Mary lived in traumatic times and so do we. The Rev. Paul Perez suggests that her contemplative practices in the days before Jesus’ birth might work well for us, too.
Director of Connectional Ministry, Michigan Conference
Mary, Jesus’ mother, is on my mind and heart this Advent.
Four scriptural scenes about Mary have been swirling about me these past two weeks: Mary’s reflective pondering of her experience (Luke 2:19); her prophetic poetry in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); her confident and authoritative presence (John 2:5); and her embrace of new kin in the midst of tragedy and grief (John 19:25-27).
Of the four, I keep returning to Mary, “the contemplative” who “pondered all these things in her heart.” Mary had been through tremendous, overwhelming, and traumatic experiences. Mystical vision. Surprise pregnancy. Forced journey to a strange place. Labor and delivery in less than ideal conditions. Perhaps she wondered what it all meant or questioned who she was after it or simply needed the time and space to process. Maybe all of the above.
We have all been through so much this year. While the effects of the pandemic are not uniform, with some people impacted much more than others, each and every person has faced uncertainty and loss in some way. In the midst of the strange Advent and Christmas before us, Mary invites us to join her in pondering, in contemplation.
Contemplation is a form of prayerful reflection. While intercessory prayer seeks to request God’s action directly, contemplative prayer seeks to listen to God intentionally. Over the centuries, Christians developed spiritual practices designed to cultivate inner silence and stillness to be more attentive to God’s presence and grow in deeper relationship with God. These practices include Lectio Divina, the Examen, or Breath Prayer. Contemplative prayer can also occur in less formal, traditional ways, like the stillness of a morning walk, watching the afternoon snowfall, journaling, listening to a moving piece of music, and in the midst of familiar repetitive activities like crafting, baking, sketching, knitting, tending a garden, or wood-working.
Over the years, contemplative prayer has grounded and balanced my life’s active dimensions: church leadership, parenting, and social justice activism, to name a few. The dance between contemplation and action has helped me better discern God’s activity, build resilience, and nurture creativity. I wish I could say I am a disciplined practitioner, faithfully and consistently engaging in one contemplative prayer practice over an extended period of time. I cannot. My practice has been more episodic and shifted among the formal and informal. The call to contemplation, however, has remained constant. In this moment, I might even say, “acute.”
We are living through a time of massive disruption. A tremendous, overwhelming, and traumatic time. We are left wondering what it all means. Questioning who is in the midst of it and who is going to be when it is all over. In need of time and space to process.
As we face a different kind of Advent and Christmas season, one which might be more solitary, we would do well to follow Mary’s lead and “ponder these things in our hearts.” Not necessarily for answers or closure, but to welcome a God who shows up in the most unexpected places.