At the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she was about to receive a great blessing, if she would accept it – to become the Virgin Mother of the Messiah. A great blessing, indeed, but one that, from a temporal perspective, would bring her public disgrace, shame her family, might drive off her betrothed, and even make her subject to execution by stoning. One could easily have understood if she wanted a few days to think about this particular blessing. But Mary just said, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” She knew when to leave the details to God, however scary they might be.
When she heard that her older cousin, Elizabeth, was having a late in life pregnancy – always potentially difficult – Mary set off on a difficult journey of at least several days across the hill country to help Elizabeth. One might think Mary would have found someone else to go. After all, she was to be Mother of Our Lord, the King of Kings. A bit fancy to be nursemaid to an older, pregnant woman. Or she might have thought that, well, if God has done this, He will see to it. Heaven knows that in modern times, only routine savage indifference to the unborn would prevent the cult of perpetually alarmed women from turning Mary in to social services for endangering her child with such a difficult walking journey. But Mary did not just know when to leave the details to God; she also knew that we are the instruments through which He normally accomplishes His will. So she set out on foot and did what she could. She was, as Gabriel aptly noted, “full of grace.”
Many readers have been deeply troubled by my assertion that, before our rescue, all will lose hope, including me. It is a deeply troubling statement. I accepted it because everything my angel has told me directly has been true. He says many things in enigmatic ways – and leaves it to me to interpret as best I can. Often he says things that seem plain, but are open to interpretation. I used to get those wrong almost all the time. Now I get them right a little more than I get them wrong, simply because I have been working at it for decades and know how quickly my mind leaps to comfortable, human conclusions rather than penetrating deeper into the depths of eternity. I don’t feel bad. I know how little I understand and how quickly I am liable to go tearing up blind alleys. Even the greatest saints were prone to the same thing. A few weeks before her execution, St. Joan of Arc excitedly told some visitors to her in prison that Sts. Catherine and Elizabeth had told her she would be freed – and even the date of her release. As it turned out, she was right. The date they told her was the date of her execution. Probably not what she had expected, but true, nonetheless. But there are things he tells me plainly and then emphasizes that there is no variant interpretation to be sought. This is one of those things.
One of the most subtle, but enduring, impediments to union with God is our nearly unshakeable and unwarranted confidence in our capacity as intellectual architects. Give us the seed of just a little accurate information and our minds go to work setting up all manner of scenarios – and very rarely do any of them bear much resemblance to what God actually intends. Even worse, we start to vigorously and heatedly dispute with each other over whose scenario is right, acting completely contrary to God’s will, rather than humbly waiting for Him. I use the word, “seed,” deliberately. Which of us, if we knew nothing about plants, farming or botany, could accurately deduce God’s intention from a seed? Who could look at a piece of corn and deduce a tassled field? Or a dot of tomato seed and imagine a plant laden with juicy, ripe fruit? Or a little acorn and see a mighty oak? Not one of us could imagine any of these things if we did not already know, from experience, that that is what they will become. So why do we waste so much time deducing the details of each of God’s new plans when all we have to go on is a seed we have no previous experience of? Why are we so slow to learn that when God speaks on these matters, says “Behold, I am doing something new,” it is not a confirmation that our brilliant minds will deduce from the seed what the plant will be? Rather, it is an invitation to pay attention and watch with gratitude and wonder as His latest seed springs forth, grows, spreads leaves and bears fruit.
During the time of His public ministry on earth, only two things caused Jesus’ disciples to dispute with Him. He occasionally told them how feeble they were, that their faith would be shaken, that they would be turned over to satan for a time who would sift them like wheat, that they would be scattered in panic when the Shepherd was struck, that one would deny Him and another, betray Him. Almost anytime He said such a thing, whichever of the Apostles He spoke with would vigorously – sometimes hotly – dispute with Him. It would never happen to them, their faith was much too strong, their courage too great, their fortitude endless. But as always, He was right and they were not. Whenever He spoke of His impending passion and death, it was almost guaranteed to spark dissension in His ranks. Death was a bad thing and the intellectual architecture of His disciples minds was scarcely capable of conceiving of any good that was not solidly grounded in the transient goods of this world. The idea that He had come to conquer death, itself, by passing through it just as Moses had passed through the Red Sea to carry the Israelis to freedom, was beyond them. Once again, He was right, they were wrong.
Even so, Jesus did not expose their frailty to them in order to crush them. Rather, it was to burn away the subtle vestiges of vanity that caused them to trust to their own counsel rather than waiting for His wisdom to sprout leaves. It was a sort of innoculation…and once the Apostles saw how little, how silly, and how frail they really were, they became useful tools in the hands of the Master and became great. There was still no visible, temporal kingdom for centuries. Christians were persecuted, tortured and killed. But they did not again scatter. Indeed, as it has been said, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Thirty years ago I thought my visitations were most likely just the way my mind processed a very powerful intuitive capacity. Twenty years ago, that confidence had become badly frayed, for there were too many things that even the most tortured explanation could not credibly attribute to intuition. By 12 years ago I knew that the only credible rational explanation for my experiences was that they are authentic. (No matter how hard anyone works at trying to discredit me, as my priests know, you will have to work long and hard to catch up to how hard I tried to discredit myself). If true, I always knew it entailed a certain responsibility. But even then (and even now) I was occasionally assailed by doubt. But I had set safeguards in place, I assiduously took counsel, and I submitted these things to officials of the Church. I came to think that doubt was no longer an integral tool of discernment, but a temptation to evade a responsibility I had freely accepted. How to deal with it?
I began to ask myself what difference it really made now whether I was right or wrong? I had submitted to authority that would guide me; I could see I had ignited hope in many around me; even many of those who think I am a bit nutty value my counsel; and even public enemies had often quietly approached me when they were hurt badly for comfort and encouragement – which I always gave. If I had misunderstood everything, I was still living as a sign of hope – and I was content with that. I was committed and would follow my course, subject to the safeguards already in place. Since then, doubts come, but they roll off me like water on a duck. They just don’t matter and don’t impede my work at all – and it gives me such a wonderful opportunity to really live my old priest’s wisdom, that faith is an act of the will.
Since full acceptance, many striking paradoxes have arisen. Since I know how little I understand and how prone I am to misinterpret, the Lord has shown me more details of what must be. When I was more certain of my own prowess, I did not do enough but prayed to know more. Now I pray to know less and do more. I know a universe more than I did when I was 15, but a lot less than I thought I did at that age. And then, real wisdom: the only motivation sufficient to sustain a Godly purpose is love. The ONLY motivation. Ambition won’t do it, vanity wilts quickly, greed is never satisfied, vengeance never sates. Only love endures.
If your children are in a second-floor bedroom of a house that is on fire, would you spend your time arguing with another spectator over whether the fire began in the kitchen or the porch, was an electrical or a grease fire? You would know such disputes at such a time for the useless vanity they are. Would you only try to rescue your kids if you could figure out a way that would spare you any discomfort? Would you spend your time pondering what the insurance will cover? No, you would rush in to rescue your kids or die trying. It is not vanity, ambition, or greed that would propel you to such a self-sacrificial act of heroism – but your love for your children. Begin to see mankind as your family, the family of the One Father, and you will have begun to put away foolish things.
In her captivity, St. Joan of Arc feared, that under the extremis of torture, she might repudiate the faith or God. She had no illusions that she was an unbreakable rock. So she told visitors that if that happened, know that it was the torture speaking through her weakness and did not reflect her will or faith. Any of us can lose temporal hope. I am told all of us will and I believe it. But that does not mean you cannot live what you have always proclaimed, not if faith is an act of the will. And in the process of burning away the last vanity of our self-sufficiency, God will not destroy, but perfect, our hope.
Let us return to the Annunciation and the Visitation for a moment. Only one person has ever figured this out without me telling him – and oh, how delighted I was when he did! When Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” she was acknowledging God. When she said, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” she resolved to take the next, right step. When she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, to help with that late in life pregnancy, she was being a sign of hope. My formula, “Acknowledge God; take the next right step; and be a sign of hope to those around you,” is a Marian practice. I think of it as my little way of Stella Maris. May we all be filled with grace.