April 12, 2004

"May is Mary's month, and I / Muse at that and wonder why…"
Thus wrote the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who connected Mary's motherhood with nature's motherhood revealed in Spring.

In the Catholic tradition, which shaped Hopkins's poetry, Mary is a living and familiar presence whose solicitude and motherly love are always available. At the same time, for many Christians, Mary remains fixed in the past in the pages of the Bible. For me Mary is both integral to the biblical narrative, and fully present to us today in the communion of saints.

In the iconography of the Eastern and Western churches Mary is very much present during the Great 50 Days of the Easter season. In the East the Icon of the Ascension shows Mary standing, her hands uplifted in prayer, in the midst of the apostles as they look heavenward. In the West Mary is more often depicted with the apostles as they receive the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.

As much as we may respect and reverence such iconic images, it is the Mary who surprises us with a kind of off-hand intimacy when we least expect it who most engages me. She is the Mary so wonderfully described in Our Lady of the Lost and Found [Diane Schoemperlan, Viking Penguin, 2001] who arrives suddenly at your door wearing a trench coat and wheeling her suitcase and saying she would like to stay in your guest room for awhile.

The reality of Mary's presence and availability has been brought home to me often as I directed people in times of retreat. Again and again men and women, in being invited to contemplate Jesus' birth, have found that Mary has literally stepped off the page and into their lives. Encountering Mary as friend and companion can be profoundly disconcerting for those who had thought of her only as a biblical figure from the past. These encounters with Mary have been frequent enough that I could tell by a retreatant's expression when they arrived for their conversation with me about the fruits of the day that they had met Mary in the course of their prayer. They would usually look somewhat confused. "I've never really thought about her much," they would often say. To which I would reply: "Yes, that's just her way. She slips in unnoticed and suddenly she is talking to you like a close friend, or says something singularly unbiblical."

I particularly remember a moment in a retreat with someone who always sought to be useful. As he pondered Jesus' birth he had found himself making toys to hang over the manger. Suddenly Mary noticed him and said: "Bug off." This unexpected reproof startled and upset him, and he came to me in a state of confusion. I urged him to return to the Nativity and just to be there, quietly, without doing anything. He did so, and as he contemplated the infant Jesus he heard Mary say, "Now you can come with us to Egypt." At this point his heart was full and he had a new perspective on his anxious efforts to be useful, not just as he contemplated the Nativity but in other areas of his life as well. Though he had never given Mary much thought, now she was a wise and plain speaking friend.

For several years Anglicans and Roman Catholics have been engaging in formal conversations about the role and place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of our two churches. After thorough discussion and careful work, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has finished its work on a joint statement regarding Mary. I was a participant in these efforts and sometimes wondered during our deliberations how she might feel about being a theological problem and a point of division among Christians. When the statement is released it will invite both Anglicans and Roman Catholics to open their hearts and minds and consider afresh the significance of Mary both in the history of salvation and in the communion of saints which links her to the present day.

During this month of May – Mary's month – I invite you to let her enter your life. She may arrive unexpected at your front door in a trench coat, or she may address you forthrightly in your prayer. As well, I invite you to call to mind the image of Mary as she is depicted in the East with her hands lifted up in prayer. In this context Mary represents not only her own faithfulness but that of all Christians, who in opening their hands both offer themselves to God's mysterious ways and welcome and receive God's Spirit.

May Mary's companionship help us to enter more deeply into the events of the Ascension and Pentecost. May her example of unwavering availability to God's strange and unsettling ways invite our fuller participation in God's continuing work of drawing all things together in the bond of love.


Tagged in: Frank T. Griswold