On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we hear two stories of women saying “yes.”
And these yes-es are huge. They each have profound consequences.
When we think about the big “yes”es in our own lives, we often talk about discernment. Taking the time to weigh the options, the requirements, and the consequences, with a spirit of openness to God’s movement in our lives.
Neither story - Eve’s or Mary’s - seems to allow the characters time to discern. Both women make their choices quickly, and I can understand why! If a talking snake suddenly appeared offering fame and glory, if an angel appeared in my room and told me I was going to give birth to God, I probably wouldn’t respond “Can you try again later?” When the mystical, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself, rarely should you assume it will come back again.
In these moments, when we don’t have the time we think we ought to ruminate over our options, we can still carefully discern by doing two things: Listening to our bodies, and listening to our context.
Discerning what is right for our lives always involves our bodies. Because no matter who else or what else the context might be, our bodies are always there, absorbing the impact. “Wherever you go, there you are.”
In order to make the right choice for your body, you have to listen to it and you have to understand how it works so you know what you’re listening for. What does your body do when it’s hungry? Can you tell the difference between being tired and needing sleep, being burnt out and needing a change, or grieving and needing accompaniment? Many of the body’s cues can look similar. If we are not mindful, we can miss what it’s telling us we should be discerning.
One of the most immediate consequences of decision-making is stress, which wreaks real havoc on the body. Mental illness and physical pain are linked to our bodies’ experiences of stress. And when the timeline for decision-making is tight, stress only increases.
There are many lessons to be gleaned from the Genesis myth, but one of them is this: That humans self-destruct - at both personal and global levels - when they are not grounded in their historical, embodied context.
Eve’s body was quite literally brand new! She was the first one! Even the risks posed to her body by the snake were likely foreign to her. In that moment, she had very little context, and she made a fast decision that neglected what God had told her about herself.
And so, the Genesis story is one of stress. From the moment Eve takes the apple, things get so frustrating. Humans become ashamed of themselves and afraid of God. When we don’t listen to our bodies and the spirit of God within them, we become out of alignment, ashamed of what our bodies tell us, whether it be that we are hungry, or aroused, or fearful, or feeling lonely. Even worse, we jump to blaming others - like Adam and Eve who immediately point fingers at anyone but themselves - when we had the right answer inside ourselves the whole time.
During this season of Advent, our bodies are put through a lot of stress: Irregular patterns of eating, less sunlight, more travel, more physical touch, less sleep. All of these things can be morally neutral, there’s no “badness” implied here. What is bad is not listening to our bodies, “pushing through” for the sake of the magic or the peacekeeping. It can feel like there’s just no time, everything is so busy. But every moment you breeze through your internal cues is a moment you ignore the God within you. Chasing temporary fame is not worth it if it leaves lasting impressions upon your body. There are a lot of dazzling snakes this time of year.
And so we come to the example of Mary. I’ve recently begun challenging myself to think of Mary a little differently. Instead of thinking of her as “the Virgin Mary,” I self-correct and think, “Embodied Mary.” The Blessed, Embodied Mother.
Mary’s virginity is the least interesting thing about her. What’s interesting is how she understands her own virginity. She is conscious of how her body works and starts there: “How can this be, when I’ve had no relations with a man?” The only question Mary asks the angel about his unbelievable proclamation is one about the body. Mary is immaculate: She has no reason to be disconnected from her body, to be ashamed or fearful.
Then, Mary is willing to undergo immense bodily change and social exclusion for the sake of God’s coming into the world through her labor. In such a quick scene, how could she possibly trust such an immense, unfathomable future and make this choice? Because she knew her context. She knew her body. She knew her scripture. She was faithful.
And what flows from Mary is overwhelming peace. Our Blessed, Embodied Mother makes the biggest choice of her life from a place of utmost peace: “I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” This peace is a direct result of how Mary models decision-making: She starts with the body, she roots into her context, and all else flows from there.
This is our example for discernment.
And this is also how we’re called to embrace all the changes of our own bodies. Whether it be sickness, chronic illness, disability, mental illness, puberty, pregnancy, or aging. Mary confronts this bodily change and sees it as an opportunity for God to do a new thing, even in the moments when it is unbelievably uncomfortable or painful.
During this season, let’s aim to be like Mary in a new and more embodied way. Even if we can’t slow down just yet, let’s listen to what our bodies are telling us, and let that guide our way to Christ’s peace.
Madison Chastain is a writer and nonprofit communications specialist living and working on the South Side of Chicago. Her work explores the intersection of disability, faith, creativity, and culture. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Theology/Religious Studies from St. Mary’s College of California and an MA from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School where her research focused on the relationship between medical ethics, disability theology, and crip theory. Madison’s writing has been featured in the National Catholic Reporter, the American Catholic Studies Journal, Geez Magazine, and many more. She is the curator of the Theology for EveryBody project, and her first book, Mosaic: Equipping Your Ministry to Include Persons with Disabilities,was released with Life Teen in 2023. Every quarter, Madison releases a zine filled with exclusive art, photography, and writing. A former Air Force brat, Madison has lived all over the world, but considers her roots to be in Northern California. You can find more of her writing at madisonchastain.com and on Instagram @maddsienicole
The second of three volumes from the Catholic Women Preach project of FutureChurch offers homilies for each Sunday and holy days of the liturgical year by Catholic women from around the world. The first volume for Cycle A received awards for best book on Liturgy from both the Association of Catholic Publishers and the Catholic Media Association.
“Catholic Women Preach is one of the more inspiring collection of homilies available today. Based on the deep spirituality and insights of the various women authors, the homilies are solidly based on the scriptures and offer refreshing and engaging insights for homilists and listeners. The feminine perspective has long been absent in the preached word, and its inclusion in this work offers a long overdue and pastorally necessary resource for the liturgical life of the Church.” - Catholic Media Association
Advertise with Catholic Women Preach: email Russ at firstname.lastname@example.org