Picturing Mary, Absorbed in Contemplation of the Word Within

The Visitation sketched by Charles de Foucauld

The Visitation sketched by Charles de Foucauld

When I picture you, Mary, going, as in the Gospel, to a hill country of Judah, to perform an act of charity for your cousin Elizabeth—I see you as beautiful, serene, majestic, absorbed in contemplation of the Word of God within you.
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity

Action and Contemplation with Mary and Elizabeth

The Visitation sketched by Charles de Foucauld

The Visitation sketched by Charles de Foucauld

In what peace, what recollection, Mary went to and lent herself to everything! How the most commonplace things were divinized by her—for she remained ever in adoration of the Gift of God!—yet that did not hinder her from spending herself externally when there was question of putting into practice charity. The Gospel tells us that Mary quickly made way to the hill country of Judah and greeted Elizabeth. Never did the unspeakable vision which she contemplated within herself diminish her exterior charity!
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880–1906)

Ordinary Time and the “Sacrament” of Nazareth

At St John Church in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The majority of the year is Ordinary Time. The majority of the lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were lived in Nazareth. Both can be barely seen: few major festivals in the year, and few major remembrances of the divine life in Nazareth in the Scriptures. Yet they comprise the majority. They comprise the vast majority.

Indeed, of the life in Nazareth, the most significant external happening seems to be Mary’s visit of Elizabeth and the sanctification of John the Baptist. But all this happened without words and without to-do. Mary went. She spent time. Jesus, from all eternity, chose this silent way to overflow peacefully his life, by mere presence almost imperceptible, into the life of his holy cousin: the sanctification of the greatest figure of the Old Covenant happened by mere communication and diffusion of the good, without preaching, without miracles, without the grandest and most obvious of things to see. The Visitation by which John the Baptist was made very holy was simply one event of many in the average run of life.

Under the radar it all passes, except for the keenest of spiritual senses… and even then, through no fault of our own, we may miss it. It is by an almost imperceptible diffusion, radiation, and overgrowth of good from within pushing towards the outside that Nazareth has any meaning. Jesus lived, worked, sweated, prayed, interacted with his neighbours: and what did it amount to? Not even the Gospel writers tell us in any detail. But undoubtedly, since even one of Jesus’ actions could have been enough to redeem the whole human race, all that, if we were to write down all the things that Jesus did in Nazareth alone, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).

For isn’t that the Gospel? God became man and man became God in the person of Jesus. This is that great mystery of Nazareth – and of Ordinary Time, if we may say so – that Charles de Foucauld clung to all his life: Jesus lived on earth, in a concrete place, with concrete neighbours! And into such a small space, the infinite flowed, diffused and radiated outwards. Perhaps we didn’t see. But it happened. This mystery has never been plumbed to the full in Christian history. Blessed Charles de Foucauld and those who love him, the philosopher Jacques Maritain, Saint Francis de Sales and the Visitandine spirituality, are just some examples of those who have stared into this mystery for years and years, never to exhaust it (for Saint John the Evangelist tells us that we never shall). Jean-Pierre de Caussade SJ, spiritual director to a Visitandine community, comments along similar lines and condenses much into few words:

There are remarkably few extraordinary characteristics in the outward events of the life of the most holy Virgin… Her exterior life is represented as very ordinary and simple. She did and suffered the same things that anyone in a similar state of life might do or suffer. She goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth as her other relatives did. She took shelter in a stable in consequence of her poverty. She returned to Nazareth from whence she had been driven by the persecution of Herod, and lived there with Jesus and Joseph, supporting themselves by the work of their hands. It was in this way that the holy family gained their daily bread. But what a divine nourishment Mary and Joseph received from this daily bread for the strengthening of their faith! It is like a sacrament to sanctify all their moments. What treasures of grace lie concealed in these moments filled, apparently, by the most ordinary events… Sacrament of the present moment! Thou givest God under as lowly a form as the manger, the hay, and the straw.

This “sacrament” of the present moment of Nazareth is simply that the infinite is bursting into the finite at every place and time in history. And God knows that our finite eyes will never see it all. Did we even catch all that happened in the Visitation? Yet that was but one of the most visible events in thirty years of the Holy Family’s life in Nazareth, that obscure town from which nothing good was thought to come (Jn 1:46). But even there, even then – indeed especially there, especially then – this “sacrament” of the present moment came to be, burst forth, and diffused and radiated outwards in ways unpredictable and not totally perceptible to human minds.

Contemplation Found in the Mystery of the Visitation

Ah! the Mother of God, our Blessed Lady and Mistress, while she did not see her divine child but felt him within her – Ah! my God! what content she had therein! And did not Saint Elizabeth admirably enjoy the fruits of our Saviour’s divine presence without seeing him, upon the day of the most holy Visitation? Nor does the soul in this repose [of contemplation] stand in need of the memory, for she has her lover present. Nor has she need of imagination, for why should we represent in an exterior or interior image him whose presence we are possessed of?
Saint Francis de Sales

The Visitation

The Visitation sketched by Charles de Foucauld

The Visitation sketched by Charles de Foucauld

When it comes up in the Rosary, this is one of my favourite meditations: the Visitation.

Mary receives joyful news that God is with her. What does she do? After a while, she goes and spends some time with Elizabeth. She carries Jesus to someone else; then she stays and helps and just lives with that person.

This is how Blessed Charles de Foucauld put it:

Mary set out to sanctify Saint John, to proclaim the Good News, to evangelize him and to sanctify him, not with words but by bringing Jesus to him in his home, in silence…

It’s the story of some of our seemingly pointless, hum-drum lives writ large by God: “Living like this is not pointless; just be there; just be with people and with me; my own Mother did it. Think about this for a while, and pray.”