Wouldn’t it be nice if–even for a brief time, say, a week—we could experience what it means to live in perfect harmony? All we’d hear would be the sound of sweetness. What a rest that would be! The news would all be good news. The weather each day would be absolutely beautiful—low humidity, sunny skies, cool breezes, warm sun. People in the checkout lines would be pleasant. Hospitals would be empty. We’d all sleep well at night and we’d feel great—no achiness, no worries—all day, every day.
Especially in times like these, which swirl with chaos and disharmony almost everywhere we look, imagining a week without conflict, without concerns, without pushback sounds like heaven, doesn’t it? In fact it points out one of the reasons we need an image of heaven so much. We need a vision of a place of perfection, where the things that seem so wrong about this world—tears, separation, deceit, conflict, illness—those things simply don’t exist. That vision of a future peace helps us get through the hurts and challenges and anxieties of daily life on this planet earth.
This week my thoughts have been drawn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, probably because of her calm, her gentleness, and her deep, abiding trust in God, whatever comes. The reading in our bulletin was from St. Teresa of Avila, the Spanish nun who wrote Interior Castle and today is known for her great love of God and her mystical—and some would say miraculous—ability to speak truth to power. And that was quite a feat for that time, because truth was in the hands of the officers of the Spanish Inquisition. People were being executed for even the slightest imagined heresy, but Teresa was able to write about her personal experiences of the divine and she went on to start convents, educate nuns, and leave us numerous books about her experiences of life and faith.
Teresa’s mother had died when she was young, but she grew up adventurous and free-spirited. The story goes that at age 7, Teresa convinced her younger brother Rodrigo to run away with her so they could go to the land of the Moors and become Christian martyrs. Luckily someone in the next town recognized the tiny and weary travelers and returned them to their home. As she grew, Teresa became a great beauty and was sought after by many accomplished gentlemen in her town—but her faith had grown along with her beauty, and she struggled to decide whether she wanted the world’s affection or God’s devotion alone. Thanks to a direct experience of the living presence of God—not unlike the one George Fox wrote about—as well as a deep sense of the grace and devotion of Mary, Teresa’s heart ultimately turned fully toward her faith.
In Teresa’s writings, she often writes tenderly about Mary and at one point says she asked Mary to be her mother from then on, in place of the mother she’d lost so young. This prayerful relationship with the gentle Mary helped her heal issues that had followed her throughout her life—she’d driven herself mercilessly in her struggle for perfection. She’d continually chastised herself for being vain or flirtatious and not nearly serious enough as a nun. Her prayers to Mary helped her find a sense of self-forgiveness and mercy. She began to realize that God’s grace was truly sufficient for her. Her own efforts at self-perfection mattered little—the important part was the grace and love of God.
Now we Friends don’t typically say a whole lot about Mary. We talk about God and Jesus, and we seek to recognize that of God in each other—but we rarely speak in terms of saints, and for good reason. George Fox was wary of any entity that might diffuse or confuse our understanding of the light as the one source, that of God at the center of our being, at the center of our community and life.
In my own experience, I had never thought much about Mary, beyond what I knew of her from the Christmas story and Jesus’ early life. But that changed when I was a chaplain at St. Vincent’s, and I was paged in to talk with a woman who was in emotional distress. As I drove in to the hospital, I began praying for the woman and I was surprised to find that as I prayed, I heard myself asking for Mary’s grace and mercy to be with her, offering calm and peace and healing. My mind—or maybe it was my spirit—bubbled up portions of the Hail Mary prayer, which I didn’t know I knew by heart:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
When I arrived at the hospital, I found the woman in a quiet and stark hospital room at the end of a long hall. It was the middle of the afternoon and I remember the light streaming in the window. A small cross hung over the bed. I went in and sat in a chair next to her bed…it was obvious to me that she’d been crying. Slowly, gradually, she began to share her story, telling me that 30 years before, she’d been deeply rejected and abandoned by her church—the Catholic church. There was no grace for her, she said. The priest had turned his back on her; the congregation was hard and cold. For decades she had carried anger in her heart toward them all, toward faith, toward God. But now she was sick and alone; and she yearned for a sense of divine purpose, divine comfort. But she had no hope of mercy and didn’t see any chance for forgiveness.
What did she need right then? She needed Mary.
I told her my story of feeling led to pray and ask Mary to be with her on my drive over. I told her as a Quaker myself, I didn’t know much about Mary, but something inside had prompted me to pray that prayer. It began to dawn on her that God was caring for her all along. She could suddenly see that in her pain, God had inspired her to ask for a chaplain; as I drove in, God had inspired me to pray for that Mary’s peace and mercy would be with her. And those two things combined gave her hope that grace and forgiveness were truly possible for her. She started to cry again, but this time, they were tears of healing and gratitude. God had used the graceful, deeply compassionate energy and example of Mary to to bring hope and healing to a wound that had caused her pain for most of her adult life.
Our New Testament scripture is Mary’s Song of Praise, what she offered up to God in those early days when she was pregnant with Jesus and staying for a few weeks with her cousin Elizabeth. Scholars say she was merely a teenager herself, protected and sweet, concerned with living justly and practicing a devout faith. I surely can’t imagine the level of belief and trust she must have had to receive news she would be carrying a child conceived of the holy spirit—and yet even as young as she was, she had a sense of the magnitude of her role, that she wasn’t merely a conduit for a divine presence in the world but a catalyst of change that would be felt forever after.
The Old Testament reading is one of my favorites, giving the principle of wisdom a female personality and sharing how her presence is everywhere and always—at the crossroads of our lives, at the gates to the town, at the entrance of the portals she calls out to us, offering us simplicity, peace, truth, and knowledge.
To me there is a connection between this feminine idea of wisdom and the example Mary lived out in the life that opened before her. God’s presence illumines our choices, calms our fears, reassures us that what we’re afraid can’t be forgiven will be forgiven, in fact is forgiven already, by the grace and mercy of God.
Mary’s example of letting it be comes to us not when life is perfect and balanced in sweet harmony, but in those moments of hopelessness when the world seems irreparably brokenness and out of control. Those are the big moments and the small moments when we need grace and reassurance that good—God—is still at work. When people in the checkout line are crabby. When drivers are honking at us and people are ranting on Facebook. When the headlines scare us and when we’re falling short yet again of our intentions to live justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Mary’s grace and mercy smoothes the worry lines from our foreheads and calm our hearts—not instead of the Light of Christ but as an ambassador, an emissary, of it.
I hope that we will be tender and present to our inward yearning for calm, for rest, for peace in these turbulent times. Christ promises us the peace that passes understanding. And it’s likely that his mother Mary was one of the first people he saw truly living that out.
Thank you, Friends.
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Noblesville Friends Meeting
July 16, 2017