Blessed is She who trusted and we who trust! ~ The Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Blessed is She who trusted and we who trust!

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        Our lady breast feeding Jesus ~ Shrine of our Lady of La Leche ~ St. Augustine, Florida                                                               (Image taken in March 2006 by Bob Traupman)

I ‘ve had a filial devotion to Mary all of my life, though it has gone through various stages. In my youth, devotion to Mary was more real for me than Jesus. I had a Marian altar in my room, often with fresh flowers. In the seminary, the image of a young knight devoted to his queen helped me relate to her in a charming way. It still does.

A few years into my priesthood, my relationship with our Lord Jesus developed; today, he is my elder Brother and my intimate companion. But Mary’s still there because she’s my best friend’s mother.  I celebrate Eucharist on the Marian feast days.  I have an icon of our Lady high upon my wall in my room, (the famous Vladimir icon) with fresh flowers and a votive candle.

As I reflect on the life of Mary from my present level of faith and theological understanding, Mary stands out as a model of discernment. 

(To discern is to judge well, to seek, for clarity and understand.)   Discernment is a method, a process by which we try to figure out whether or not we are moving towards a future which is in union with God’s will or plan for us.)  

I’d like to share with you my reflection on St. Luke’s story of the Annunciation (1:2-46) that uncovered for me some astonishing insights about Mary’s process of discernment.  It has profoundly influenced my life.

The story begins with the greeting of the angel: ‘Rejoice, 0 highly favored daughter! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” Tradition has it that Mary was a young girl when she discovered her awesome vocation.

We might well ask how a teenager would receive such a message. Luke then tells us “She was deeply troubled by these words and wondered what his greeting meant.”

Put yourself in her place for a moment.  Think her thoughts and feel her feelings.  Consider what you might think or feel if you thought an angel was appearing to you! Surely you would be bewildered. Confused. Scared.  “Is this really happening?” you would ask. “Am I imagining this?”  “Am I crazy?” 

The fact that the angel appeared to Mary was probably not initially consoling to her. On the contrary, it brought on some weighty problems!  To be highly favored by the Lord does not mean that one is to be treated like a princess and to have a smooth, uncomplicated life. If we reflect on how the life of Mary unfolded with many sorrows, we can see that hers was anything but an easy life. But let us stick with our story.

The angel then announced, “Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You shall conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus.” Then Luke has Mary question the angel. Mary dares to question God: “How can this be since I do not know man?”

A pious spirituality would look upon daring to question God as blasphemy. Nevertheless to question even God himself is one of the rules of discernment that many of us overlook. We should never be too sure of visions or voices from within.   They do occur more frequently, I think, than we are led to believe. But every prompting should be tested. Mary is showing us that in this beloved story. In other words, the healthy thing to do is to question our sources of discernment; the unhealthy thing is to jump in and act too soon!

When I myself receive a prompting or an inspiration I delight in it for awhile, muse about it, yes, but then stuff it back down into my inner spirit to see if it surfaces again.

When it comes up a second time, I will test it to see if it is stronger than before and then I will stuff it down again—even a third or a fourth time. Those inspirations that have God as their source will be strengthened; those promptings that are not of God will be whittled away.

The story of the Annunciation tells us clearly that even for Mary, the mother of God’s only Son, discernment was not an easy thing. Every human being should exercise a certain amount of caution, doubt and distrust of one’s reasoning process. None of us has direct access to divine knowledge. This was true for Mary, as the story under consideration here suggests. It is also true for Jesus who emptied himself of his equality with God and became as human beings are(Phil: 2:6). So we cannot get away with saying “Mary is special.” Actually, she learned about God’s will for her in the same way that we do.

Confirming the message.

There is another characteristic of discernment we can learn from this story. The angel offered Mary a way to confirm the message. He suggested that she visit her cousin Elizabeth and there she would have his message verified.

So, too, with major inspirations we might have in life: We should look for confirmation. If we wait some weeks or months, oftentimes something will occur that confirms and reinforces the message we received. All this suggests that we need to be patient with the discernment process. It takes time – even years – for a prompting to unfold. In the meantime we need to be willing to live with ambiguity – to live with the questions. Back in 1980 I thought I was being called to be a writer. I had to abandon that idea for some years because of life circumstances. I only saw the confirmation of that initial prompting twelve years later in 1992.  I made a major career shift with all the risks involved to go back to school to get a Masters degree in writing.   It meant moving to Towson, Maryland and bringing my father with me.  Inspirations or promptings should be treated carefully and reverently – neither giving too much attention to them nor dismissing them outright, but keeping them in the back of our mind until they either clarify themselves or go away.

So what happens if you do confirm an inspiration or vision? What next? When the angel left Mary, she was left with a huge problem!   Though the angel also appeared to Joseph, the two of them were still left with the sticky wicket of what to tell their families.

Though God sometimes intervenes in our lives (with virginal conceptions, for example) he leaves it up to us to work out the details.

We can only imagine what it was like for Mary and Joseph during the months that intervened between her conceiving and giving birth to Jesus. We do get a glimpse of the problems that the couple had in the story of Jesus’ birth.  Mary had to make the uncomfortable journey on a donkey to Bethlehem towards the end of her pregnancy. We are told there was no room at the inn and the baby was born in a manger.  And Matthew tells us that the couple then became political refugees as they were forced to flee for their lives into Egypt.

In none of these circumstances are we told that the angel intervened directly.  They had to work out all these problems on their own. I do believe that there are ordinary promptings that do come from God. These, I’m sure were available to Mary and Joseph as well.  I’m usually prayerful and reflective about most small decisions as well as the big ones. I pray for discernment in the words I write and the topics I choose.  But there are decisions in which proper discernment may be critical.

For example, the process of selecting a doctor for major heart surgery may be very critical indeed. I recommend prayerful discernment for all major and minor decisions one has to make. Inserting prayer and reflection in our decision-making process allows God a chance to participate in our lives.  Thus, we seek God’s wisdom to help make the best decisions possible.

One step at a time. 

The point I glean from the Annunciation story is that God reveals his will to us one step at time. He does not give us a tour of the master plan. First Mary formulated her response to the angel. Then she went to visit Elizabeth.  Then she and Joseph had to figure out what to tell their families. Then they had to go to Bethlehem because of the census. God did not reveal any of these problems to them nor suggest their solutions.

And in this I find my greatest point of admiration for Mary. Luke puts it this way in the words of Elizabeth“Blest is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:45).  These beautiful words are the reason that I hold Mary in such great esteem today.  She was willing to trust.

How often am I not willing to trust!  How often am I not willing to risk. Mary took to heart the words of the angel, and when he was gone, she trusted. She trusted the words she heard him say.

How often do we fail to trust in the inspirations, the promptings, the dreams that break into our life every once in awhile?  Very often we don’t give them a chance. We don’t trust that they will come true. So, think of this young girl’s – young woman’s – courage.

Blest is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.  Blest are we who trust that the Lord’s words to us will be fulfilled.

To want to be a discerning person is to want the best for ourselves and for these whose lives touch ours. To want to be a discerning person is to trust that God still speaks to his people – to trust that God can and does speak to me. And that with my consent and cooperation, I can help God make a difference in our world. Without Mary’s trust in the words of an angel, the world would be a different place

I believe that God still gets involved with the affairs of his people. I believe he still shows glimpses of possibilities to us as he showed Mary a glimpse of what could happen when God and even one human person chooses to intertwine their wills. Remember that God could not have acted without Mary’s consent.

Blest is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled. Blest are we who trust that the Lord’s words to us will be fulfilled.

Advent is a time to Listen.  To ponder Mary’s story.  To say Yes to what we hear as she did so lovingly.  To let Jesus be born – this day – in our lives and our world.

To say with Mary:

“Yes! I am a servant of the Lord.

      Be it done unto me

            according to Your Word.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart  and try to love     the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.

And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Now, before you go, here’s the “Hail Mary” set to music. Click here.

With Love,

Bob Traupman

Contemplative Writer