[This was originally given to be a spoken sharing at an Advent evening prayer liturgy at St. Edward’s On Tuesday December 9. The liturgy was snowed out, so I am publishing it here. Most of the people who customarily attend this liturgy know me quite well and make allowances when I tend to ramble and run on. So I thought that I would “tighten it up” before I published it, but, on second thought, I decided to leave it alone. Here it is “warts and all.”]
When I agreed to give this little talk tonight, I noticed that today is the feast day of St. Juan Diego, the person who saw the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Also, Friday [Dec. 12] is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and, of course, yesterday [Dec. 8] was the Immaculate Conception. It seemed clear to me that this week was Mary’s week, and that I should talk about Mary. Later, while I was sorting books donated to the parish library, I came across this one, “Mary Today,” by Basil Pennington. You probably know Father Pennington as the Trappist monk and priest who was the author of several books, most particularly the popular book on Centering Prayer. What especially caught my eye with this books, was the subtitle, “Model for Maturing Christians.” Anybody here consider yourself Maturing Christians? So here was a slant on Mary that I could write on.
In his book, Fr. Pennington asks, “Who is Mary? And who is she in my life? Who ought she to be in my life as a disciple, follower, friend, and lover of Jesus Christ?” Neither Fr. Pennington nor I have any answers to these questions, rather we both set out to raise some thoughts for you to ponder.
As I began to work on this talk, I was drawn to Pennington as a person primarily because of some interesting parallels in our lives.
Pennington entered the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, in 1951 at the age of 20. I entered the Paulist Fathers minor seminary in Baltimore, Maryland, in the following year at the age of 13. He made his vows on September 8, 1956. I made my first temporary promises on the same date, three years later. It was customary in many religious orders to make vows on September 8 because it is the birthday of Mary. [In case you haven’t noticed this is exactly 9 months after the Immaculate Conception.] Here is where our paths diverge. He said that since he was a celibate, Mary became the most important woman in his life. By April of 1960, I had left the Paulists, and after a year or so Marilyn [my wife of 48+ years] became the most important woman in my life. But that’s another story.
By the time that Basil Pennington and I entered religious life, devotion to Mary was already declining. A short time later, Vatican II was convened, and, while the Council Fathers reaffirmed the place of Mary within Catholic teaching, they did nothing to revive devotion to her as it existed when I was a child. I used to hear people say that they or someone they knew “had a great devotion to Mary.” I never quite understood what that meant (still don’t), but it sounded like a good thing and I wished that I had one.
The Trappists that Pennington joined have fostered a devotion to Mary among their monks literally for centuries. I spent several weekends on retreat at the monastery in Spencer over several years some time ago. Eight to 10 men mostly from St. Edward’s and more or less connected to Hosanna prayer group would go there every 18 months or so. The group included people many of you know, Gerry Grigaitis, Don Nolan, John Koubek, and Ken Speanberg. Also, Don LaDue and Kevin Power, now deceased. It is a wonderful place to visit. When we drove up the long winding driveway to St. Joseph’s Abbey, we could begin to feel the presence of the Lord, but also it became clear very early who the Lady of the House was. On the one hand there were statues, icons and other pictures; and on the other there were instances of inclusion of the Blessed Mother in the daily liturgy.
The Paulists that I joined were not quite so intent Marian devotion. Of course, there were differences. Our Seminary was not a cloister dedicated to the spiritual lives of monks of all ages. It was really a place where teen-aged boys went to learn Latin, Greek and other subjects. There were daily rosaries and many celebrations of Marian feasts, including October as the month of the rosary, and, of course, May. In the month of May, the upper classmen of the minor seminary (essentially college sophomores) were required to give one “May conference,” maybe a 15 minute talk on Mary. This would be given in the chapel, with the whole student body before dinner on a school day.
One day in May of 1958, it was my turn, I was 19. I had to write the talk in advance and submit it to Fr. Gleason, the rector. I recall that I had decided to talk about the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple. I am pretty sure that my lesson was that we should never give up looking for Jesus. But in the talk, I had pictured Mary as being upset at learning that Jesus was missing. Fr. Gleason thought I had gone too far and wanted me to tone that down, essentially backing away from Mary’s humanness as a young Jewish mother. Those of you who know me, know how well I take criticism, but Fr. Gleason was in the end the Rector. I still don’t think that I had gone too far. That May conference was probably the first and last talk I ever gave about Mary until now.
During that period of my life, my devotion to Mary was pretty basic, besides the rosary and an occasional prayer for strength to preserve purity, I had a great love for Marian icons, that I understood to show Mary holding Jesus up to me. That probably also pretty closely describes my current devotion to Mary. Which brings us back to Fr. Pennington’s first question, Who is this Mary and who should she be to me as a maturing Christian.
The Bible does not tell us much about Mary in her maturity. We know that after the Resurrection, Mary was with the Apostles in Jerusalem, probably through the time of Pentecost. And John tells us that from the date of the crucifixion, “the disciple [John himself] took her into his home.” After that, we hear nothing of Mary.
Most of what we know of Mary, before her involvement in Jesus’ public life, we learn from Luke. Neither Mark or John deal with the nativity and hidden life at all. Matthew mentions the birth, the coming of the Magi, and the flight into Egypt, but always from Joseph’s point of view. Luke tells us about the annunciation, the visitation, the birth, the shepherds, the circumcision, the presentation in the temple, and the finding of the child in the Temple. By the time Luke was getting ready to write his gospel the only living witnesses to these events was Mary, and given the level of detail that Luke writes with, it is easy to assume that Luke had some contact with Mary or at least some informational pipeline. What suggests most strongly a face to face contact between Mary and Luke are indications of Mary’s state of mind in more than one of these stories.
When Mary encountered the Angel, she “pondered” what kind of greeting she received. When the shepherds came and told her about the angels, she “treasured” these things and “pondered” them. After finding the child Jesus in the Temple, she “kept all these things in her heart.” On of the Greek words used for “ponder” is a word from which we get the word “Ball,” and literally means to roll or throw all these things together in her heart. Notice that she “treasured” these things and rolled them in her heart, not her brain. There is are two lesson here for maturing Christians. First, when you have encounters with God whether they appear to be good or bad, you should hold them as treasures. And secondly, don’t do what men do — what I do — and use your brain to try to figure God out. Rather do what is more characteristic of women, do what Mary did, keep them in your heart and roll them around. Treasure those encounters, and try to appreciate (rather than figure out) what it is that God is doing in your life. It is only then that you can make the proper response to God.
There is evidence that John moved to Ephesus, and tradition says that Mary went with him. It might have been in the church at Ephesus that Mary had taught the stories of her life, and told them either directly or indirectly to Luke. Also, it is fair to assume that, if Mary was a member of the church at Ephesus, she would have had a major influence on that church. In Revelation we read the following about that church:
“I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first.”
Would it be fair to speculate that the good qualities of the Church flourished while Mary was part of it, and that after she went to Heaven, some of the love that she brought the church fell away. Some of us maturing Christians keep on keeping on with our works, our labor and our endurance, but our attitude changes. This is why the phrase “grumpy old men” seems so natural. If we model ourselves after Mary, our works and our endurance would be accompanied by our love and compassion, as it was in the church of Ephesus while Mary was there. More like Nana than Grandad.
Another thing that struck me about Mary in her maturity [something that I could not find any scriptural basis for] is this. From the very beginning of the development of the church, the Christians celebrated the Eucharist. It follows, then, that Mary received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of her Son in the Eucharist just as we do. Consider the intimacy of that Eucharistic union – or should I say reunion. Once again, Jesus’ body was inside of her body. Where – earlier – her blood pumped life and nourishment into Him, now His blood pumped grace into her. On Christmas day, she delivered a full-bodied child into the world, now she could deliver Him again to the Christians and others that she encountered in her daily life.
If you have been paying attention, you may have picked up on a theme here. I said above that we should not reason about God like men do, but rather feel and use our intuition to appreciate God more like women do. I also said that we should integrate more love into the good deeds we do, so that we are not grumpy as I am sometimes when people want me to do things. Now I am suggesting that we become Christ-bearers, almost in the motherhood sense, like the Marian icons holding Jesus up to be accepted by the people we meet.
Now I do not know anything about being pregnant, or giving birth, but it does seem clear to me that if Mary is to be our model, that means that we have to take the Eucharist that we receive and turn it into a gift that we pass along. Imagine what preparation Mary would have made before receiving the body and blood of her own Son. Imagine what thanksgiving she would have made for being reunited to Him again physically. So here is my Advent message: We should imitate Mary, especially Mary as she was preparing to give birth, and here is the hard part at least for us men, especially in her feminine qualities of accepting of what the Lord has for us, and to perform the tasks that the Lord has for us with love and compassion. Have a great Advent and a blessed Christmas.