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.


All About Mary

Traditionally, the Catholic Church has called May “Mary’s month.” Many parishes have May processions and May crownings in which freshly picked flowers from spring gardens are placed at st100_0107(rev 0)atues of the Blessed Mother, and she is crowned with a wreath of flowers. Some people plant a “Mary garden” which features plants that are mentioned in the bible. The most obvious association of the month of May and Mary is, of course, the celebration of Mother’s Day. On this day as we honor all mothers, we honor also Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church.

Christ Bearers

This month, because of where we find ourselves in the 50 day celebration of the Easter season, we have one more way to celebrate the Marian character of our faith. As the church moves toward the celebration of the feast of Pentecost, our readings from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel are full of the first accounts of the Apostles telling the amazing story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The apostles are stepping up and giving shape to the small community of believers that will become the church. Here, we find Mary as well. When she could have so easily returned to Nazareth to live quietly after Jesus’ return to his Father, Mary stays with the Apostles. We see her practice a spiritual motherhood – comforting, nurturing and praying for the mission Jesus has entrusted to his followers. Just as she fulfilled the mission God entrusted to her, bearing his Son to the world, she nurtures the apostles and followers of Jesus’ mission to bear the Risen Christ to the world. The mission of the apostles becomes our mission. As Pope Francis likes to say, all the baptized are missionary disciples.

Missionary Disciples

We are most like Mary in that we, too, are called to bear Christ to the world. How? In the same way we see the Apostles doing it in this month’s Gospel readings. We have opportunities to share our love for Our Lord. If faith makes all the difference in our lives, how do we share that? Could our story be a source of good news for a friend or family member or colleague? The missionary impulse that comes alive in Jesus’ followers is one of hospitality. Like Mary, who after receiving her mission from God, went immediately to help her cousin Elizabeth, the Apostles immediately began inviting others into the life of the community, to be of service, to welcome all who were searching for an experience of God, of love and of fellowship.

Mary with ApostlesFor us followers of Jesus, in the very noisy world of the 21st century, trying to make sense of a complicated world and complicated lives, perhaps the most inviting aspect of Jesus’ life and of the practice of Mary and the apostles is that of prayer. When we read that Mary “pondered all these things in her heart”, and that Mary and the apostles gathering in the upper room to “wait” for the coming of the Spirit, they were, in reality, praying and contemplating the meaning Jesus’ life for them and their lives.


Contemplative Missionaries

Mary and the apostles knew the need for silence, for thinking deeply, for learning to trust in God’s plan. What we followers learn is that God’s plan unfolds in our lives and in the life of the church. God’s plan for our lives does not arrive in a text message or in 140 characters. Like the Mary garden, it grows, at first hidden, then fledgling, but with God’s gift of sun and rain and gardeners plants, grows deep roots and gorgeous bright flowers and fruits! Cultivating faith is like cultivating a garden. Faith needs prayer, sacraments, community, and wise teachers to grow deep roots and flower.

This month, cultivate the garden you’ve been given to plant seeds of faith and bear Christ to the world.

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.