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.Zephaniah 3: 17-18
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
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Visitation. Luke’s gospel begins with three intertwined stories: the announcing to Zechariah of his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist, the announcing to Mary of her being chosen to give birth to the Messiah, and Mary’s immediate journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is now pregnant in her old age. These stories together describe much of the ways of God in coming to be with us and the results of that presence. They relate what happens when we human beings dispose ourselves to the desire of God to love and work in us, and they describe the characteristics of a human personality that is transformed by this presence and life.
At the very beginning of the Torah, we read in Genesis that before their act of disobedience to God, Adam and Eve walked with God. Their “natural state” was to be companions of God, to walk, and so live, hand in hand with God. The opening episodes of Luke describe for us the way that God has chosen to bring us back to that “natural state” after we had lost it. Scripturally, self-alienation is alienation from God. We live our lives and become whom we are created to be when we are restored to our original state of at-oneness with God.
So, as Adam and Eve after their sin hide from God, both Zechariah and Mary are originally afraid as they encounter the messenger and the call of God. Mary “was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1: 29) When Zechariah saw the angel, “he was startled and was gripped with fear.” (Luke 1:12) If before the fall, our life was life with God, afterwards, and so for us, our daily life is a life in diaspora, one where our consciousness is scattered among all the attractions, desires, fears, and anxieties of our world. Our state of alienation from self and God has become our normal state, the “real world” for us. So, when God would break into our self-encapsulation and unmitigated distraction, our first reaction is disorientation and even fear.
Earlier this week I wrote of my friend’s question to me of why, if I knew something of living the true and fuller life that was life with God, I didn’t live there more of the time. The answer, at least in part, is given in Luke’s description of the “annunciations” to Zechariah and Mary. When Zechariah is told that the greatest desire and longing of his life is to be fulfilled, he responds by asking “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1: 18) Even Mary questions, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1: 34) In each case, the work of God in them requires that they abandon the boundaries and limits of their current lives. As Zephaniah declares, God rejoices over us and so “renews us in his love.” It is more than a bit frightening to come to grips with the fact that the one we are that God loves is both present now but also will of necessity be continually new and different. I often think of a former novice in our community who, when he heard about the “johari window” construct for the first time felt terror that there would be something of him that others would know that he did not. Oftentimes, in our ego-oriented culture, we console ourselves with a construct of God who loves and delights in us “as we are.” But this is not the whole story. When God is present and active in us, his love will always be renewing and so changing us.
So, the immanent presence of God always brings with it change and renewal. Our preference for what we sense as stability and permanence is a sign of our fallen selves. Zechariah calls on the angel to prove to him the possibility of what he sees as an impossibility in his old age. Before responding he wants assurance on his terms. So too do we. Before giving ourselves over to the power of that love that will renew us as an ever new creation, we want assurance that we shall be able to bear it. In fact, most of the time we actually insist on controlling the outcome. We were made to walk with God, but now we must labor, by the sweat of our brow, to learn how to do so. No less than Adam and Eve, having eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we hide ourselves from God. To show ourselves, to bring ourselves out of hiding, is fearful for us. Our daily lives hold together because of the stories, partly true and partly illusory, that we tell ourselves. In order to receive the gift of God that God desires to give us, we must dare to be without those stories. As Zechariah and Mary think they know who they are in terms of their limits to the will of God in them, so also do we. I also say to God, “If I cease to steer my life compulsively in the ways that give me meaning, how can I be sure that there is anything left? If I forget my own image in the eyes of others and myself, how can I be sure that I will not cease to be?” God loves and delights in us, but the one in whom he delights and longs to live may be other than we take ourselves to be.
This is the abandonment that is required for contemplation. Thomas Merton points out that if we become overly concerned or obsessed with ourselves that is a sign that we are not in contemplation. For, the foundational disposition required is the letting go of self, as we understand it. It is releasing in trust to a love that loves one that we do not even really know. So, contemplation is not only darkness in terms of our understanding or knowledge of God but also in terms of ourselves. We cease to be concerned with who we are when we abide in the one whose we are.
It is something of a common understanding in psychotherapy that narcissistic personality disorder is among the most impenetrable and unshakeable forms of psychosis. While perhaps not qualifying as psychotic in this regard, I must admit to experiencing the impenetrability of my own narcissism in terms of the call to abandonment to God. It is difficult to trust that I am more than what I take myself to be, for well and ill. While often enough self-depreciative, I am also unduly “fascinated” by myself. I may not spend a lot of time looking at my reflection in a pool, but I do spend much of my life attempting to order the world around myself. It is this self that is fearful in the face of God’s annunciations. It is this over concern about myself that is the principal obstacle to being-in-the-world in truth, not as I try to orient it but as God has created it.
Yet, what of today’s Feast? What does the Visitation tell us about contemplation and transformation? What happens to us when, as Merton puts it, “God enlightens our soul” with “a ray of darkness”? When we cease to have self-concern and to be overly interested in our own state, we become pure act. That is, in true contemplation, we become instruments of love. As St. Francis prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” To walk with God in a broken world is to be an instrument of God’s mending of that world. The tricky part of this is that when we try to mend on our terms we are only making matters worse, for we are relying on our own very limited, sinful, and self-obsessed perspective. Without realizing it, we are working to create the world in our own image and according to our own distorted likeness. Contemplation precedes action not as something to give us energy to act or to make us religious or spiritual before inflicting our own will on the world. Rather, it is to allow God to make us new that we might truly become God’s instruments. Thus, Mary identifies herself in the Magnificat in the following way: “My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for God has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Our “self-perception” in contemplation is always that of servant.
Thus, having encountered the angel and been impregnated with Jesus, Mary immediately “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste.” This is not the haste of compulsion; it is rather the haste of obedience and instrumentality. We, formed in a secular age, are always fearful that somehow to speak of contemplation and prayer will make us passive and self-centered. However, true prayer and even what the tradition would call “passive contemplation,” always results in action, but action of a different kind and even of a different order from that which springs from ourselves. Were I to guess, I would say that, although Mary proceeds in haste to the hill country of Judea, she does not get tired in doing so. She is not wearing herself out, for there is no “self” to wear out. In her doing, she is merely being the instrument she is called to be. She is not laboring by the sweat of her brow for she is walking with God as she proceeds. The same soul that magnifies the Lord does so both in prayer and in act. Could we have asked her “Why?” she is going so hastily to her cousin, she would have no answer other than to do so. She has no why because the only why is in the “mind” and will of God, and she is the instrument, the servant, of that will.
As for the consolations of contemplative quietude: too intent a reflection on them quickly turns into a kind of narcissistic complacency and should be avoided. Even supposing that one is genuinely passive under the action of God (and some people are adept at imagining they are when this is not the case), still reflection on ourselves would be just the kind of activity that would prove an obstacle to the action of grace. The “ray of darkness” by which God enlightens our soul in passive contemplation has this about it: it makes us indifferent to ourselves, to our spiritual ambitions, and to our own “state.” If we let the light of God play on the depth of our souls, in its own way and refrain from too much curious self-inspection, we will gradually cease to worry about ourselves and forget these useless questions. This indifference and trust is itself a mystical grace, a gift of Divine Counsel, that leaves all decisions to God in the wordlessness of a present that knows no explanations, no projects, and no plans. As Eckhart says, mystical love of God is a love that asks no questions.Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, pp. 74-75