Several years ago, I spent five days on a silent retreat at the motherhouse of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph in Kentucky. While this wasn’t my first retreat, it was my first experience of extended silence. As the days went by, I had the sinking feeling that nothing was happening. After all, I was on retreat. I was doing my part, so where were all the heavenly graces and consolations that were supposed to be flooding my heart and soul?
On the fourth day of the retreat, I met with my spiritual director, and she patiently listened as I poured out a litany of frustrations and disappointments. I was entering into a period of transition and discernment about my life and ministry and had counted on these days to be a time when everything would be made clear. After listening to all of this, she simply looked at me and asked, “Who said this was all about you? Lighten up.”
More confused and frustrated than ever, I decided to go for a walk after our meeting and made my way to the sisters’ cemetery. As I sat on a bench, I saw two elderly sisters out for a walk. The pair slowly made their way down the path that ran between two sections of headstones and, after a moment of prayer before the large crucifix in the center of the cemetery, they began to make their way back to the motherhouse. I was sure they hadn’t noticed me, when one of the sisters, with a bit of a twinkle in her eye and a warm smile, turned back and looked at me and gave me a small wave. With that, the dam broke and I realized that I had experienced a very precious and grace-filled encounter. I had been given what I needed.
Did I have all the answers to my questions? No. But that simple exchange with that elderly sister reminded me that God was always with me, taking notice of me. While I couldn’t control or predict the future, I knew I wasn’t alone. A shimmer of God’s glory had broken into my life.
I left the retreat center the next day grateful that I had not received what I wanted but rather what I needed. I had been “to the mountain,” as it were, and now it was time to make the most of the gift I had received.
In its own humble way, I think my experience echoes Mary’s graced encounter with the angel Gabriel. Of course, in Mary’s case, glory broke through in a way that was unparalleled in human history—indeed, in a way that changed the whole human story. We all seek such moments of connection and revelation; yet it is all too easy to bask in the light of our own annunciation moments and to forget what comes next: questions, action, community. In his Gospel, Luke relates that after the annunciation, Mary “went in haste” to see her kinswoman, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (1:39-56). Mary did not allow herself to be delayed by the questions and doubts that this incredible news must have awakened within her. Instead, she set out in action and in service, and this “setting out” is at the heart of the feast of the Visitation.
In Joyful Anticipation
In the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, we are presented with two women living in expectation. Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary, carrying God within her, embody the hopes and expectations of Israel. Theirs was not a passive waiting, but rather one full of promise. In his essay “A Spirituality of Waiting,” Henri Nouwen writes: “People who have to wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow.” This kind of waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. Rather, it is a movement from something to something more.
In the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Relevation,” the fathers of the Second Vatican Council observed that in God’s own time, God called the patriarchs and prophets, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and so many others, to prepare the way for his Son (No. 3). And in Mary and her child, the promises and longings of countless generations were finally being fulfilled: “From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.... He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock” (Mi 5:1, 3).
In her response to this call, Mary teaches us how to receive God’s word. First, Mary is a model of humility; she knows, in the words of my wise spiritual director, that it is not “all about her.” When we, like her, are aware of who we are in the light of God’s grace, God is able to find a spot within our hearts that is not crowded out by our pride or our own agendas. Mary’s actions also remind us of the value of silence and of recollection. By being able to hear what was being asked of her and by responding to that invitation, she stands as a model of a receptive and willing disciple, undistracted and undeterred by the world’s noise and confusion.
On the feast of the Visitation we recall yet another dimension of Mary’s response; we honor her spirit of service, or diakonia. Mary’s generous care for Elizabeth anticipates the spirit of service that should be the hallmark of the church, which is sent especially to the poor. Just as in Mary the Lord is brought forward to visit his people (Zep 3:14-18), the church brings Christ to the poor and forgotten, sharing with them the truth of God’s abiding love and presence.
This is the overarching theme of Mary’s great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, which she sings in response to Elizabeth’s greeting: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior…. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:46-55). In the Magnificat, Mary acknowledges the gifts she has been given, but she goes on to recall that God intends them to be brought out into the world and, in turn, received in every human heart.
It is easy to sentimentalize Mary’s visit and song of praise. But the feast of the Visitation places all these events and ideas before us in a marked way. What Mary offered to Elizabeth was not simply the assistance of a family member during a time of need. Mary carried God’s Word within her and witnessed to the power of the Word, praising God for the wonderful and mysterious things that were happening within her own body, as well as proclaiming that a new day had dawned for the poor, the hungry, those who seem to be the least significant in the eyes of the world and even for restless searchers like me.
My own annunciation experience empowered me to seek out my own visitation experience through new ways of living out my call to be a religious educator and writer. When I finally let the Holy Spirit guide me, I was able to set aside what I had come to stubbornly think of as God’s will and set out along new paths as a man of faith and a lay minister.
The feast of the Visitation challenges us to go out and do something, because ultimately each of us is entrusted with the task to take that same Christ who dwells in our hearts, minds and souls out into the world.