The Feast of the Annunciation celebrates a moment in the life of the greatest mystic in our church. We may not think of Mary as a mystic, but maybe we should.
A few years ago, I was giving a retreat on Mary, and a woman named Kathie asked, “Why do we keep calling her the Virgin Mary, when she is SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT?”
Great question, Kathie!
I remember, at that time, I was reading a lot of Rahner, the Jesuit scholar. One thing he said that really stuck with me was, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”
Mary is the perfect model of a mystic. Maybe we need to start talking more about that. She surrendered completely to the Divine Mystery within her. She encountered a Mystery and entered into union with it.
Maybe Mary got pigeonholed as the Blessed Mother and the Virgin Mary, and that’s not a bad thing, but as Kathie said, “she’s so much more than that.” Maybe we need to start having different conversations about Mary, using different language, especially with younger people.
Fifty years ago, Karl Rahner said, “People want and need to have a dynamic and personal experience of God. They want an intimate encounter and union with God.” Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who often talks about Teilhard and Rahner’s mystical view of Christianity, warns that if people don’t have mystical experiences of God, they’ll just get bored and fade away. Statistics seem to be saying that Rohr is right. The Pew Research Center, Gallup and CARA at Georgetown, all suggest that the People of God are fading away, and while all religious faiths are experiencing a decline in number, Catholicism is experiencing the greatest diminishment.
If the church is NOT a building, but as Vatican II told us, the church is the People of God, then the church has left the building !
Creeds and doctrines, and rituals and liturgies are not understood by the majority of Catholics, and they’re not going to excite them or inspire a new generation of church. Today, forty-nine percent of Americans say that they have had a mystical experience, a moment of encounter with Divinity, an insight or awakening that surprised them and got their attention. What surprised me was that a Pew Forum survey found that mystical experiences are more common among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%).
Well, this begs the question, are we doing more harm than good ?
The apparition of Gabriel that is recounted in today’s gospel probably took place when Mary was about thirteen years old. And she just surrenders to it. Almost all of the Marian apparitions acknowledged by the Catholic Church involved children who were about Mary’s age when Gabriel appeared to her. At Lourdes, Fatima, Kibeho, Medjugorge, Beauraing in Belgium, Fillipsdorf in the Czech Republic, in Girtzwald, Poland and in Lithuania – Mary appears to children, humble children, not well do to, not highly-educated children, just children who are open and receptive to encounter, to feeling the Divine on an average day and in whatever they were doing.
Maybe as we get older and we have more responsibilities and more distractions, and we live at a more rapid pace in a world with relentless pressures, unavoidable pluralism and the explosion of more news that can bring worries - maybe all this conspires to make belief difficult. And so we live with less wonder, little awe and less receptivity to the amazing, and the improbable and the unlikely.
For all of his brilliance and many gifts that he had to share with the world, Father Karl Rahner said that his deepest desire was to help ordinary Christians recognize and respond to the presence of grace in their daily lives. Rahner wanted to help us become mystics, to become one with the Divine.
What would that mean?
The Divine is not out there somewhere. It’s right here, as it was for Mary.
On the Feast of the Annunciation, we are reminded that Mary becomes conscious of God within her. Maybe that’s what it means to be a mystic. She had a pregnancy thrust upon her. She questioned it and was probably afraid of it. What does it feel like to be pregrant? I’m sure she wondered, as we all did. What would this pregnancy mean to Mary? To her family? To her fiancé? To religious leaders? To the Pharisees?
The angel doesn’t refer Mary to a rabbi. Gabriel doesn’t tell her to go to the wise, religious leaders for support or courage, or to see how this “annunciation” bodes with learned men of Israel. Gabriel tells her to go to her cousin, Elizabeth, who understood Mystery because she was living the Mystery, God’s intervention in her ordinary life.
So, what is today’s gospel telling us?
Mary, like any mystic, trusts her own experience of the Divine within, and surrenders to it. Do we?
Do we recognize God’s presence in both the miraculous and the mundane? Have we been taught to seek the Mystery and share the Mystery? How can we share the Mystery of Jesus - as parents, as professors, as priests, if we haven’t surrendered to all the stuff that we’re holding on to in order to make room for the Divine to grow in us, as Mary, the great mystic, did?
One of the things I loved most about travelling to undeveloped nations, through Central America, India, Africa, and to Long Island’s diocesan mission in the DR, is that I met people who didn’t have much stuff. They seemed to have more time and more space to welcome wonder, to welcome the holy when it shows up, in individuals and in communities. Their worship reflects that, as do their meals and celebrations. They’re so alive, and so welcoming of God.
In his 1993 memoir, “Life Work,” poet laureate, Donald Hall, admitted that some of the New Testament’s claims about Jesus left him with questions and confusion. But, he wrote this:
It is all present or it is nothing. God has our attention, or doesn’t.
Gabriel gets Mary’s attention. Who has my attention? Who has your attention?
Read the story of The Annunciation in Luke’s gospel. Imagine yourself in the story. What is God asking of you? And what can we learn from Mary the Mystic?
Pat McDonough has enjoyed a thirty-five year career as a Catholic educator and school psychologist in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Her experience in pastoral ministry spans years as a Director of Religious Education, Director of Youth Ministry, Coordinator of Programs in the Diocesan Office of Family Ministry, and professor of psychology and theology in Catholic high schools and colleges on Long Island. Her deepest experiences of discipleship have been leading mission trips to Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Rwanda, Appalachia, Pacific Northwest and Native American reservations. Pat also had the good fortune to chaperone a group of Catholic and Jewish teens to Israel with Project Understanding, an interfaith organization dedicated to promoting respect and appreciation for religious differences. She remains an avid supporter of Catholic Worker in NYC, where the discipleship of Dorothy Day continues to make Catholic social teaching a reality for the hungry, the homeless and the lonely.
Pat has written on issues of faith, family life, spirituality and human development in her column, Family Faith, which ran in The Long Island Catholic for eleven years. Pat has been a contributing author to The New York Times, Newsday, The National Catholic Reporter, The Catholic Digest and The American Catholic. She is a popular speaker, often bringing her experience as both a professional and a parent to providing retreats and professional days to school faculties and parishes throughout the tri-state area.
Pat is mother to three grown children, her trinity of blessings. And just when she thought life couldn’t get better, she became a grandmother.
Pat holds a P.D. in Psychology, M.S. in Education, M.A. in Theology and a B.S. in Criminal Justice. She completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius over the course of an unforgettable thirty days as a graduate student.
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