Mary as a Model of Contemplative Life

This Saturday is the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is an occasion for Christians to celebrate the birth of the Mother of God.  To help readers prepare for this feast day I would like to reflect on an important aspect of our blessed Mother’s life:  her contemplative vocation.

This aspect of her life can sometimes be overlooked because in its nature it is a hidden kind of life.  It is not easily recognizable, especially for those Christians who are not familiar with the contemplative life.

The contemplative life has been somewhat neglected in recent years, and vocations to monasteries and cloistered convents have decreased.  Many Christians find it difficult to appreciate the contemplative life, when it seems so much needs to be done in the new evangelization.  They don’t understand how a life spent in prayer and solitude can help in the culture wars, when the battles are fought and won on Twitter and prime time television.

Nonetheless, the contemplative life has always been an integral part of Christianity.  Christ himself told Mary, the sister of Lazarus, that she “chose the better part”.  I think it would help many modern Christians understand the role of contemplatives and their place, if we take a look at another Mary, the Mother of God, whom the angel Gabriel called “highly favoured”.

Mary must have grown up fairly ordinarily, under the guidance of her mother and father, learning how to carry out her domestic duties with attention and diligence.  She may have had some instruction in the Jewish Scriptures, but it is not likely that it would have been extensive.  What she knew about God she probably learnt mostly from the example of her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne.  How to take care of her clothes, how to cook, how to clean, how to interact with neighbours, how to pray.  All these things she would have picked up from the example of her parents and older relatives.  This first look at her life yields three important aspects of the contemplative life:  its ordinariness, its naturalness and the importance of work in any contemplative vocation.

The contemplative life is very ordinary in a sense.  It does not demand extreme penances, or extensive durations of prayer, even though it does sometimes include these manifestations in any particular life.  More central to the contemplative life though, is a certain quality of attention and present-ness to the task at hand.  God is not indifferent to the smallest thing that we do, and the contemplative knows this.

The contemplative lives his life, bringing care and attention to every moment.  When he wakes up, brushes his teeth, makes his bed, drives to work, eats his lunch, pays his bills, all the while the contemplative is aware of the importance of all these things for his own salvation and for the salvation of others.  The contemplative is like those persons in the gospels who where given 5, 10 and 15 talents and made a 100 % return on the resources God gave them.

Mary, in her life, was ordinary.  She had no particular skills that were singled out for praise in the Gospels.  She carried out her duties faithfully, taking the child Jesus to the temple as was prescribed by the Law of Moses.  She even was worried just like any other mother would have been when she went to Jerusalem for the weekend, and her relatives seemed to have lost her son in the crowd.

This leads to the second aspect of a contemplative life, its naturalness.  Just like any mother she was upset and worried.  But unlike most modern mothers, she did not lash out in anger at her relatives.  What did she do?  She went to the temple to pray, and so found her son.

This episode demonstrates the naturalness of the contemplative, as he or she is not immune to doubts and worries.  On the contrary, he or she may feel them even more powerfully as contemplatives are led to rely solely on God, and give their own wills and agendas up.

The contemplative is also natural in the sense that his or her sense of God’s Will comes from the heart and from the Spirit.  Mary was not educated in the Law of Moses or the teachings of the prophets, to the extent the Pharisees were.  Her relationship with God was not intellectual, based on arguments or philosophy.  Her relationship with God and trust in Him came from her experience of everyday life.

She experienced his goodness in the food she ate and in the birds in the trees, in a way that know theological argument could ever capture.  Many people today, and many people in the Church, mistake Christianity for a cultural and philosophical program.  They see it as a set of norms and values and principles that can help ensure a peaceful society, an enlightened scientific truth-based intellectual milieu and a sure, reliable method of salvation.

But Christ never asked his disciples to do any of those things.  He asked them to baptise people and teach them the Good News of the Kingdom of God.

And so, contemplatives stick to the essentials.  It is not that they disdain philosophy or theology.  But they put first place to prayer and Scripture, knowing that if we go to Jesus we will find everything we are looking for.

The last aspect of contemplative life is work.  Our Blessed Mother worked hard bringing up her son, Jesus, and taking care of her husband, Joseph.  She stayed at our Lord’s side throughout his Passion, following him all the way to his death on the Cross.  She was given a new labour from her Son while he was on the Cross, when he asked her to be the mother of his disciples.

From the time of the Resurrection onwards, she accompanied the disciples, providing her positive outlook and energy, at a time when the disciples might have easily fallen into lukewarmness and anonymity.  She also worked hard, providing St. Luke with the details of the many important events that preceded Jesus’ birth, details that are preserved for us in the Gospel of Luke.

These acts of being present and remembering may not seem like they take very much effort, but they do.  She may have wanted to withdraw to a life of prayer after the Resurrection, but she offered her service to the embryonic Church.  And because of her continued “Yes”, the Church was born fifty days after the Resurrection when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in the Upper Room, accompanied by Mary.

So we can rejoice at the birth of our Blessed Mother as the birth of contemplative vocations!

Ave Maria! Gratia Plena!  Dominus Tecum!

Hail Mary!  Full of Grace!  The Lord is with You!

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