"All you need is a Good Cry."
These words were Mary’s answer to my chaotic emotions as I knelt in a chapel in Rome in August 1984. After two years in Nepal, where I was assigned as novice director for our candidates from India, I was called to a gathering of other Marianists involved in formation throughout the world. I had just come from a lecture on discernment, where an Indian Jesuit had given a brilliant exposition of Philippians 1:9-11. It was an impeccable explanation of the same text I had analyzed twenty-five years earlier in my doctoral thesis.
My Mother, My Spiritual Counselor. But during the lecture, I found myself getting agitated and angry, and then getting angry at myself for getting angry. What was wrong? The lecture was faultless, but I was in turmoil. Why? As soon as I had a chance, I went to the chapel and asked Mary, my spiritual mother, what was wrong. As I prayed, she showed me that I was experiencing, now as a spectator and a student, the role I had successfully played for years as a teacher and lecturer in the United States before Nepal. And I was missing that.
It was not that I went to Nepal with regret. I felt the inward call as well as the outward one from my superiors. But there was some unresolved grief at what I had left, and that was surfacing. How to deal with that? “All you need is a good cry,” she said. That happened the next day when at Communion we sang Pescador de Hombres, a hymn about Peter’s call to follow Jesus. That song pierced me that day: “All I have treasured I have left on the sand there. Close to you I will find other seas.” Through my tears, I rediscovered the joy of leaving what I treasured to follow the Lord to other seas.
I share this story not because it is traumatic but because it is typical of what I do when I find myself upset or disturbed. I run to Mary like a little child who has scraped his knee. She reassures me, as a mother does her child, that this is not the end of the world. She tells me that if I let the Spirit of God hover over my chaos as he did at the first creation, I will hear “Let there be light,” and I will learn how to cope and respond. In fact, God can create something beautiful out of the mess!
Mary is not just my spiritual counselor. She helps me grow in four important areas of prayer: listening, praising, interceding, and presence.
A Listening Heart. Two thousand years ago in an obscure village in Galilee, this young girl was the ear of the earth. On behalf of the whole world, she listened and heard the voice of God. And then, on behalf of the whole world, she responded. God told her, “I’m coming to save the world, and I want you to be my mother.” Mary listened and said, “Yes.”
Every morning my meditation is a Nazareth moment when I come to listen—not to speak but to listen. The most important voice to be heard in prayer is not mine but God’s. Like Mary, I need the Holy Spirit to come upon me so that Jesus, the Word, can become flesh in my life. Ordinarily that will be a word of Scripture brought to life with a now meaning for me. Mary models that process for me.
Praise and Intercession. Mary also shows me the importance of praise. She goes to Elizabeth to share the good news and bursts into her Magnificat. The flesh wants me to whine, but the Spirit wants me to shine. I can do that by reflecting the light of God’s mercy and love shown to me in the wonders he has done in my life and in the life of God’s people. Like Mary, my personal praise must become my people’s praise, like raindrops falling into the ocean of the praise of the angels and saints. Praise helps me get out of myself and join the choir of countless voices filling the cosmos with the glory of God.
Thirdly, Mary teaches me to intercede. To do that, like her, I need the grace, first of all, to notice. There are people in my family, in my workplace, in my parish who are hurting. There is the lady who just learned she has breast cancer, the man who is grieving the death of his wife, the woman whose husband just walked out on her, the teenager confused over his parents’ divorce.
In my concern with my own affairs, I can easily overlook the victim on the roadside. But Mary has that mother’s intuition about her children in need. From her I need to learn to notice those whose wine has run out and hear her voice in my heart, “They have no wine.” And when I do not have the resources to supply their needs, I must do as Mary did and tell Jesus about it, maybe being even a little more insistent than she needed to be as his mother. That is intercession.
Presence, Compassion, and the Spirit. Finally, Mary teaches me about presence. At the home of Elizabeth, it was not just Mary’s service but her presence that supported her older relative in the last weeks of her pregnancy. The filmmaker Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.” We know how important that is at funerals, not for the sake of the dead but the living who are grieving.
Showing up is a function of compassion. Compassion means to suffer with, and this is where, joining Mary at the foot of the cross, I learn the wisdom and the fruitfulness of pain. To see the crucified Jesus through the eyes and the heart of his mother is to experience compassion at its ineffable depth. If Mary was one with Jesus in every moment of his life, she was one with him when he needed her most, on Calvary. What was transpiring before her eyes was happening in her heart. Long before Paul, she could say, “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). This is where our suffering finds its dignity and its meaning, whether it springs from our own flesh or from the pain of others that becomes ours through compassion.
Presence, thus, is twofold. Mary was constantly in the presence of Jesus, whether physically or spiritually through love. She was also fully present to Elizabeth in her need. So she can teach me how to be present to others, but most especially how to be present to God in prayer. Sometimes Mary would speak with Jesus, but at other times, she would just look at him with love, as she had done when she held him as a baby in her arms. Wordless wonder and adoration. I can do that before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. And doing it with Mary at my side adds a note of tenderness to the awe.
Finally, we see Mary at prayer, present with the community, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and then rejoicing when he comes. Scripture doesn’t tell us of any other role she plays except that she persevered with them in prayer. Certainly Mary at Pentecost invites me to be in constant prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, and what better companion can I have than the one who welcomed the Holy Spirit at the very conception of Jesus?
You can’t have a better prayer partner than the mother of Jesus.
Fr. George Montague is a professor of theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.