Read an Excerpt
THE Fire OF Your Life
By MAGGIE ROSS
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2007 The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York
All rights reserved.
The Answer to Nicodemus
In the beauty of holiness have I begotten you, like dew from the womb of the morning.
Fill our hearts with the quiet silence of that night on which your almighty Word leapt down out of your royal throne, and came to visit us in great humility.
* * *
December is the season of Advent, the time of expectancy, of hushed hearts and quiet waiting. And though many Christians don't make too much of her, it is the season of Mary.
For she is expectant, and when a woman approaches her term there is about her a peculiar quality of quiet, a great silence that communicates itself to the most casual passerby. Ordinary noises in the landscapes through which she travels become stilled. She moves slowly, carefully, waiting for the first pangs of labor or the breaking of waters that presage a new birth.
I felt this stillness most powerfully when I was ten years old, and my family was living in Washington, D.C. My mother, who was then forty years old, was about to give birth. It was as if the whole world were on tiptoe. And then one hot, humid June day, she went to the hospital, and I was left at home with a sitter. My older sister had been shipped off to summer camp. And I was very much alone.
The house, which was spacious and comfortable, seemed to expand, as if the walls were illusion and would recede if I approached them. The silence grew tremendous as I waited for the return of my mother and the new brother or sister. Secretly I hoped the baby would be a boy, because my father, in his good-natured chauvinism, had promised me an electric train if it were. I never got that electric train, but it didn't matter because I was given something much more precious.
This birth came late in my mother's child-bearing life, and in 1951 there were no obstetricians specializing in pregnancies at the eleventh hour. As a result, or perhaps inevitably, my mother came home quite exhausted. In the perspective of childhood, or the distortion of memory, it seems to me that I was given my little sister to care for while our mother recovered. I'm sure I had much less responsibility than I recall, but the deep bond formed with my sister during the first few months of her life remains to this day.
Her first years are the closest I've come to motherhood, unless you count the numerous stray teenagers who used to pass through my life, or deliveries of puppies, pigs, and foals I've midwifed, helping these surrogate progeny to develop a useful independence.
The reason for detailing these commonplaces is that over the centuries Mary has been so exalted in some quarters that she has become almost inaccessible to people like me who were not raised in an Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox home. She has been so surrounded by nonsense, so encrusted with cult, apologized for with such atrocious theology, that the Second Vatican Council sought a corrective in its sensible decree.
For if Jesus is God participating and revealed in human life, his mother must be a very earthy woman in the best sense of earthy and the most complete sense of woman, not some remote, impossibly slender creature, palely simpering in plaster. For Jesus to be real, we need a Madonna like one of the Low Countries' madonnas, with a peasant's face and a peasant's simplicity, who is not embarrassed to pull down her blouse and suckle her child when he cries.
It is only from this base that I can begin to understand Mary as the exaltation of ordinariness, the quietly hidden Queen of Heaven, Queen of Saints, Mystical Rose, and all the other titles by which she is known. She is a mirroring of her self-emptying son; she chooses her abasement for Love's sake, with no guarantees of any reward but sorrow. It is only from this base that I can accept the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego. God uses the tools at hand and works through uniqueness in culture, history, personality.
But to have come even this far in understanding the place of Mary in Christianity and in my life has taken a long, long time.
Religion was rarely discussed when I was a child. My father abandoned his Ozark Baptist upbringing, and my maternal grandmother was deep into Christian Science. And though, according to the blindness of that time, there was never any overt religious bigotry in our family when I was growing up, it was understood that while our Roman Catholic friends were very fine people, they were at the same time possibly somewhat weak-minded when it came to matters of religion, especially their outlandish attitude toward the Virgin Mary.
Thus it was that in spite of being drawn to her devotion at an early age, and in spite of the education of years, it is only in the last decade that I've been able to say a Hail Mary without feeling guilty, or use a rosary without being furtive. In coming to terms with Mary I had to start from scratch.
In the last decade there has been an explosion of studies in the long-neglected area of relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters and sisters, and women in general, quite apart from feminism. But unless you have been raised with the idea that Mary is, in a very real way, your mother, your attitude toward her, if you are a woman, tends to be slightly suspicious: Who is this woman and why should I pay attention to her? Why should I ask Mary to pray for me when I can pray to God? How can I possibly identify with her life? And feminism has amplified these questions, presenting Mary as a literal model of ordered subservience, instead of the more profound theological metaphor of salvation through paradox: that true humility is divinity, which is the secret, the treasure of the single-hearted.
As time passed, I wrestled with these questions while very cautiously allowing her a tiny corner in my consciousness, occasionally using the beads a friend once gave me, half expecting to be struck by lightning.
Perhaps solitude has taught me more about Mary than anything else. Of all women, the narrative reveals her as most solitary. How could anyone possibly understand what happened to her? By implication she experiences ridicule and disbelief. The very miracle of her life shuts her off from the rest of women except Elizabeth, whose conception of John by divine Mercy was the closest parallel.
It was kind of God to give Mary the comfort of Elizabeth. She had no other.
A more specific insight came one year on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. If I'd known the historical origins of this feast it might have been yet another stumbling block, but being happily ignorant and somewhat literal, I celebrated a Lady who certainly had a lot to weep about—and then, like an unexpected wave, the realization washed over me that here was the archetypal Mary, and my relationship to her was in the simple mystery all women share, which is to weep over their men.
I believe this role stems as much from biology as from cultural conditioning. Women are haunted by a sense of loss from earliest childhood. This may rise, according to one theory, from the fact that a woman's reproductive system is itself hidden, and therefore a source of wonder and mystery. It may also be rooted in a sense of deprivation as cultural expectation and cultural devaluation excise option after option, and impose emotional and intellectual blocking.
Learning to live with this inborn sense of loss is a hard lesson for some women. It's significant that it was Luke, a physician likely to have an inkling of this aspect of women, who wrote of Mary that she pondered in her heart the unfathomable events surrounding her son's life. For other women, harder than bearing loss is to escape the encapsulation in which it tends to enclose us; harder yet to realize is that with nothing to lose, everything is possible—if you are willing to pay the price.
For while women may seem more emotional, more prone to tears than men, they hide their deepest hurts—their own and those of their loved ones—in their hearts and never speak of them to anyone. Yet it is this very secrecy that seems often to give women a spiritual toughness and endurance that sustain them when they think they have reached their last reserves of strength.
One day I had my own annunciation. The raked winter sun was streaming through the east window of the hermitage, illuminating various items stuck on the rough sawn wall, including a little icon of our Lady of Guadalupe that a Cistercian monk had given me.
As the angled shaft of light set the icon on fire, my hand reached for a dusty rosary both to protect myself and, unaccountably, to enter the sudden conflagration that until this moment had been tamed by the votive light that burned there day and night. It was then that I realized that the angel was greeting not only her but also me; that the intimacy of bread made God and God made Bread was possible only because of her obedience; that sacrament is the earthly and tangible culmination of her yes and our yes to participate in the fact of the Incarnation.
Annunciations are events of infinite and immense silence, for all that the Gospel records of conversation. The walls or scenery push back, become transparent to reveal all that is, was, will be, and then converge within.
That morning I came to understand that it is by baptism that we say, "Be it unto me according to your Word," to bear that Word by the power of the Holy Spirit, and to bring it to fruition in our lives. It's difficult to describe the impact of sunlight on a piece of printed paper stuck to fiberboard, and the insight may seem obvious, but it shook me to the heart.
I took another step when the story of Nicodemus was read at the Eucharist the morning I was to leave for retreat at a Cistercian abbey. His question, "How shall this be?" awoke the echoing voices of Mary and Zechariah, of Abraham and Sarah's laughter over God's preposterous proposal that he at a hundred years, and she in her nineties, would bear a son.
But the significance of these echoes didn't become apparent until I was complaining to the monks—who are most patient—about my problems with Mary that no matter how hard I tried to understand, most of what had been written about her seemed specious. In response, they pointed to their Cistercian heritage, in which Mary is not only the ideal model for the monk in her single-hearted silence and hiddenness, but also takes the monk within her to be born with Christ.
Suddenly it seemed to make sense, though it is still difficult to articulate. This is the answer to Nicodemus: to bear the Word, to enter the kingdom, we must indeed be born from the Spirit, not for the second time in the womb of our natural mothers, but continually in the love of the Mother of God that brought forth her son, and like her, in the same movement, to bear Christ as well. Mary, then, is my mother in this second birth, just as she is for Nicodemus.
That my heart is still not big enough to encompass this paradox I readily admit. I still feel unease about Mary sometimes; there is still the flickering suspicion that perhaps I, too, am weak-minded. But if nothing else, Mary has taught me to say yes: as Abraham and Sarah said yes, as Elizabeth and Zechariah said yes, as Jesus said yes to the cup that did not pass from him.
And each time that cup is passed to me at the Eucharist, I look into its depths beyond the dark wine shimmering gold and, trembling, I say, yes.
Visions and Vision
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.
* * *
Flying at thirty-seven thousand feet in a 747 jet is an experience unique to the last quarter of our technological century.
The urge to escape the bond of gravity, however, is as old as humanity, whether soaring above earth or spiritual flight, or rising from somberness to laughter.
The migration of wild geese in spring and autumn gathers the fragments of this desire into a single burning moment. Great flocks wing overhead, waking me in the night, or pulling me from work in the early morning as they begin the day's journey, rising from reed beds, flapping heavily, their voices in crescendo giving power to their wings until they catch the updrafts of the rapidly lightening dawn.
Their cries call to me with longing, homesickness, tugging at my heart with an intensity that increases until I, too, flap my would-be wings, exulting with them, then slowing, sadly stopping, because it is not given for me to join them. But there is always hope.
The view from a 747 is higher than a goose enjoys, and the aircraft is itself very beautiful. The cabin is built on a continuous curve, and the broad wing has a reverse angle two-thirds of the way out that gives it a lovely sweep, leading your eye into infinity.
I was once on a flight, west to east across America, that was an advertising executive's dream. We took off in perfect weather, the engines' rumble calling in its own way to my earthbound yearning to be free, and as the plane rolled down the runway, there was the mounting excitement that, feathers or no, we were going to fly, and then intense pleasure as the behemoth gently lifted off and became airborne.
Early snow covered the western mountains and Great Plains, and as we flew past the sun, past morning and noon toward dusk and darkness, clouds began to gather beneath us until, in the evening glow of our fore-shortened day, the silver expanse of wing with its two cavernous engine pods led to fantastic shapes rising mauve and rose and gold, and beyond the horizon, visions and dreams beyond speech.
We who by our biology are earthbound tend to study life from the point of view of the microcosm, and from this perspective intuit the macrocosm. But 747s help us to see, for once, our earth as a macrocosm that is itself a microcosm of the universe.
The mystics find the universe, seen and unseen, in hazelnuts, grains of sand, and wildflowers. Their visions communicate to us a vision, a perspective, that widens the lens of our hearts, enabling us to glimpse through theirs a depth of field we had not dreamed existed.
Yet these days, visions have an ambivalent reputation at best. When we hear of someone having a vision, many of us feel skepticism, perhaps provoked to ridicule by a deluded empiricism, a reaction that is more than a little fear of being laughed at for our credulity and hope, compounded by an intuition deep within where the green-eyed serpent, Envy, twists and writhes and enjoys its Eden-born havoc.
This split in us is diabolical. It is one of the poignant dilemmas expressed in the myth of the Fall of Adam and Eve, who were not content with direct perception of God and creation, but wanted something more: the fragmented empirical knowledge that could and would, quite literally, put God to the test. This inheritance from our first parents is redeemed only in part by the vantage point from 747s and other mechanical imitations of wild geese.
But curiosity about visions persists. There have been attempts by psychological empiricists to give us a natural history of visions under controlled conditions, when by definition self-consciousness is lifted only when control is relinquished; by philosophers playing with speculative linguistic patterns that have no connection with ancient documents that clearly point to the root experience of loss of self-consciousness—self-consciousness that is both our glory as human beings and the bane that separates us from God and from each other. These supposed empirical analyses far surpass Adolphe Tanquerey's succinct (and equally flawed) summary of three types of visions in his nineteenth-century book, The Spiritual Life. His categories are apparitions, imaginative visions, and intellectual visions.
The empiricists, by contrast, have supplied us with a surfeit of descriptive jargon. They encourage us to dismiss all visions as visualization, self- hypnosis, hallucination, hysteria, neurosis, psychosis, auditory dysfunction, indigestion, or the DTs.
Both approaches present problems. Religious leaders become Manichean and gnostic when they deny the goodness of all of creation, when they draw distinctions between natural and supernatural and imply that visions are important in themselves and given in specific ways to the select few. We thus tend to think of visions as occurring only within rigid categories that are impossibly foreign to our age and experience, or, at the other extreme, manifesting themselves in patently silly ways such as Bernini's sentimental fantasy of St. Teresa in ecstasy.
But visions are the stuff of ordinary life, and without them we long ago would have yielded to despair. Because they do not often occur in the modes described by Tanquerey, we tend not only not to recognize them as visions, but also to miss the subtle direction God gives us within the ordinary fabric of our lives, and to ignore the heart's response to the prodigality of Love barely perceived on the flickering littoral of consciousness.
Excerpted from THE Fire OF Your Life by MAGGIE ROSS. Copyright © 2007 The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.