An innocent, sinless virgin; a quiet, contemplative mother-to-be; a faithful, devoted wife and mother; even a "woman clothed with the sun" who is taken up into heaven (Revelation 12:1). Yet all these images run the risk of making us forget how human she was. Like any of us, Mary enjoyed many happy times with her family, as well as many challenges and difficulties.
She experienced the joy of seeing her son grow and learn, as well as the everyday demands of wife and mother in her day. At the same time, she was also forced to cope with situations in which a sword pierced her very soul (Luke 2:35).
While Scripture tells us precious little about Mary, there are enough episodes to help us come to a few conclusions about her life of prayer—and about her role as a model for our own prayer lives.
A Magnificat Disposition. Mary’s Song, called the Magnificat, tells us more than any other gospel story just how Mary approached prayer (Luke 1:46-55). Mary had heard that her long-barren cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, and so she went to visit her. When they met, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy, and Elizabeth herself proclaimed Mary as "most blessed" among women (1:39-45). Mary was so moved by all that was happening around her that this beautiful prayer practically tumbled out of her—a prayer of praise and gratitude for the God who was doing such marvelous things.
At the beginning of her song, Mary expresses her love for God by saying, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" (Luke 1:46). Then she goes on to express a key spiritual principle that Scripture illustrates over and over again: God chooses the lowly and the humble over the proud, even though the proud are often more educated and more qualified. Mary saw that God reaches out to the needy. She understood that God sends his strength to those who know that they are weak, and his grace to those who know they cannot survive without it. By contrast, he leaves those who do not see any need for him empty and barren (1:52-53).
Just as Elizabeth announced Mary as blessed among women, the angel Gabriel greeted her as the "favored one," acknowledging that the Lord was with her in a special way (Luke 1:28). Just as the rain falls from the sky and fills our rivers and streams, so the grace of God flowed from heaven and filled Mary completely. Divine grace perfected her, and that is why she was able to become God’s handmaid—and even his mother—to such a complete extent.
Mary’s disposition allowed God to do in her the very thing he wants to do in us—transform her into his likeness. What Mary did not understand when Gabriel first met her, she eventually found out (Luke 1:34). What she did not know when her young son told her "Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?" (2:49), she eventually came to understand. Whenever Jesus did something that was new and unexpected, Mary’s first thought was always to take careful note and ponder it prayerfully.
A Song from the Heart. So what does Mary’s Magnificat teach us? It shows us that Mary wanted to honor God with her whole being; it shows us that she was mindful of the great things God had already done for his people; and it shows that she was willing to do whatever God asked of her.
Just like Mary, each of us has our own song that we sing to the Lord. This song is our response to whatever work of grace he is accomplishing in us. In Mary’s case, her song became her very philosophy of life. It was her song that guided her, not the various circumstances she faced—not even the possibility of divorce, Herod’s murderous wrath, or of the agony of watching her son endure a torturous death.
This is not to say that Mary was unaffected by what happened around her. It did mean that she wanted the decisions she made in these circumstances to be influenced by the Spirit’s leading. Similarly, our song to the Lord will be as rich as Mary’s as we learn to tell Jesus: "I need your grace because I want to do your will in everything—in the joyful times of life, in the challenging times, and in the painful times as well."
Meditating on God. From her encounter with the angel Gabriel onward, Mary met one spiritual event after another. Shepherds told her about angelic choirs. Astrologers from far away visited with strange gifts. An old prophet in the Temple recognized her infant son as the Messiah—and predicted great suffering for her. Joseph was warned in a dream to take her and Jesus into hiding. And then came that fateful day when she feared that she had lost Jesus in Jerusalem. In each of these situations, Mary quietly contemplated what they meant and how God was at work.
By treasuring and meditating upon these events, Mary built a heavenly foundation for her life. She developed principles of faith and trust that she could draw upon whenever she faced a new situation. Because she tried to see God’s hand in every event, Mary became more and more equipped to fulfill God’s plan for her life.
Jesus once said, "My sheep hear my voice," and the witness of many other saints bears this out (John 10:27). For instance, Peter entered the home of a pagan named Cornelius because of the Spirit’s leading (Acts 10:19-28). Philip heard an angel tell him to take a different route than he intended—and that lead to the conversion of an Ethiopian government official (8:26-39). Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to change his plans and go to Macedonia, and the church in Philippi was born (16:6-15). In fact, Paul was so convinced about God’s desire to speak to everyone that he regularly encouraged people to be open to receiving revelation from the Father (Ephesians 1:17-18; Colossians 1:9; Romans 12:1-2).
The same holds true for us. God wants to speak to us through the events of our lives just as clearly as he spoke to Mary. All we have to do is follow Mary’s example: Meditate on God’s word and treasure what we see him doing in our lives. This is how we can be transformed.
Every one of us will face our fair share of good times and challenges, our joys and our trials. The key to having Mary’s peace and trust in the midst of all of them is to try to understand everything that happens to us in the light of God’s perfect, loving plan. Of course we must use our gift of reason, but God longs to see us use the gift of prayer as well.
Petition and More Petitions. At Cana, Mary showed just how effective petitioning God can be. In heaven she continues to go to her son with our petitions—just as she did for those newlyweds in Cana. At that time, Mary was confident that Jesus would work a miracle because she believed in him. Mary did not say, "Well, I asked Jesus, but he said it was not his time." Instead, she simply told the servants, "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:4-5). Did Mary believe that she could change Jesus’ mind? Most likely. She was persistent—and very confident. This is because she knew Jesus so well that she was convinced that he would intervene at her request.
So it seems that Mary has a special place in Jesus’ heart. Knowing this, we should send every petition we have, as persistently as we can, to her, confident that she will intercede for us, just as she did for that married couple in Cana. At the same time, we should follow her example and pray directly to Jesus himself—with just as much confidence. We should ask, and ask, and ask. We should be convinced that no petition is too small or too large for Jesus. After all, he can still turn water into wine!
Mary Is Still at Work. Mary continues to work on our behalf, even as she is enjoying the perfection of heaven. Along with petitioning Jesus on our behalf, she has appeared to her people from time to time, encouraging us and guiding us. And whenever she appears, Mary sounds the same themes that her son preached when he walked the earth: Repent, pray, live holy lives, and evangelize. From Lourdes to Fatima, from Kibeho, Rwanda to Knock, Ireland, Mary showers us with love, compassion, and encouragement. Like every mother, she suffers when we suffer and she rejoices when we rejoice.
As our model of faith, Mary shows us how to pray and how to live. As our mother, she wants all of us to be happy, peaceful, and full of love no matter how dire the circumstances of life—even when the sword of sorrows pierces our heart as it did hers. And she knows that the key to such peace is prayer. May we all follow her example. May we all learn to pray as Jesus himself taught us. And may we all come to cherish his revelation in our hearts. We really can learn how to pray, and in our prayer, we really can touch the throne of heaven!