Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
In his book Existence and Love, the sociologist William Sadler speaks of the nature of human maturity in the following way: “To fulfill the meaning of maturity involves openness to experience, but it also requires responsibility in experience.” Sadler then quotes Adrian van Kaam: “The most fundamental characteristic of the true personality is constant readiness to respond fully to the demands of reality.” Today we read of the love, joy, and peace that comes from Mary’s and Elizabeth’s openness to experience and readiness to respond fully to the demands of that reality. The Fundamental Principles call upon us to have such openness and willingness to respond by reminding us of that readiness in Mary:
Stand ready to answer God
when He asks you
if you are available for Him
to become more present in your life
and through you to the world.
may you willingly respond:
Let what you have said be done to me
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, a celebration of a very common, ordinary, and unspectacular human event. Mary becomes aware (in a not so ordinary way) of the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth. She sets out, according to Luke’s gospel “in haste,” to Elizabeth’s home in order to be with her. The encounter they have is filled with love, joy, and peace, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The words of Zephaniah are a striking description of the experience that they have together. It speaks of God’s rejoicing in them and of their being renewed in God’s love. The context of these words in this feast, however, reminds us that God rejoices in us and renews us only in our loving encounter with each other. The Lord longs to express to Elizabeth and to Mary his love of them, his joy in their very being (“He will sing joyfully because of you.”). To do this, however, God is reliant upon Mary’s readiness to see reality through her openness to experience and her willing response to the demands of the reality that she comprehends. Put simply, God’s love, peace, and joy is brought into the world every time we see reality and so attend to its call, and then respond fully to its demands.
The other day I was driving back to Baltimore from Boston with a confrere from Congo who is studying in the United States. At one point, as we stopped for lunch, I was engaged in texting a brother who was going to prepare supper for our arrival. As I did so, my Congolese confrere said to me, “Here you do so many things at once. While making this trip you are also planning what will happen afterwards.” His comment led me to consider how much of my daily life I spend thinking about the past or planning for the future, and how much that way of being affects the quality of my attention to the present. Even as our ride went along, I found myself growing in awareness of how much of my attention was directed at the imagined future of arriving at home, rather than being fully attentive to the reality of the present moment.
How Mary knew she was to bear a child and that her cousin was now herself with child is unknown to us. In the world of the scriptures, it is a messenger of God, an angel who reveals this. But what about for us? Is reality also calling us at each moment? And, if so, how are we to “stand ready” to respond in accord with the demands of that moment’s reality?
To be a believer is to realize that we are not “self-directed.” To be truly human is to be responsible, that is to have the ability to respond. The world does not belong to us; it belongs to God. Reality is not determined by our own thoughts and feelings or our own needs and desires. We can never know love, joy, and peace by working to willfully assert our own demands and desires. We can only know the truth of God’s love, joy, and peace by willingly responding to the demands of the real.
When I am thinking about what it will be like in some hours when I get home, I am living in the imaginary. What is real is my driving the car in the presence of the person next to me. The demands that reality is making of me, the call it is issuing to me is in that here and now. However it is that Mary comes to know of her cousin’s pregnancy, she hears at that moment the call, the demand of reality to go “in haste” to her cousin. It is because she responds to the truth of what is asked of her that she and Elizabeth recognize and experience God’s delight and joy in them and their lives at that moment.
Because of my own introspective and ruminative nature, I can readily imagine that were I in Mary’s place of learning at once of my own mysterious destiny and of another’s immediate need, that I might spend my time trying to work out and understand the meaning of the message given to me about my own life and call. Yet, for Mary the truth of God’s being more fully present in her life is, at once, a call to act in service to the other. It is to go “in haste” to be for her cousin and to do what she can for her. It is the nature of the reality of the present moment that it is a call to us to act, to do what is ours to do and to do so in faith, not worrying about our own abilities and lacks.
An aspect of human fallenness is that we tend to imagine ourselves at once as much greater and lesser than we are in reality. On the one hand, we tend to make of ourselves “legends in our own minds.” We see our life call in somewhat spectacular terms and ponder our hoped for significance to others and to the world. We tend to inflate our own egos, seeing our egoic selves as the center of reality. Yet, we do this in part because we fear our smallness and what we think might be our insignificance. Put simply, we fear that we are not up to the call of reality in the present moment. The greater our anxiety in this regard, the more that we fail to remain open to life and experience. In short, we live in our memories of the past and our imaginings of the future because we fear our lack of potency in the present. Instead of “standing ready” to respond to the demands of reality in the present, we prefer to create an alternate reality that attempts to constrain reality within the boundaries of our own fears and anxieties.
So, while we are at our core called to respond and be responsible, we must first awaken to the truth of things. We must learn to be attentive. According to Jesus, this will require us to die to ourselves, to give away everything that we possess and to become poor in spirit. The problem with possessions, be they material, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual, is that to the degree we clasp them our hands are too full to be open to what the moment is offering us. When I am planning a future rather than living the present, I am blind to the possibilities and call of the present. I am thinking of the nice supper we will share, rather than sharing the present moment and attending to the appeal of the person to whom I am currently present.
So, the paradox is that we learn to really do, to act responsibly, by practicing not doing. In the developed world, one of the greatest problems we face is a sense of boredom due to our loss of our capacity for awe and wonder. We live in a world of control and management, so that we have lost our sense of reality as call. Perhaps there are no longer spirits and angels for us because in our inverted awe over our own powers of technology and management we have banished them. It almost sounds bizarre to us to say we believe that the reality of this moment is a call to which we are uniquely able to respond. In the words of The Cloud of Unknowing, “there is one impulse of grace for each atom of time.” So, our life call comes to us moment by moment. We are always and everywhere being called to bring the delight, peace, love, and joy of God into the world by responding to the call we are receiving in word and deed. We are mature as human persons to the degree that we live in a “constant readiness to respond fully to the demands of reality.” As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, truly “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Each of us is a capacity to recognize and realize and to offer that grandeur uniquely in each moment and situation. To do so, however, we must learn and practice how to be attentive, not primarily to our own thoughts, wishes, fears, and needs but to reality as God has and is creating it.
The eye has no color and yet truly possesses color, because it recognizes it with pleasure and delight and joy. And as the powers of the soul become more perfect and unmixed, so they apprehend more perfectly and comprehensively whatever they apprehend, receiving it more comprehensively, having greater joy, becoming more united with what they apprehend, to the point where the highest power of the soul, bare of all things and having nothing in common with anything, receives into itself nothing less than God himself, in all the vastness and fullness of his being. And the authorities show us that there is no delight and no joy that can be compared with this union and this fulfilling and this joy. This is why the Lord says so insistently: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3). A person is poor who has nothing. To be poor in spirit means that all the eye is poor and deprived of color, and is able to apprehend every color, so one is poor in spirit who is able to apprehend every spirit, and the Spirit of all spirits is God. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy and peace (Ga. 5:22). To be naked, to be poor, to have nothing, to be empty transforms nature; emptiness makes water flow uphill, and many other marvels of which we need not now speak.
Meister Eckhart, The Book of Divine Consolation,