Sometimes the planning of an act is as important as carrying it out. I can remember years ago when I planned a surprise party for a friend. Half the fun was in the planning, conspiring with others, keeping her from finding out what we were planning, and then figuring out how we would get her to the party. It was fun to discover just how clever my friends and I could be in doing this without tipping her off that something was afoot. When we finally pulled it off, we were really happy that we were able to do this, because the surprise for our friend was real. It brought joy to plan and it brought joy to have the actual event take place.
This is also true when we are discerning more serious action, such as a decision, an act of service, or a change we are working through interiorly. The praying, which includes allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal what needs to be done and then being responsive to the graces, is as fruitful as taking the appropriate action at the end of the process. We can learn as much about ourselves and about God during the time of reflection and prayer, that is, along the journey to our destination, as we do when we get where we are desire to go.
I believe this was so for the Blessed Virgin Mary after the Annunciation as the words of the angel faded from her ears, but still rang out in her heart. Gabriel had just announced to her that the Most High God wished for her to be the mother of His Son, explaining how this would be so, and she had said the words that changed the course of salvation history: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word." St. Luke, the writer of the Annunciation account, does not tell us much about what went through Mary's mind except for one very important plan she made: she planned to leave as soon as she could for the hill country where her cousin Elizabeth lived. Elizabeth was miraculously 6 months pregnant, being in her old age.
St. Luke indicates that Mary left posthaste for her cousin's house, and as I have reflected upon the Feast of the Visitation I was moved to reconsider the beginning of the passage: "During those days, Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth." (Luke 1:39-40) The phrase "during those days" indicates that Mary did not drop everything, pick up a donkey, and ride off into the sunrise to see her cousin. She would have had to consider how to get there, making travel arrangements for such a journey. There is a distance involved, and young women did not travel outside of their towns to other cities alone. Not only would that have been strange, but it would have been dangerous, since there may have been robbers on the roads, or there could have been the presence of wild animals, or even a few Roman soldiers. One did not travel alone, especially not a young (pregnant) woman. Therefore there had to be some time of planning.
The passage does say she traveled in haste to the hill country. However, the issue is not necessarily how quickly she traveled, but that she wanted to be present for the birth of John the Baptizer who would be the relative and the forerunner of her Son. The urgency was to share her joy, and also that Mary wanted to serve her cousin, Elizabeth. She wanted to be true to the message of her unborn Son, which was to be the one who comes to serve. She would be attending both Elizabeth in childbirth and the son who was to be born, John the Baptizer. The amount of time is not at all important, except to indicate that Mary was very humble and that she has become the first disciple of her son, Jesus.
Mary had to take the time to plan her trip, maybe unable to explain why she was going or how she knew she needed to go to visit Elizabeth. Mary was a woman of prayer. She was a woman who listened deeply to the Lord her God. So while the passage says she went in haste, it does not say she left hastily. She had the Son within her, having been overshadowed by the Spirit: she was full of grace. Therefore, she had to spend time praying about how God wanted her to accomplish the desire of her heart, which was to serve her Son by serving her cousin. Mary had to spend time listening to the song of love which already was within her heart and which she finally expressed after she saw Elizabeth. We know that song as the Magnificat.
All authentic prayer leads us outward. Mary is an excellent teacher in this regard. She had to pray about the best path and what she would have to say and do to accomplish this journey: she would have had to tell her parents that she needed to go and why, she may even have had to tell Joseph, her betrothed, that she needed to make this trip. To do so she would have reflected not only upon how to plan the trip, but what was happening within her as well. She would have continually prayed about what the angel had said to her and how she trusted God so greatly that everything would be done as promised. She trusted when the angel said "Nothing will be impossible with God,” (Luke 1:37) but she still had to spend time praying about what that meant. Mary must have been filled with joy, wonder, awe, and praise. She was contemplating what it meant that she was filled with the Body of Christ. She was deeply humbled by it all. I imagine her on her knees with bowed head at times, and at others standing with her arms raised in worship. The time in which she spent looking outward toward the hill country, maybe at her window, or maybe as she walked outside while in prayer, must have been filled with joy which is beyond description, yet with a quietness of heart, listening for the subtle movements of the Spirit which are more obvious to one so filled with grace.
When Mary arrived at Elizabeth's house, the words of her greeting caused the infant in Elizabeth's womb to leap for joy. Elizabeth cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:42-43) That which was most holy within Mary, her Son, was spiritually evident to Elizabeth such that she had a very visceral reaction. There was a rush of the Holy Spirit between them; the presence of the Son of God was felt by both women and the son in Elizabeth’s womb. There was much energy in it and so she cried out in joy.
The mysteries in the time between the Annunciation and the Visitation, and the mysteries of the event of the meeting of these two holy women, teach us that we, too, should take the time to reflect deeply before we act, even when it seems obvious what we are to do. There is much to be learned in slowing down a little, listening to what is going on within, letting ourselves savor the joy we feel, and then worshiping as Mary did before she acted upon what she knew she was to do. If we simply go into the act, we will miss the presence of God on a deeper level. We will miss the subtle presence, the gentle voice of the Spirit acting within us. We will miss His words of love, and we will miss the moments of pure wonder and awe at His greatness. The time of planning of the act of service was full of God's presence: who would want to shortchange oneself of that? Yet we do it so often in our prayer. We should allow time in prayer to make room for our response to God's presence. If we are not acknowledging His presence to begin with, there will never be space to simply sit within it, nor to respond. There is much gift and much joy in allowing ourselves to savor His presence. We do not have to anything but sit with Him.
When I end my entries here every week with some sort of exhortation to 'meet in the Heart of the Lord,' I mean just that: it is my way of encouraging each of us to remember in whose Heart we really, truly live. If we spend some time there and take the time to enjoy it, we can be like Mary, gaining fuller insight, even if on a level too deep for words, so that it spills outwards. It is in this space that the song of praise in our hearts becomes obvious when we sing it with our love and service of others.
May we pray for the gift of quiet reflection in the presence of the Lord! May we have the desire to sit in His presence, moved to joy, wonder and awe! May we look outward in service of others, bringing the joy of our encounter with God to those whom we serve! And may we be open to encountering God through others as well as in our heart! May we continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord with the song of our own Magnificat on our lips! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is Mother of God (After Beato Fra Angelico) and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/171-mother-of-god-after-beato-fra-angelico
The second is called Umelenie, Joy of All Joys and it can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/280-umelenie-joy-of-all-joys
The two photos are mine. The was taken in Arroyo Secco, NM and is really a sunset, but we can pretend it is a sunrise. The second photo is a stand in for the hill country. It is actually in central Sicily in the Province of Palermo.
Heart Speaks to Heart