The universal reason why Catholics honor Mary is because we find in her the most perfect example of discipleship in Jesus Christ. Her greatest attribute, aside from the fact that she is the Mother of God, is her great faith and her faithfulness. She is a “type of Church free of wrinkles or stain” as Second Vatican Council describes her, anticipating the glory of the world to come.
The profession of vows is an act of total self-giving to Christ. It is a complete sacrifice of one’s being to God through our humanity. The merit of the vows lies in the fact that by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, he has acquired for us the ability to participate in the plan of ongoing redemption. It is true that the death of Jesus accomplished our redemption once and for all. But the life of Jesus continues in His Church. After the Crucifixion, when Paul was busy persecuting the Christians, an incident of conversion transpired in his life. Our Lord struck Paul with a bright light and asked: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Saul inquired: “Who are you, Lord?” He answered: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” It is clear that Jesus, who was crucified, died and was buried, and rose again according to our faith, lives in His Church. It is not Jesus who WAS persecuted but Jesus whom Paul was presently persecuting in His Church.
The Church is alive and therefore continues to be in need of the purifying saving action of God. The merit of the vows does not depend on the merit of the person pronouncing them but in the saving action of Jesus who desires to re-live His mysteries on earth. When Jesus said: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to Me,”- this presupposes a faith in his presence in every human being. If this is our faith, then every person is able to exercise this priestly act of being “another Jesus.” If St. Paul says that Jesus is the first-fruit of many brethren, then we can and we must follow the example of his life, sacrifice and death on the Cross for the good of his body the Church.
I wish to reflect on the example of Mary, the perfect disciple, as she followed the life of the vows: her poverty, her chastity and complete obedience.
Mary is the “anawim” of God, the poor of Yahweh. Hers was a real material poverty. She was like all poor women of her time who contented themselves with the preoccupations of daily living. She engaged in simple tasks of weaving, baking and the business of homemaking. When Joseph became her husband, she most probably busied herself with the works of his trade. When Jesus was presented in the temple, they could only offer two turtle doves, an offering prescribed by the law of Moses for those who were poor. This was a telling sign of Mary and Joseph’s poverty.
HER POVERTY OF SPIRIT
1.) “Let it be done to me”
Poverty is an absence of something. Mary recognized that she is not her own, that she is only a creature. This is what real choice means. To be content to accept our true position before God. We are not our own, we have been purchased at the price of the blood of the most innocent Lamb of God, as St. Peter reminds us in his letter. Our life belongs completely to Him. He is free to do what he wants of us. But of course, he respects us so much that he is willing to condescend so as not to violate the true dignity of the freedom he gave us. Being poor in spirit means acknowledging that there is a Will mightier than our own and an intellect higher than our own. A wisdom which is all embracing and therefore deserving of our submission.
2.) The Magnificat
The Magnificat or Mary’s song of praise is a kind of poverty. It is a song about TRUTH. “He who is mighty has done great things for me.. He has looked upon the lowliness of his servant... He has fulfilled his promises to Abraham and all his descendants forever.” If we truly understand the truth about ourselves, that God is God and he made us, and not the other way around, we won’t feel as much self-importance as we do. We can accept the truth about our limitations and weaknesses. We won’t be able to sustain the temptation of thinking that the world revolves around our needs and wants. Not for very long anyway....
3.) “And Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months...”
Poverty also means total availability for others. Now this is hard. We can give of ourselves this much but not that much. Others can be oblivious to the fact that the well can run empty and there might not always be a supply of water. But if I truly say that I have given myself to Jesus, then He is free to use me in whatever way he pleases for the good of others. My talents, my goods, my time, my plans, are now given over to the pleasure of the One who is the recipient of my offering. This was what Mary did in her total gift of self.
4.) “Who is my mother?”
This was the deepest test of Mary’s poverty. How did she feel upon hearing this remark by Jesus? Although by a deeper analysis she was the undeniable recipient of a compliment addressed to all who follow God’s will, still she must have felt some human emotions. Suddenly, the boy she gave birth to, the child she nurtured and lulled to sleep so many nights ago, had now become a man who had a life of his own. He was not exclusively hers anymore. He now belonged to the world, to everyone. What detachment demanded of her! But this is true poverty of heart. This is the detachment asked of parents who are advanced in years and no longer have their children to care for them, their son and daughter having a life of their own. And of children who hand over their elderly parents to illness or death because there is nothing they can do about it. This is the detachment required of those who wish to follow Jesus in the life of ministry, leaving home and family. Mary gave Jesus completely to us without holding anything back for herself. She gave up her natural right to his time and attention so that He could fulfill the Will of the Father, go about his Father’s business and accomplish the work of our salvation.
5.) “Behold your Mother!”
This is the climax of Mary’s poverty. She stood at the foot of the Cross watching as her only Son die a painful death. And she was helpless. She had no power to put an end to his sufferings. The greatest trial I think is to watch someone we love suffer. And greater still is the torment when we can’t even lift a finger to help him or her. Mary had no voice to save Jesus. Euthanasia happens not so much because of a deliberate intention to kill someone but to put a stop to our helplessness and eliminate the pain that suffering brings. That is how it got its name of “mercy killing.” This is the greatest test of faith and a true human poverty. In the midst of this mystery we have no reasonable answer. But faith gives us the eye to see beyond what is before us. To go beyond second causes and direct everything to the unfathomable Will of God who directs all things and accomplishes all things. Sometimes, silence is louder than words. Mary stood at the foot of the Cross, silent but full of love. “Deep waters cannot quench love” as the Song of Solomon sings.
And now her Son dying on the Cross, with her future undecided, she was given John. If she had any other son, Jesus would not have entrusted her to a stranger. But John was not a stranger, he was Jesus’ beloved disciple. But she was left with no other person in the world but John. What poverty!
The fact that Mary’s life was so ordinary, filled with the all too human joys and tragedies, is a sign of human poverty. Her life was so simple, ordinary and bereft of the spectaculars and the exciting.
Chastity has a positive and negative connotations. It is negative in the sense that it implies a renunciation. It is positive in the sense that the object of this renunciation is for a higher good. It is a movement of the heart away from something natural, moving towards an all embracing good. The matter and the form of consecrated chastity is specific to the vow. It includes celibacy and sexual continence and opposes anything that directs it away from the perfect observance of it. The goal of consecrated chastity is complete freedom to love. Embracing this commitment does not mean death to our sexuality. It only implies that our sexual expression be redirected to a more pure and appropriate way of living our dignity as man and woman created in and for the fullness of love. We should be living images of this transcendent Love. The vow is a means to acquire this total emptiness of heart. It is a commitment to practice the virtue of perfect love , a love that is not limited or confined to one person or object or purpose. To be chaste means to create an emptiness that is open only to the One who can fully satisfy all our longings. It only makes sense that once our hearts are captured by love, it attaches itself completely to this love. This is true of romantic love. Consecrated chastity is a normal response and consequence of our full attachment to the object of our love- GOD. It is not acceptable to all but only to those to whom God gives this special grace.
The “Virgin of Nazareth” is St. Luke’s title for Mary. Her virginal state before her betrothal to St. Joseph is attested to by the Gospel writers. Our Catholic faith extols the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. Mary herself called herself the “Most pure and ever Virgin Mary” as she introduced herself to Juan Diego in the apparition of Guadalupe in Mexico. The virginal birth is narrated by both St. Luke and St. Matthew. Just as the choice of Mary to be the Mother of God Incarnate lies in the Will of the Father, so is her perpetual virginity decreed by the Father. What is impossible with God? He does whatever He wills, the Psalmist says. Hers is a singular grace of divine predestination because she was to be the Mother of the Lord Jesus. There is nothing so difficult to understand in that! Maybe because to the simple and childlike in faith, everything is simple!
At the Annunciation, she was asked to cooperate with God in His plan of salvation by asking her the gift of her femininity. Her sexuality is to be the instrument of the coming to fulfillment of the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive a child.” Her “donation of self” despite the sure penalty of death by stoning is the ultimate fruit of a chaste and virginal life, open to the Will of God, whatever it asked of her. The measure of the fruit of consecrated chastity is the degree of our self-emptying , our giving of self to others. A chastity that confines one to SELF, and ultimately away from OTHERS, is a futile, cold and empty chastity. I am called to serve God in the framework of my humanity and femininity. God asks me to know, love and serve Him as I am, a woman consecrated to him through the religious vows. My challenge is to tap all the qualities inherent in a woman to fulfill my mission on earth and fulfill my eternal destiny. I don’t have to be anything else or anyone else. I don’t have to engage in this useless arguments of gender equality. How can one aspire to be equal to “man” if I can’t even live to the fullness of being “woman.”
Mary’s words, “Let it be done to me as you said” is the whole essence of chastity. In Caryll Houselander’s book, “The Reed of God,” she compares Mary’s virginity to a pipe reed. A reed is hollowed out to receive the piper’s breath. She is the chalice made ready for the wine of sacrifice. Consecrated chastity is not losing something but finding Someone. The heart still beats with love but this love is purified, made freer to love even more. This is the kind of love that can hold the whole world.
Obedience is a hard notion to sell. In this age of secular individualism, to obey equals a form of slavery or loss of one’s dignity as a free person. Different cultures may have different views of it but there should be a universal agreement that obedience is indispensable for civilized co-existence. Law and order depends on civil obedience. In any kind of institution made up of people, some form of obedience is necessary to keep the operations going. This is natural obedience.
Holy Scriptures speak of obedience a lot. The prophets of the Old Testament attribute the evils Israel experienced from the hands of their enemies to their lack of obedience to the laws of God. In the post- Resurrection Church, the early Christians struggled with the dilemma of obeying Emperors and complying with their civil duties. St. Peter admonished them and exhorted them to obey their rulers for the love of God. St. Paul also exhorted the slaves to render obedience to their masters for the love of Christ because authority has its origin in God. The best example of obedience is the obedience of Jesus Christ. “I have come to do your Will, O God”, “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me.” “He was obedient even unto death, death on the cross” as St. Paul would tell the Ephesians.
It is from this view point that Religious Obedience is seen. It is said that this is the most difficult of the vows. Religious Poverty demands the sacrifice of one’s material goods, Religious Chastity of one’s body and Religious Obedience of one’s will. In effect the practice of the first two vows is possible because we choose to obey what they prescribe even if the intellect may not fully grasp the logic. Religious Obedience is anchored in faith and faith is the eye of the soul. It is easier to obey if I understand the logic of the command, even if I don’t like it. But it requires a deeper faith to submit without understanding. It demands a lot of humility and docility to obey someone ,who in our eyes, is not worthy of giving orders. But God doesn’t see it that way. “Obedience is more pleasing to God than sacrifice.”
A spiritual writer explains that we can never go wrong in obeying. Even if what is commanded is imperfect, God blesses the obedience of the person. This is of course considering the obvious that anything sinful or violating God’s commandments does not merit our obedience.
“Your ways are not my ways, your thoughts not my thoughts... For as high as the heavens are from earth, so are my ways above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts,” says the Lord. This is the mind of Religious Obedience.
“Let it be done to me as you say!” This phrase is like a kaleidoscope. Every time I look at it, it gives forth new lights. Mary’s obedience was not an obedience born of timidity and thoughtlessness. Before she uttered these words she had asked the messenger of God for some clarifications so as to shed a better light on what was asked of her. Hers was not even a “blind obedience” as some people would describe it. Her obedience was not blind because although the eyes of reason asked, “how can this be for I do not know man?”, her eye of faith pierced through the impossible and she actively consented to it.
Often times I may not see clearly with my intellect what God requires of me. Often times I pray: “God enlighten my mind that I may understand.” But often times I have experienced that the understanding was given after I have obeyed. I think St. Augustine may have said “Obey that you may understand.” What is the merit of obeying only if I understand? My prayer should always be that my faith be increased that I may see as God sees. It is precisely in darkness that the jewel of faith shines. We can always choose to see with faith. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Mary’s obedience mirrored that of Jesus. Hers was an obedience fueled by love and not by fear.
“Presentation in the Temple”
Mary was a true daughter of Abraham. According to the law of Moses she would present herself in the temple with the Infant Jesus to be purified. This obedience was a natural obedience of any devout Jew at the time.
More and more these days, our obedience to existing civil laws is constantly put to a hard test. The laws have become ends in themselves and do not anymore respect the dignity of man for which the laws of society are intended in the first place. To follow these so-called “legal laws” can become a occasion to disobey God. This is the age of martyrs. Somehow, history is repeating itself in that we are called once again to witness to the primacy of conscience, a conscience enlightened by the truths of God and man’s dignity.
In religious life, we are engaged in more pluralistic views of living the vows, community life and exercising our ministry. We have become a ‘thinking” community, preoccupied with the notion of collegiality and dialogue. These may not be bad in themselves but they have certainly changed the dynamics of relationships, both between superior and subject, and between each other in community. Somehow, the more dialogue we have, the less we accomplish and the more divided we have become. Often times, it comes down to who can tip the scale the most. Freedom has its price but it is one of the signs of the times. Every religious is now face to face with being personally accountable to how she exercises this freedom within the context of her vowed life - to God, her community and to the people of God she promised to serve. The common good is the object of the game.
Mary’s obedience permeated the entire fabric of her life. The things that were wrought in her was the result of a life totally given to the love of God. It wasn’t so much that she was asked to do something, but that something be done unto her. She obeyed this request and changed the course of the world. Our “yes” is never a one time response. Our obedience always has to be renewed at every moment, at every challenge that faces us. We all have our daily “annunciations.” We are always confronted with choices in our daily lives. We are always given the opportunity to say Yes or to say No. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “It is up to us to give God our permission. It is up to us to do something beautiful for God.”