Although one might expect differently, attending a Catholic all-girls academy did nothing to encourage in me a devotion to Mary. She was presented as the perfect woman. She was endowed with preternatural gifts – born free from sin, possessing infused knowledge, free from the pain of childbirth, virgin both before and after giving birth. She was unquestioning and compliant. For a teenager struggling with acne, trigonometry and all kinds of insecurities, she was an unforgiving model. From up there on her pedestal she smiled serenely down on us – her purpose, according to the sisters, to keep us pure. It wasn’t a relationship I was interested in cultivating.
Then I entered a religious community dedicated to Mary and, a few years into my membership, decided to give her another chance. I immersed myself in what was then contemporary Marian scholarship and found an entirely different woman – one confident in her experience, clear in her choices, unafraid of the evolving, mysterious future. I became a collector of stories, of images, of poems that led into deeper understandings of Mary’s place in our Church and in my life.
Early on, the story of the Visitation became a point of revelation. The angel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth had also been drawn into the unfolding of our redemption and she set out on a long and dangerous journey to find and give support as these two women shared an inexplicable experience. Rilke’s poem “The Visitation of the Virgin” describes their meeting thus: “Each, filled with her holy possession, sought protection of her kinswoman.” This line became emblematic of my life in community and there is in it resonance with Catherine’s “It started with two. Sister Doyle and myself” – a sense of shared purpose and destiny.
In recent years, the Annunciation has come to the fore – nudged into my reflections by an image and a hymn. The image is a painting by Samuel Ossawa Tanner.
Here is no Gabriel, powerful in his standing, wings unfurled, but an ambiguous presence; and Mary, eyes not downcast and humbled, but gazing unflinchingly at what she is seeing. Couple this image with the hymn “No Wind at the Window.”
No wind at the window, no knock on the door;
No light from the lampstand, no foot on the floor;
No dream born of tiredness, no ghost raised by fear:
Just an angel and a woman and a voice in her ear.
“O Mary, O Mary, don’t hide from my face.
Be glad that you’re favored and filled with God’s grace.
The time for redeeming the world has begun;
And you are requested to mother God’s son.”
“This child must be born that the kingdom might come:
Salvation for many, destruction for some;
Both end and beginning, both witness and sign;
Both victor and victim, both yours and divine.”
No payment was promised, no promises made;
No wedding was dated, no blueprint displayed.
Yet Mary consenting to what none could guess,
Replied with conviction, “Tell God I say yes.”
[Text: John Bell, The Iona Community]
In neither image nor hymn are there demands or guarantees. Mary is “requested to mother God’s son” and “consenting to what none could guess” sends back her confident, courageous response.
This image of the Annunciation brings to mind a description of Mary – in a book long ago read and now not remembered – as participating in an apostolate of incomprehension. There was so much in her life that required a steadfastness of faith and a trust in her own religious experience, when reality seemd to point in a different direction. In the scriptural descriptions of the Annunciation, Mary was promised a child who would be son of the Most High, sitting on the throne of David in a reign that never ends. The evolving life of her son didn’t match this promise and yet, in what surely were moments of incomprehension, she didn’t succumb to disbelief but allowed faith and trust to fill the space that might have been occupied by doubt.
I wonder if, in these days, we are not also called to an apostolate of incomprehension – of pondering and waiting, of trusting in our own experience of God’s faithfulness, of responding to that fidelity with steadfastness of our own, of acting in ways that reveal God’s mercy in our world. We know well the sufferings of the past year from the perspective of living through a pandemic. Usual activities, relationships, ministry - all our expectations of life in 2020 were first called into question and then altered to meet the current reality.
Another upheaval we are experiencing is that resulting from the changes in some dimensions of religious life. As our membership declines, we find ourselves faced with the painful reality of closing or handing over treasured ministries, of surrendering properties, of transforming rituals, of reimagining governance structures. Recently, I looked again at the passage on membership in the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. In this document, members are promised “religious formation, preparation for ministry, personal and communal prayer, access to the sacraments, Christian burial and prayerful remembrances after death.” It doesn’t promise that we will die in the motherhouse where we entered, or that the vacation homes that have refreshed our spirits for decades will be available into the future or that ministries into which we have poured our energies will always bear the Mercy name. This list challenges us to resist investing our hopes in places, or structures or even in particular people. It simply promises to sustain us in the essentials of religious life before and after death. As we face an unknown future, this list urges us to place our trust in our sisters and our God and to know that what it promises is enough. As we practice the apostolate of incomprehension, we are invited to repeated engagement with the question of what it means to be a Sisters of Mercy at this moment in history. How are our vows, our commitment of service to the poor, the sick and the uneducated to be lived out in the midst of the transforming reality in which we find ourselves? In the face of whatever answers emerge, how courageous and generous will be our response?
I’m very tired of the oft repeated “These are unprecedented times”. I’d like to say that these are Annunciation times and that, “consenting to what none could guess” our response to the mystery of living with incomprehensibility will be “Tell God we say yes.”
Messages to: Sheila Carney rsm
Image: 'Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation' by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons