Monday 19 May 2014

Mary and Christian Meditation

When I go into my house, I shall repose myself with her: for her conversation hath no bitterness, nor her company any tediousness, but joy and gladness.
Book of Wisdom 8:16

And they understood not the word that he spoke unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart.
This is part five of a series on Christian Meditation. In the first four parts I looked at the verse from the Book of Wisdom as a guide to meditation provided to us by its author (by convention King Solomon.) Here I propose to show that in Mary, the Mother of Jesus, we can see all the different elements of meditation summed up and displayed to us in perfection. In Mary we encounter one who is at once an object of contemplation, an icon or role model of one who contemplates and a powerful helper to those who call upon her assistance in meditating.

In Part Two I touched upon the apparently puzzling phenomenon of a very, very male dominated religion such as Temple Judaism personifying Wisdom as female in the way that the author(s) of the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs did. There are no doubt cogent historical, philosophical and linguistic reasons for this choice. Without denying the truth or importance of these reasons the Church has always delighted in seeing in the words applied to Wisdom, as a quality of or companion to God, a type or figure of the Blessed Virgin. The perspective of the Church on this proceeds from the insight that Mary is the one human creature who through her completely unique relationship to the Blessed Trinity, chosen one of the Father, spouse of the Spirit, mother of the Son, is so united to God that in contemplating her we contemplate Him as in a spotless mirror. (Creature is a technical term in this context, it means one created by the Creator so in that sense cannot be applied to Jesus.) Therefore the qualities listed as belonging to Wisdom essentially belong also to Mary by Grace and in the fullest measure possible to a creature. Likewise where Solomon considers meditation to be a conversation with Wisdom the Church understands that this could equally apply to either an encounter with pure divinity or with the Mother of God as a channel of His qualities.

Strictly speaking the only proper object of contemplation is God. Only He is infinite Love and infinitely loving. Only He can raise up our hearts and minds into the unity which transcends all else and fulfils entirely our purpose for being. If we contemplate Mary in meditation we do so only and precisely because she draws us ever more closely into that unity with God in which she herself is immersed. It is impossible to consider her in contemplation without also considering the source from which she derives all her qualities. The question then naturally arises 'why consider her at all? why not go straight to the source?' It is certainly true that one can meditate on the Godhead directly or upon the Son of God as incarnated in Jesus. Indeed, if one has been granted the Grace to meditate in this fashion then that is precisely what one should do. However, many of us struggle to relate to an abstract concept such as the Trinity, others cannot forget that Jesus is Judge as well as Saviour and struggle with the implications of this in contemplating Him. God, who desires that all should be saved and none be lost has provided many aids and helps to His people. He does not despise our frailties and fears, He loves us for them and offers us ways to surmount them. And this is one reason why He offers Mary to us.

For, if our Lady is a mirror of perfection she is also one of us. She is 'our tainted nature's solitary boast' (Wordsworth) In her we see a creature, a woman, a mother, a sister, a companion, a teacher, one who was puzzled, one who was anguished, one who prayed, one who lived a working life mostly marked by poverty, a refugee, one bereaved of a Son, a faithful, humble, gentle soul. She is, in short, eminently approachable. Her purity does not inspire us with fear, as that of her Son's might do, but with a desire to emulate her. More than that those qualities such as love and simplicity which we can consider in abstract terms as belonging to the essence of God are exemplified as practical concrete things in the life and words of the Virgin Mother of Jesus. It might be that some of us can bypass our Lady in contemplation or that others can, as it were, leave her behind beyond a certain point as one enters deeper into God Himself yet nonetheless for many of us she is an indispensable ladder who offers herself because she is offered by God to those who need her. In Hindu thought there is a way known as Bhakti Yoga. This basically proposes that the best and easiest path to knowledge of God is through a loving devotional relationship with the divinity considered in a particular aspect as, say, friend to friend or lover to beloved. For Christians Mary above all others is our Bhakti Yoga, she is our Mother, fellow pilgrim, exemplar, advocate, sharer of our sorrows.

The Blessed Virgin also serves us as the perfect icon of a creature who meditates in order to know God better and love Him more. The words of St Luke at the top of the page tells us that Mary did not understand the word Jesus spoke and she kept it in her heart. The temptation for us here is to say 'she did not understand but she treasured it anyway.' There is no but however. She did not keep the words of Jesus because she understood them nor because she failed to understand them. She kept them because they were the words of Jesus, she needed no other reason. One of the pitfalls that beset us in meditation is the constant attempt of the mind to think discursively or analytically about a topic as if constant mental effort will eventually lead us to conquer infinity. Meditation is not about analysis and Christian meditation is not an affair of the mind it is a relationship from the heart. We give our attention to the object of contemplation, whether that be an episode from the Passion or an aspect of the personality of our Saviour or whatever, and we hold our attention fixed upon the object. Whatever distracts us from the object is not contemplation. Our aim is not so much to understand that which we contemplate as it is to be transformed by and into the One whom we contemplate.

This, by the way, is not a general rule for life. The discursive mind and the analytical tools which it can deploy are excellent things in their way. We could and should use it and them in all sorts of ways to understand the universe and the world around us. Nor can it be said that any aspect of the Christian religion should be off limits for the use of these tools and the results that flow from them can be broadcast from the rooftops. Christianity has nothing to fear from the use of reason and the results of investigation. Contemplation, however, is a different category of endeavour and requires a different skill set from scientific exploration. In this sphere what we took as an object of investigation ten minutes ago and will take up again as an object of investigation twenty minutes from now is currently being looked at from a different angle. We put penetrating its secrets into abeyance while we allow it to penetrate our hearts and pierce us with its infinite love. And this is precisely what the Evangelist shows us Mary doing when she kept all these words in her heart.

Our Lady can help us in meditating in two main ways. Firstly, by the role she played in the life of her Son. That is, we can contemplate episodes in her life and episodes in the life of Jesus viewed from her perspective. The Holy Rosary is above all others the most favoured method of meditation used by Catholics and the one through which we can contemplate most systematically the saving mission of Jesus through the eyes of Mary's heart. Apart from this we can take the episodes from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in which she appears and/or the words she is quoted as using and hold them attentively in our minds. For example her beautifully simple advice Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye. (John 2:5)  or this about the Apostles gathered around our Lady awaiting Pentecost  All these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus (Acts 1:15) In contemplating what she did and what she saw we find ourselves always being led by her into an ever closer, ever more trusting and ever more loving relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity and above all with her Son Jesus Christ.

Mary also helps us in this aspect of our lives, and indeed in every other aspect of our Christian lives too, in her role as Advocate and Mediatrix of All Graces. That is to say through her hands flows the Grace that proceeds from God towards all those who are in exile here in this world at this time. Whether we turn to Mary as an object of contemplation or not the Christian would be wise to begin meditating by calling upon her to look kindly towards us sending us the Grace we need to contemplate well. We would also do well to to ask her to plead on our behalf to the just judge, Jesus her Son, that He receive our adoration, offered from our heart to His during the time of meditation, as we should be offering it and not as we do actually offer it, disfigured by our sins, distracted by our earthly concerns. With the help of Mary we will do well, without it we will do nothing worth talking about. And we would be no less wise at the end of our period of contemplation to thank our Lady for the help she has given us. It always pleases Jesus when we show love for His mother and it always pleases Mary to lead us to Jesus. Catholic Christians at least should also always be pleased to offer thanks to the Blessed Virgin for this one thing above all- we thank Mary for being Mary.

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