Imitating Mary The Contemplative

We find Mary throughout the Gospel of Luke contemplating the birth and childhood of Jesus. When the shepherds tell her about the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis Deo, she keeps this incident in her heart and meditates on it.

She does the same thing after finding the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, who was discussing profound religious matters with the teachers there. The Church may have received the Rosary in its present form from St. Dominic in 1214, who, in turn, received it from Our Lady, but the Mother of God was pondering and participating in the Joyful Mysteries from the very beginning.

In fact, it is not a stretch to see a thread running through the Scriptures of her beholding and adoring her Son. The bitterness at the foot of the cross is followed, 40 days later, by the sweetness of Pentecost, and that sweet contemplation extends now into eternity with the Beatific Vision and her role as the Queen of Heaven.

Mary fulfilled what is written in the CCC #2715: “Contemplation is a gaze of faith. ‘I look at him and he looks at me.’: this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of the holy cure used to say while praying before the tabernacle.”

I hear stalwart Catholics lament the ineffectiveness of the American Catholic Church in reaching our nation’s youth, but, even with the ones who do convert, there is the problem of them being easily distracted and having short attention spans. This is rooted in their exposure to internet and digital technologies and entertainment like MTV.

This creates a large stumbling block to the contemplative life, which requires extended periods of stillness and silence, and the contemplative life plays a major role in our sanctification: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding[a] the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18; emphasis mine).

We behold him and we are changed.

In another passage, the apostle Paul says that we “are transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Rom. 12:1,2). This often happens in the contemplative life and is not as mystical and elusive as you may think.

Sometimes trials come into my life that cause me to become somewhat tight-fisted with my time, talent and treasure. Money is tight; I have little spare time; and I’m not in a giving mood.

The next morning I get up and the Gospel reading for the day is about the widow’s mite and how she gave all she had. The Rosary that day is centered on the Sorrowful Mysteries and the self-donation of the Son of God.

So between the Gospel reading and the Rosary, I’m given a contemplative canvas that renews my mind and facilitates an open-handed generosity in my life. Again, the contemplative life-i.e. beholding him and being in his presence-is inextricably linked to sanctification.

When Isaiah was in the presence of God, he said, ““Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5). At the calling of the first disciples and after a great and miraculous catch of fish, Peter fell at Christ’s feet and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk. 5:8).

This should make us all the more devoted to the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…”

In the Real Presence we see the Holy God and the infinite qualitative difference between us and him. Our sin is revealed; however, that’s not the end of the story, because, in the Holy Hour, we have also come to the Throne of Grace: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Those who humble themselves and come to the Throne of Grace will not be denied. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (I Pet. 5:5-7). Remember what our Lord told St. Faustina: “I pour out upon them [the humble] whole torrents of grace. Only the humble soul is capable of receiving My grace. I favor humble souls with My confidence.”

Moses had been in the Real Presence for forty days and forty nights and came down from the mountain with stone tablets written on by the hand of God only to find the Israelites dancing around the golden calf (Ex. 32). The golden calf represents idolatry and can be seen in the Seven Deadly Sins or the major pitfalls of humanity that Aquinas discusses: wealth, fame, pleasure and power.

The contrast could not be starker: Moses, the most humble man on the earth (Num. 12:3) and the revelry of the children of Israel. One has the “disinfectant” of the Real Presence; the other is “following their hearts” and is easy prey for the enemy of their souls.

Dancing around the golden calf continues to this day in our secular culture and with many lay parishioners, priests and prelates in the Church participating. When we humbly give ourselves over to the contemplative life in the presence of God, we become Mary’s Heel that will crush the serpent’s head.

If you’re like me, your work schedule makes it difficult to go to Adoration as much as you’d like. Fr. Edward Looney has some encouraging insights coming from St. Faustina’s diary:

“What a discovery I found in her diary!  Her times of adoration were both in the convent chapel before Our Lord in the Eucharist and ‘in private,’ in her room and even on her sick bed. God knows we can have very good reasons for not visiting him [in] a church or chapel. Family responsibilities, job, health, distance from the church, and so on. But … we can do “spiritual adoration”—anywhere, anytime.  (Including setting up our own “adoration chapel” — if only a designated corner or chair — at home!)”

The contemplative life and soaking in God’s presence not only play a major role in the believer’s sanctity but also can facilitate the healing of damaged emotions. Teresa of Avila said, “Contemplative prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time to be alone with him who we know loves us.”

In the Holy Hour or in our “adoration chapel” at home, we can, by the eyes of faith or in our mind’s eye see the loving eyes of Christ. For many from bad families and/or who have had a string of bad relationships, this can very healing to the wounded spirit of rejection that they have sustained.

The words of Zephaniah the prophet for Jerusalem and Zion are for us today, the New Jerusalem, and become balm for the wound of rejection: “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph. 3:16b, 17).

Many practicing Catholics are intellectually catechized (they know the faith), spiritually catechized (they have consistent devotional practices), but they aren’t emotionally catechized: issues from dysfunctional families of origin and past relationships continue to wreak havoc in their daily lives. As they follow Mary’s example and embrace the contemplative life and spend time in his presence, may they see the loving eyes of Christ and confess “By his stripes we are healed!”

image: Marcel van den Bos /

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of "Letters from Fawn Creek," a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fisherman,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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