Tag Archives: Mary

Faith and Fear

A two part series on giving birth
to redemption in your time and place.

Part One – Mary and Cousin Carl

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Most every epiphany or showing of God in scriptures is met with fear. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary saying,  “Rejoice, O highly favored one. The Lord is with you,” Mary does not break out in ecstatic bliss. Instead she is greatly troubled at the saying. As Luke tells it, she considers in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And well she might. It was probably not the first time some itinerant ladies’ man claiming to be an angel had come on to her.

The angels in the Bible get some of the worst lines. They are hard to pull off with any authenticity. Enter one angel Gabriel with a flourish of wings and heavenly splendor who must make believable both his incredible presence and the words: “Rejoice, O favored one.”  Smile, God loves you. This is your lucky day! Any virgin with an ounce of sense might consider in her mind, “Right sweetie. Have I ever heard that one before.”

The immensity of the heavens is about to invade Mary in a mysterious and awesome conception that will defy rational explanation and accomplish an incarnation that ushers in the redemption of the world. Yet before Christ is born, Mary must face her fear and make a choice. And so it is with us. When God’s cheery messenger meets us with the news that we will conceive and bring forth the fruit of salvation, fear rather than joy is likely to be our first response.

A-Annunciation_da_MessinaMessengers sent by God to announce God’s saving love often wear camouflage. They have a hundred disguises. Can we trust that they are who they say they are? This seed of hope they want to place within us, dare we believe it, receive it? What if we are mistaken and this is all a dream or a product of our own egotistical imaginations? What arrogance makes you think you can bear sacred saving gifts into the world? This is no angel, but Cousin Carl dressed up in Aunt Edith’s chenille bathrobe with some tinfoil wings and a halo made out of a pie pan!

In real life angels rarely look like the ones in paintings. And yet, does it matter if the angel really is Cousin Carl? To me, what matters is that we believe that holiness and salvation are afoot, whatever ridiculous disguises they wear.

Prior to the advent of God’s redeeming love in our lives and world comes a courageous act of faith. The birth of Christ is contingent on the belief of a young girl with an imagination creative enough to envision the impossible and a sense of her worth strong enough to defy fear and anxiety. She places her whole being in jeopardy as she lays out her life and all that she holds dear on the gamble that there is a God in the heaven who might have some business to do with her.

We are to rely on faith rather than evidence, Ian Matthews writes in his interpretation of St. John of the Cross. Yet, here’s the kicker: the danger St. John warns of “is not so much that we shall trust in the wrong thing, but that we shall stop trusting at all; that, while we may never say it in so many words, we shall cease to believe that we are factor in God’s life.”

Matthews continues:
Survival demands a certain skepticism. We are trained to cope as social beings by keeping our desires within realistic limits. But where God is concerned, the problem lies in our desiring too little, and growing means expanding our expectations; or rather, making [God’s] generosity, not our poverty, the measure of our expectations.  – Ian Matthews, The Impact of God – Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Mary, sizing up her heavenly visitor, is moving from the rather safe place of conventional norms into a new realm where few of the old rules will make much sense. No one else can judge for her the validity of that grinning angel holding out joy like Aunt Edith’s peanut brittle. Should she take a bite? She hasn’t forgotten that incident in the garden with the serpent. What is truth? How can she be sure this is an invitation from God?

There are no books she can read, no wise men and women she can consult. She alone must determine and act on her own truth. How will Joseph or her village ever believe what is happening to her? Yet what others will think is not her ultimate concern. Her concern is obedience to the living God, to hope, to the possibility of wonder that lies beyond what the eye can see.

Joseph and the others must come to their own conclusions. They, along with the rest of us, are given that freedom. In W. H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being”, Joseph says to Gabriel:

All I ask is one important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
Gabriel responds:
No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still.

Weighing the odds, Mary asks one question, “How shall this be since I have no husband?”

“No problem,” guarantees the angel. And citing the case of barren Elizabeth, he assures her that with God nothing is impossible. Mary’s question raises a far from minor point. The participation of a male is a basic ingredient for conception. When God sends a divine messenger to us announcing that we have been chosen to bring forth some saving work, it may appear that some major components for success have been omitted. How shall this be since I have no money? Since I have no work? Since I have no education?

“No worry, it’ll be a cinch,” says Cousin Carl, snapping his fingers. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”

Finally it is up to Mary. The redemption of the cosmos is resting on the consent, the free choice of this mortal woman to have faith, to believe that what she is experiencing is true, and to claim and live out her experience of that truth by conceiving the fruit of salvation.

What will be your answer to Cousin Carl?

 

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 To be continued ~ watch for part two of this two part series. Will Mary say yes?  And what’s faith got to do with it?

This post is adapted from my book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Chapter 38

The Closing

A life time is like a flash of lightening in the sky
rushing by like a torrent down the steep mountain.  Gautama Buddha

It is done.
The message glowed in my palm.
The screen went dark.
The home full of light and memory
had passed neatly out of our hands.

Half a day’s drive north
we rose with the birds
to wash our faces
walk to our cushions
sit in stillness
as the sun came up.

Occupied with the throb
and slosh
of humans being,
minds alert
to the swell and surge
of experience,

we did not gulp or grasp,
but lifted our forks slowly
to savor what was on our plate.

Carrying our cups attentively
like offerings of fragrant brew
we got insights
we got bored
our necks ached
our necks really ached
our legs cramped
our minds sank.

Fur grew in our brains.
A cat named Torpor climbed up our bodies,
stretched herself across our shoulders, purring.

We stepped carefully along the drive,
the wooded path, the lawn.
When the bell startled
the still air and the finches flew,
we returned to sit
and then to walk
and sit again.

Up against our limits for the taste of God,
we picked up our hand held devices
just to check the time
and well, maybe, any messages
and then like hopeless junkies
shot up
with the news.

And, Lord, like Peter, (say it)
we slept.
We could not stay awake one hour
to watch our own suffering
let alone yours.

And the tall ones,
full of grace, like some exotic species,
came and moved among us.
We tried not to grasp
their beauty with our eyes
or covet their youth.

When they left too soon,
we, shoulders shaking, sobbed,
Oh no. Oh no.
Oh please don’t go.

But they with other roads
to travel and business
of their own stepped easy
over the threshold, saying

Let go. Let go.

And Mary said,
They have taken away my Lord,
and I do not know where they have laid him.

And the angel said, He is not here. He is risen.

And Jesus said,  Don’t
cling to me.

And raccoon, rotund and tight with bloat,
lay on the side of the road
and said,  See my insides are turned out.

And Coyote
trotting briskly across the clearing in bright midday
paused to look behind his shoulder
then disappeared into the woods.

A thick snake of ancient sorrow
rose up in us from miles below the surface
twisted, heaved us double with its force.
A wind whistling loneliness
whined and keened through all the spaces
in our bones.

every
thing
is going
back
and forth
across
a threshold

coming into existence
and going out of existence

while the dying rising one stands ever
on the brink
offering
a torn fragment of what is so

lost opportunities
things we have done we cannot change
our loved ones whose graves we want to tend

 we gaze at the ragged piece of our existence
resting in his tattered palm

Jesus, how will this ever be enough
to satisfy our hunger,
or slake this sorrow?

 Take. Eat, he says.
Be healed of thy affliction.

Thou, who gives and bears away,
grant us mercy
to take each moment
to our lips
and drink the cup you give
bitter,  sweet.

Give us,
O Sentry at the terminal,
where all things come and go,
the appetite and wit
to swallow and digest
entirely
what is so.

________

You sweep people away like dreams that disappear. They are like grass that springs up in the morning. In the morning it blooms and flourishes, but by evening it is dry and withered. Psalm 90: 3-6 New Living Translation

This existence of ours is a transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A life time is like a flash of lightening in the sky rushing by like a torrent down the steep mountain.  Gautama Buddha

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid. John 14:27

When Hope Fails – Redux

Hope is what gets a lot of people through the Christmas season. And the failure of hope is what leaves some souls shipwrecked on the treacherous rocks of the sin and imperfection of this world.

What is it for you this year? Death of a loved one? Spouse in Afghanistan? Unemployed? House foreclosed? Cancer?

Hope is the presentiment that the imagination is more real, and reality less real, than we had thought. It is the sensation that the last word does not belong to the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression.  It is the suspicion that reality is far more complex than realism would have us believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the present, and that miraculously and surprisingly, life is readying the creative event that will open the way to freedom and resurrection.           Rubem Alves
 

She was fourteen. She sat next to me as we drove home after the Christmas Eve service. Lights sparkled from distant homes across the snow-covered fields. Shattered with pain and trying not to show it, I tried to focus on driving. After a while she spoke out of the darkness, “Mom, things aren’t ever going to be the same, are they?”

That year, our family had been struck by a blow from which we would never fully recover. In spite of  brave efforts, prayer, and sacrifice we could not put back together what was broken and, perhaps, fatally flawed.

During that season of suffering, hope became nearly eclipsed by fear, anger, shame, and pain. Each evening I turned briefly from my grief in defiance of “the brutality of facts with their oppression and repression,” and lit a candle for hope. Even though I felt no hope, I let the candle hold my hope for hope.

In those days I clung to the verse of scripture the minister preached at our wedding. Remember thy word to thy servant in which thou hast made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that thy word gives me life. Psalm 119: 49-50

What an odd text for a wedding, you may think. Yet as the years unfolded it became more and more meaningful. I prayed it, holding God accountable to the goodness promised to me in scripture and whispered to my soul. God’s promise of joy, peace, and love comforted me and gave me the ability to keep breathing in my affliction.

Carmelite writer Constance Fitzgerald writes about the movement in our spiritual journey from “naïve hope to theological hope.”

Through experiences of loss and suffering, naïve hope in a Santa Claus god and other illusions nurtured by our egos and culture give way to a different, richer kind of hope.

We let go of placing our hope in our own efforts, our own goodness, our own “luck” or worthiness. We let go of our “right” to ourselves and our way. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, we numbly watch our way wrenched from our grasp. We face our helplessness and the truth that we are not in control. Hope in oneself and one’s little plans and projects dies on the cross of our life experience.

It is there in that stillness of a drive back home on the worst Christmas Eve in one’s life, while a child’s heartbreaking question hangs in the air, that hope in God is born.

You may miss it at first, especially if the pain is choking you.
But refuse to let the last word be the brutality of facts.
Go ahead and light that tiny candle.
Defy the darkness.
And pay attention.
A baby is on its way.
Something fragile and new and unimaginably sweet
is making its way into your consciousness.

I tell my daughter, “Yes, honey, things will not be the same. But I believe somehow or other, things will be all right.”

And they were.


Special thanks to artist Anne Emmons for her permission to use “Hope” in this blog. You can reach Anne at anneemmons_8@msn.com or on Facebook.

Here is Anne’s story about this painting:  I was trying to think of one moment in the Biblical narrative which captures the theme of hope.  Each year I have made a new image for Christmas since 1997, and in 2000, I was struck by the idea of hope as the source of light. The images in this series reflect the thought that Christ came, the Light of the world, into darkness. So I was thinking about one single moment in the story and I realized the moment Mary heard the announcement from the Archangel Gabriel must be the moment hope found a form, in her face. At the time, my daughter was almost 14, the estimated age of the Virgin Mary, and I suddenly connected with the story in a particular way. I kept her home from school that morning to have her sit for the painting. What struck me, and this has since been confirmed from other sources, most recently Anthony Bloom’s book, Beginning to Pray, was that the Incarnation was possible only through God’s will in union with the “yes” of the young Mary, who became the bearer of the Uncontainable God. Just after I painted this I saw the Pontormo Annuciation in a small side chapel in Florence, and Mary had the same sort of look of wonder I tried to catch.  Now my daughter Claire has a two year old son, Theodore. She is a single mother who said yes to the birth of this child, whose name she chose, not knowing it means “gift of God.”

This is a previously published post (December 2009)  with some light editing.

The Virgin Daughter of Jerusalem

A virgin is someone who is free of all false images and is detached
toward God’s dearest wish and ready to fulfill it unceasingly, as was Jesus.  Meister Eckhart

 

 My small daughter, playing with the holy family in the wooden stable sings her lullaby: Round yon urgent mother and child, holy infant so tender and wild.

 This mother, more urgent than virgin, smiles: Yes, Holy Infant tender and wild, you are so wild, so undomesticated, so radically other than anything known and familiar. No matter how hard we coax, you will not eat out of our hands, but remain out in the timber hidden in the brush. We set out bait, offerings on the snow. Cowboy theologians toss ropes into the forest and lasso decoys.  And roughrider ecclesiastics try to corral you in sedate doctrines.          

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The virgin daughter of Jerusalem sings at the gate. In the dark we lay a trail of bread crumbs to our door. We wait, stilled, hushed. Come,  Lord Jesus.

But who can stand when you appear? The earth shudders, mountains topple, creatures shiver with fear. Shots ring out in the forest. Innocence awakens and moves toward us and the rough hand grasps for its lost treasure.

The virgin daughter of Jerusalem stands on the path and suddenly she is falling, falling into the blue sea into the wide sky, falling through pain and fear and despair, falling faster and faster, picking up speed, plummeting like a stone, falling through a tunnel formed at the intersection of the cross hairs in the telescopic sight aimed at redemption where opposites meet and all things come together.

She is whizzing down the tunnel like a child’s slide, sleek and silent, silver in the sun, falling free. And the kingdom does not suffer violence, and she is not taken by force and the two, who have been made for each other, delight to have found ground holy enough to hold each other’s purity, ground strong enough to bear each other’s pain. And in her joy she funnels greatness from the wideness of her hope down the narrow passage of her being into us.

So now I pray for passionate virgins who have died for love and dwell beyond the clutch and fever of desire. I pray for eccentric virgins who live on the outskirts of propriety and raise geese and talk to trees. I pray for violated virgins and their reconsecration. I pray for virgins who find the courage to reject the lie that eats away their souls and leads them down a winding path of mirages and fun house mirrors that mock Truth.

I pray for virgins who know they are only as holy as they are willing to see how horribly they have been profaned, and how horribly they profane.. . .I pray for revolutionary virgins who despise the shame and take up the suffering for the joy that awaits. I pray for virgins whose land, enclosed by strength, is untouched and guarded by a flaming sword. I pray for virgins, who with unveiled eyes gaze unflinchingly at evil and at God and live to tell the tale. I pray for virgin martyrs who are witnesses with the conviction to believe their own eyes. I pray for chaste, intrepid, impeccable virgins incapable of doubt.

I pray for virgins who apply themselves to prayer until their souls become clear focused lenses, through which we spy enlarged for us the intricate dazzling structures of divinity. And God, hidden in the forest, is magnified by them; and glory sprints across the clearing kicking up a cloud of blessing.

And I pray for a virgin with a heart which dilates. A bold virgin, who when she has grown as big as she can be, when she has come to the outer reaches of her being and all that she thinks and knows and hums to herself, will give up encompassing Plentitude. I pray for a virgin who becomes Emptiness, who will let go of her edges, the taut boundaries that separate this from that, and flinging herself like crumbs in a fragrant trail from what was once her heart to the forest will say: Let it be to me according to your word.

And the shy, tender God takes the bait. And she and holiness are won. And their child tumbles wet and wild into the wounded world to heal us with his stripes.

  

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Virgin comes from Latin and means literally slender branch, twig or shoot. The original sense of the word is a person who is one in him or herself. Such a person is free from possession and possessiveness and capable of the total giving of self, body as well as soul. The virgin aspect is that which is unpenetrated, unowned by humanity. It does not need to be validated or approved by anyone to know its own innate worth. Virgin carries much of the same intent as the word for holy, which means set apart, the temple. The parthenon (literally the virgin’s place) was the temple to Athena on the acropolis in Athens. In the New Testament virgin is used to depict the host of the redeemed in Revelation and to refer to the community as the bride of Christ. But by far the most frequent use of the word virgin is in the Bible’s figurative description of cities, nations, and communities. We often find virgin daughter as an expression for Jerusalem.

Excerpted from  Letters from the Holy Ground, Chapter 10, “Urgent Mother and Child – Holy Indifference and the Repose of the Virgin,” 39-43.

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