To say that I am a "Johnny come lately" to the wisdom and traditions of Mary would be an understatement. Besides the Christmas and Crucifixion narratives of the New Testament, I didn't know much about the Blessed Virgin Mary for the first 40 years of my life - even in seminary. That she has been ignored and marginalized in my tradition is as much a tale of anti-Catholic prejudice as it is fear of the feminine face of God. I first encountered the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland in 1983 in the context of the Solidarity trade union movement. While traveling throughout Soviet Russia, I was moved in unknown ways by various icons of the Theotokos, too. The mytho-poetic wing of the men's movement introduced me to the archetype of Mary in the 90s. But it wasn't Tucson - and repeated encounters with the Virgin of Guadalupe - that I started to listen to the wisdom of Mary in my heart.
Spending time in Roman Catholic retreat houses and chapels throughout southern Arizona helped. So did periodic pilgrimages to Chimayo in northern New Mexico. Then I learned to pray, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee; blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the time of our death," and that took me deeper. Dianne created an abstract visual portrait of Guadalupe from her photographs and hung it in our dinning room. And, at about the same time, I bought a magazine containing a picture of a small, stone house outside of Ephesus, Turkey reputed to be Mary's last home. Without knowing why, her spirit was clearly speaking to my heart. In time I came to name this calling: a spirituality of tenderness. Today, she has become for me both the embodiment of spiritual tenderness and my trusted guide. Mary's presence is how I am learning to listen to her wisdom.
A few weeks ago, while re-reading Jean Vanier's introduction to his commentary on the gospel of St. John, I was awakened by these words:
The Gospel of John was written around 90-95 CE by someone who calls himself "the Beloved Disciple." Did this disciple think Jesus loved him more than he loved the others? No. Rather, this name reveals to us this disciple's deepest identity, which is also the deepest identity of each one of us. Our identity is not, as people often think, our role or what we do. Our deepest need is to be loved and our deepest identity is to be the beloved of Jesus. The author of this Gospel is most likely John, the brother of James; both were sons of Zebedee. Through Iraneaus and Clement of Alexandria in the early Church, we understand that he was the disciple who rested on the heart of Jesus, and who received Mary at the foot of the cross as his mother. In the early third century, Origen said that to understand this gospel one must first have rested on the heart of Jesus and taken Mary as one's mother. (The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship, p. ix)
That is a fascinating insight: we must rest upon the heart of Jesus and take Mary as our own mother. We must trust and treat Jesus as our beloved, and, listen and love Mary as our guide in faith. In another commentary, Vanier goes deeper, writing:
Mary, the mother of the Word-made-flesh, who was bonded in such an intimate way to the body of Jesus, formed and sanctified by his presence and love for many years, must have guided the heart of the "beloved disciple," her spiritual son, in his inner journey of union with Jesus. With the mystical realism of a woman filled with the Spirit of truth, she must have helped him to discover the deep significance of many of the words and gestures of Jesus during his life on earth, even all the details concerning time, dates and places, which then became the basis for this gospel. She must have helped him to see how the life of communion with God flows from this union with the humanity of her son. (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus, p. 14)
This suggests that those who seek to love and follow Jesus must listen to the Jewish wisdom of Mary. We must pay attention to - and honor - the unique, maternal compassion she shares with us about what it means to be faithful. For it was from Mary's embodied tenderness that Jesus gave shape and form to God's love. St. John, too found many of his words from within her testimony.
The coming of Jesus, you see, was prepared for not only by John the Baptizer, but also by his mother. To become flesh, he needed the womb of a woman, Mary, married to Joseph. The Word did not appear out of the skies as a powerful superman. The Word became flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, as a tiny human being, invisible, hardly formed, yet totally prepared for growth. He came out of the womb of this woman, Mary, and lived in a deep relationship with her. He needed her presence, her love, her warmth, the nourishment that flowed from her breasts. He became a part of the history of the human race. The Word who became flesh needed this double preparations, one very hidden, one very visible. (Vanier, ibid, p. 29)
My earliest spiritual training did not honor the early traditions of the Church. In many ways, we acted as if nothing of value happened between Pentecost and the Protestant Reformation. We threw the baby of tradition out with the water of protest. And lost both the roots of Jewish prayer and the mystical, wisdom tradition of Mary and the saints in the process. Small wonder that those seeking balance and direction from within the way of Jesus discover that it is Mary who is calling to our hearts. It is Mary, in St. John's story of Jesus, who encourages the first miracle: turning water into wine at a wedding ceremony in Cana of Galilee. This story is unique to St. John. It also involves the mother of Jesus. It suggests to us that the soul of Christ's way is a feast. "In Aramaic , the word for 'wedding feast' has the same root as the word 'drink,' (a clear) sign that this was to be a time of great revelry and rejoicing." (Vanier, ibid, p. 51) It also tells us that when the way of the feast was jeopardized - when the host of the celebration faced shame and the guests were on the brink of disappointment - "Mary intercedes (with Jesus) for the poor and the humiliated. She is with him at the beginning of his public live, just as she will be present at the end, at the cross." (p. 54)
It is also Mary who returns to us the heritage of Jewish prayer in her Magnificat that closes Christian Evening Prayer:
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm, He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
In this stage of learning about faithful living, I am learning to listen to the wisdom of Mary.
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