, the answer came in a spiritual vision. This is what I heard. “Would you like to know our Lord’s meaning in all this? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who revealed it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why did he reveal it to you? For love. Stay with this and you will know more of the same. You will never know anything but love, without end” And so what I saw most clearly was that love is his meaning. God wants us to know that he loved us before he even made us, and this love has never diminished and never will. All his actions unfold from this love, and through this love he makes everything that happens of value to us, and in this love we find everlasting life. Our creation has a starting point, but the love in which he made us has no beginning, and this love is our true source (LT 86, Julian 224-225).

Indeed, with God’s love, all will be well.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.


Works cited/consulted:

Julian of Norwich. The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation. Translated by Mirabai Starr, Hampton Roads, 2013.

Lane, Margaret. “Julian, a Woman for Our Time.” Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation through the Centuries,” Edited by Kim Nataraja, Orbis Books, 2011, pp. 260-270.

Rolf, Veronica Mary. Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich. Orbis Books, 2013.

Thomas Merton

Still a contemplative voice in the modern world
Still a call to balance contemplation and action

In our first blog on the subject of contemplation, we began by noting 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

With Father James Martin (Jesuit author, editor-at-large American Magazine) and I dare say countless others, I can honestly say that it’s no stretch of the imagination that Thomas Merton changed my life. As a young coed I devoured his books and followed the path of authors and ideas where his books led. I determined to go to meet him in Kentucky after graduating, but just before I left I learned that he had died two years prior (He died 27 years to the day after his entrance into the monastery while on a visit to Thailand to speak at an international meeting of monks). I did go to the monastery anyway. At the time, I was actually angry with him for dying, as if he had died purposely just to frustrate me. Initially I stayed a week and while there I struck up a friendship with one of the monks who was a contemporary of Merton. That friendship was a treasure to me until Brother Cassian died some 30 years later.

Before his conversion, entrance into the Trappists’ Order and while still a young man and rising academic, he established a special relationship with the Servant of God, Dorothy Day. Day encouraged him to dare to act on the deepest urgings of the Spirit. For him, she modeled the contemplative acting in the modern world. But he felt drawn to a radical silence. Ironically, his voice would be heard around the world and, in fact, is still resounding today. That really is the whole point of my comments here today. Merton’s voice, the message of his words and life are more meaningful today than ever. The choice along our various paths to holiness is not essentially between the Active and Contemplative life, but the blending of those elements in the unique manner of our personal response to the Call to Holiness.

“If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives.
Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work
appointed for us by the will of God.”  (Thoughts in Solitude)

Merton knew the struggle of integrating his involvement in and sense of responsibility for the world with his attraction to and need for a solitary, intellectual, contemplative life. Being by nature a man of extremes, at least in his youth, he felt the pull of both and fought both internal and external forces that pulled him toward one and then the other throughout his life. Finding a balance was a theme of his life. In the early years at the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane he wrote of the battle between Brother Louis and Tom Merton; he was, fact, both of them and each represented the antagonism he experienced in his search for the balance.

“A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.”  (Thoughts in Solitude)

His conviction that solitude is a prerequisite for contemplation and that solitude then gives rise to the expression of goodness in Action was emphatically expressed in these words…

“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude
it can no longer be held together by love:
and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority.
But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due,
then society in which they live becomes putrid,
it festers with servility, resentment and hate.” (Thoughts in Solitude)

While still at the threshold of this New Year it is well to be reminded of the need for solitude and contemplation in the midst of our busy lives and a world that so needs healing. Let us renew our pursuit of holiness through the integration of Contemplation and Action.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Prayer by Thomas Merton

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

Works Cited

Freeman, Laurence. “Jesus.” Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation through the Centuries,” Edited by Kim Nataraja, Orbis Books, 2011, pp. 1-20.
Merton, Thomas. Thoughts In Solitude. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Jesus was a Contemplative

This week, we begin a four-part series on the saints and the contemplative nature of spirituality. There is no better place to start than with Jesus Christ.

Christ on the Mount of Olives, by Josef Untersberger


Jesus was a contemplative… and the best teacher of contemplation! Jesus is the expert and our very source of contemplation. Western Christianity historically identifies more with action than with contemplation, and though action is important, action cannot reach its full fruition without contemplation. Contemplative prayer involves (Freeman 20):


  • 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

Contemplation is “a path, an experience, a lifelong practice, an expansion and deepening of consciousness” (Freeman 9). Recovering the elements of contemplation is crucial to our relationship with Christ, our relationship to others, and to the recognition of the Divine Presence in all of creation. Contemplative orders recognize this reality and that contemplation is not about the solitary but community, not about a fervor to change but a capacity to coexist in search of wisdom – a solidarity with all creation. Turning to Christ as THE teacher of contemplation, we can understand the wisdom imparted for us all to discover.

As evidence of Christ’s contemplative nature, we certainly can point to the various times Jesus goes off to pray either alone or with a few of his disciples (e.g., Lk 6:12, 9:18, 22:39) teaching us that “religion without contemplation lacks an essential part of holiness” (Freeman 6). Just going through the motions of our faith – attending weekly Mass, saying set prayers, volunteering at the token event to help the poor – without a contemplative dimension gets us only so far and misses the target of taking to heart Jesus’ message of love and care for all. Jesus, though, teaches us more than, “go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Mt 6:6), as imperative as that is to our spiritual life.

As good spiritual directors know, asking the right question (without offering answers) opens an individual to fruitful contemplation and reflection. Jesus uses this ‘open question’ technique asking, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29, Mt 16:15). This question, so personal, so direct, carries us into the contemplative dimension, and like Peter we are tempted to give the set, “correct” answer missing Jesus’ point that there is no “correct” or “incorrect” answer. Contemplation helps you find your individual answer. Jesus, the ultimate paradox, helps us hold contradictions and see that the way to God’s Kingdom is through letting go of power and control, through forgiveness, through compassion, through solidarity with others in need, through childlikeness, and through wisdom. Jesus as our contemplative teacher, knows the right question to ask to lead us to the Kingdom. As Laurence Freeman states, “We have to pay attention to the quest in the questioning” (13).

Jesus also shows us, though, how to marry contemplation and action. If we turn to the story of the two sisters Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42), we find Martha and Mary symbolizing action and contemplation respectively – the two halves of our soul (Freeman 3). As Jesus visits, Martha is the one who is scurrying around (like so many of us do daily) stressed over the many tasks at hand to prepare for her guest. Mary on the other hand is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening attentively to his every word. Perhaps more shocking than Martha’s telling Jesus what to do (“Tell her then to help me.”) is Jesus’ calm reply that she is unduly stressing herself and that “Mary has chosen the better part.” (Lk 10:42). What Martha forgets (a mistake made by cultures, religions, as well as individuals) is that Mary is working as well – being still and listening. Here Jesus is teaching us the supremacy of contemplation over action, for our being comes before our doing. Contemplation helps move us beyond our egos and self-importance. Balancing our non-action and action is not easy, but our wholeness depends on it. We must have a deep sense of who we are in Christ before our actions can truly be effective. Like Jesus, the perfect example of the harmony between action and contemplation, we must withdraw at times to pray and contemplate.

Though it is difficult for us to achieve the right equilibrium, Jesus shows us how to balance action and contemplation – how to express non-violence, show compassion, and live in the divine image in which God made us. His delegalization of sin, “associating it with grace and forgiveness, not with exclusion and punishment” (Freeman 17), transforms our inner quest which in turn transforms the outward reality. In teaching us contemplation, Jesus gives us the means of seeing God in each person and throughout creation. He gives us the means to “not be afraid” despite conflict, anxiety, and obsessions. Jesus teaches us how to live in the present moment balancing contemplation and action – living the contemplative life in a hectic world.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches spirituality for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Works Cited

Freeman, Laurence. “Jesus.” Journey to the Heart: Christian Contemplation through the Centuries,” Edited by Kim Nataraja, Orbis Books, 2011, pp. 1-20.

Purgatorio, Seinfeld, Saint Francis and Freedom

The Divine Comedy is a comedy not merely because it has a happy ending (as distinguished from tragedy) but also because it celebrates the joy of life, even in the midst of its many tragedies. For Dante, one must never show disrespect for the Creator by failing to see the beauty and joy in life itself. In heaven, for example, Dante will dwell on the new religious orders called “mendicant”—they were considered the “clowns of God” because they had, through their poverty, freed themselves to enjoy the beauty and playfulness of creaturehood. Dante presents Francis as publicly marrying Lady Poverty. But this means that Francis marries nothing—he owns nothing and is married to nothing. But the divine irony is that he thereby achieves the freedom to love the entire world.

I can’t help but think of the way it contrasts with the Seinfeld show, which as you know was “about nothing,” yet that’s the goal of the show: nothing. An appropriate goal for a sitcom, of course, but while the show is not about anything, Francis’ marriage to the nothingness of Poverty is for the sake of the love of everything. But in order to love the world, Dante says, we must be liberated from the obsessions and attachments and sins that enslave us. One way of illustrating this basic theme of desire is to contrast Milton’s Satan and Dante’s. Milton’s Lucifer is full of hot anger; he furiously rages against God. For the Calvinist Milton, desire is hatred and a manifestation of sin. Dante’s Satan, on the other hand, is completely passive, cold, and indifferent. He lacks all desire, stuck in the frozen lake of Dis. Even his tears are frozen. He is a parody of Christ, his reverse. He is all about cold revenge and hatred, and he is completely unattractive. Milton’s Satan is at first somewhat attractive because of his passion—at least he cares about something!

The theological background here is the ancient notion that evil is a lack, a deprivation of the good. Just as blindness is a lack of sight, so evil is a lack of the good. Hatred is a lack of love; murder is a lack of respect for life. For Dante, to be sure, love and desire can go wrong in at least three ways: it can be defective (sloth), excessive (greed) or perverted (anger). Still, indifference or spiritual indolence hobbles the desire of the heart. As he climbs Mount Purgatory, the pilgrim and all those climbing the seven story mountain become lighter and movement becomes easier. The desire for God is liberated through humility and gradually the divine image in humanity restored, and more. Saint Francis’ poverty is fullness; Seinfeld’s “nothing” is…? Well, at least we should never underestimate our need to laugh at our foolish egos.

David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.