Imagine a meeting between two women who have both been through shocking physical, emotional, and social changes in the last few months and are seeing each other for the first time. Their country is under the heel of rulers who are antagonistic to their beliefs and traditional way of life, and their humble faith and simplicity makes them seem like insignificant pawns in the hands of the rulers of the age. What would they talk about? What worries would they share? What hope could they find in their mutual suffering?
I was meditating today on the mystery of the Rosary, the Visitation. It commemorates the meeting between Mary, the Mother of God, and her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. They were immersed in the circumstances mentioned above. Both of them had become pregnant in unusual ways–Elizabeth at an advanced age after her husband had a mystical encounter with God; Mary as a virgin, betrothed to a well-respected and holy man, but given the gift of new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. No one would blame them if their hearts were heavy–pressure and misunderstanding from the government compounded by disbelief and consternation from family and community. Added to this were the discomforts and personal metamorphosis from woman to mother that takes place during a first pregnancy.
But, upon their first glimpse of each other, we see completely opposite emotions and impulses at work. Joy, awe, gratitude, praise, humility, foresight, and hope. [Check out Luke 1:39–56 to refresh your memory with their beautiful words of greeting!]
They didn’t focus on the political situation, except to praise God’s power to “put down the mighty from their thrones,” and to exalt “those of low degree.”
They didn’t even empathize and recognize each other’s discomfort but rather dwelt on the gratitude they had for the ways God had worked in their lives.
How uplifted they must have been by each other’s presence during the three months they shared together! I would have loved to see what their days and interactions were like at that time. I don’t think that they would look all that different from the other women in the town, except that a knowledge of God’s blessing and presence changes everything for the heart that knows how to receive Him.
Alice von Hildebrand often speaks about the importance of being “thematic.” She explains it much better than I can, but the idea is that we should be sensitive to people and environments around us and change our interior attitude to match or complement or gently uplift those who are placed in our path.
I have a musical background, so I think of being thematic in terms of people walking around with a sound track. What if I had a rough day… The kids were loud and messy. I had to sit on the phone and figure out an issue with one of our accounts. Glitter and glue spilled across a newly cleaned floor. And unexpected obstacles rapidly diverted the course that I had set for my day. Interiorly, my theme song might tend toward the Jaws theme or Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” waiting to burst if one more hole was bored into the dam holding back my frustration and exhaustion. But it’s time for my husband to walk in the door. He’s probably a bit weary himself, and he doesn’t need to be greeted by a torrent of noise and complaint from his family. Let’s imagine he has some work concerns on his mind and his theme song is a sort of melancholic spiritual like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” What happens if my music clashes with his? Basically, domestic cacophony. But what if I (with some grace from God) can adjust my tune? Let’s try the “Largo” movement from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” on for size, shall we?* By being sensitive to the most appropriate theme of the moment (his needs and the superiority of peace over chaos), I can welcome him home graciously and raise his spirits. There’s a great emphasis in our culture on being authentic and not suppressing emotions. I don’t think it’s wise to shelter our spouses from the daily happenings of our homes. But I do think that there’s a time and place for sharing the highs and lows of the day, and that it doesn’t hurt authenticity to also have patience and kindness to wait for that appropriate time for vulnerability.
Let’s be clear. I have in no way mastered the sequence above, and my home is not all harmony and melody in tranquil ebb and flow. But, I’d imagine Mother Mary’s home to be very much this way. Even in moments of great sorrow or passion, there can be a beautiful response or a chaotic response, a true and charitable word or a word of impatience and selfishness. When I look at her life in Scripture and Tradition, I’m always inspired by the power of her humble presence. It reminds me to life up the old prayer, “Jesus meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine!”
Anyways, I’ve noticed a tension about many of the social gatherings this last month. Public unrest, political argumentation and shaming, and the ordinary pressures of the start of the school year have made everyone a little on edge. Quite a few people have privately admitted to me that they are suffering from anxiety and insomnia as they worry about our country and where it’s headed. I too have felt like I have more than usual to unpack mentally and think through in the evenings before I can rest. In friendly company, this nervousness manifests itself in hushed conversation about candidates and news stories. In the company of strangers, I sense more distrust and simultaneously an eagerness to seem vaguely well-disposed to everyone so that conflict stays at bay. On social media, I see militant thrusts at persuasion contrasted by hesitant attempts to understand without inciting a post battle.
While reasoned conversation is an essential part of the democratic process, I also wonder if we might all benefit from a deeply Marian (and Elizabethan) response to each other. Can we maintain the larger perspective of God’s power to accomplish His will despite the seemingly obvious evils and hardened hearts in our country’s leadership? Can we embrace gratitude for the extraordinary blessings we have, even if we also are suffering discomforts and ostracization? Can we learn to be thematic in our response to others? Can we trust–both each other and God? Will we chose to hope?
Mary knew that even though she was just a simple handmaid, that God could do much with little. He still can and does. Our families, our lives, our relationships, our faith, our hope, our love of one another–these are little things. But they are also of inestimable worth. That is what society is founded on. And if we desire for America to remain the land of the free, we must also remember that true freedom starts in the heart. You chose if your life is dominated by fear or freed by love. You chose if you will place your trust ultimately in the hands of a fallible few or in the hands of an omnipotent Creator. Mary and Elizabeth were beautiful, open, empathetic, and inspired because they were free; through God’s grace, they realized that the whole machine of society and its rules and expectations could not prevent them from offering their fiat to God and changing the course of history.
PS: As a side note, our country is worth our concerted efforts to preserve and our civic participation to that effect is important. But, if anyone asks me to ride a donkey while 9 months pregnant to sign in at a census booth in another town, I may be tempted to reconsider my support for fulfilling civic duties to the best of my ability. Just sayin’.
*Nerd alert: Did you know that Dvorak was inspired by traditional American spirituals when he wrote this piece? It’s a fun connection to look into. 😉