The Visitation is one of my favorite mysteries of the rosary to contemplate, especially since becoming a mother. Although they are separated greatly by age, Mary and Elizabeth find themselves facing the same life experience – first time pregnancy. In a time before online groups or social media geared towards connecting new mothers, a woman had to rely on the relationships she had with other women, to process and prepare for experiences like motherhood.
I’m in my mid-thirties, and I have three daughters of my own. In the course of the past three decades, I have had ample time to observe and reflect on female friendships. But I have found no one who exemplifies what female friendship could be as well as Elizabeth and Mary.
The Pitfalls of Friendships
It has been said that the greatest saints are often those who were once the greatest sinners. There is a relevant nugget of truth to be found here – good things are often susceptible to becoming twisted or even evil. The same can be said of friendships.
We are relational beings, made for union with God and communion with each other. Made in the image of the Trinity – an exchange of love between the three Divine Persons – we are called to love and receive love from each other.
However, this love is sometimes twisted or manipulated into something that is not love, but rather control. Friendships are no stranger to this phenomenon. Friends may find themselves using emotions or guilt as a tool to control their relationships, rather than share their emotions as a point of connection (not blame). We can find themselves battling jealousy towards our friends (rather than being vulnerable and admitting our own insecurities and desires). And men and women alike may find themselves plagued with the propensity to gossip or idle talk (rather than connecting on a personal level about themselves and the ways God is at work in their lives). At various points in my life, I have been guilty of one or the other of these.
But friendship is more than its pitfalls. It can have the potential for profound, life-changing good. It is here where we can draw our inspiration from the friendship on display in the Visitation.
Love is not Jealous
Elizabeth waited decades to conceive. Then, when she did conceive, she was told her child would be someone special. It would have been easy for her to be jealous of Mary – Mary who conceived with ease, at a young age, and whose child would be more special than Elizabeth’s.
Likewise, Mary was unexpectedly pregnant, her simple fiat changing the course of her life. Pious tradition holds that Mary had taken a vow of virginity. Although God honored that vow, it would make sense to expect that Mary would not have anticipated pregnancy to be a part of that vow! Then, when she visits Elizabeth, she sees an entire community rejoicing in her cousin’s pregnancy, and Elizabeth basking both in that love and the love of her husband. Mary, on the other hand, knew that she would be rejected by her community (and possibly by Joseph, too) when her pregnant state became known.
In ordinary, fallen humanity, this relationship would seem to be doomed to jealousy and anger.
But in Elizabeth and Mary, both given gifts of grace, necessary for the vocations that God had called them to, they saw not an opportunity for jealousy, but rather connection. They shared in the joy of the gifts the other had been given by God, as well as the gifts they had been given. In that joy, their friendship could grow, and they would even be safe to admit to one another the things they were nervous or unsure about. Their friendship was a safe place for each woman to grow and be nurtured in her vocation.
How can we do this in our own friendships?
Divine Providence and Friendships
I struggle a lot with insecurities about “belonging” and I have the feeling that I am not alone in this. Recently, a friend took an amazing trip, and it was one that I was not invited to be a part of. I found myself grappling with intense jealousy, but I decided to make my prayer just giving God that jealousy. I acknowledged to him that I was stuck – that I didn’t want to be jealous but that I was having a hard time letting go of it. Then, I prayed for this friend to have a good trip.
It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but gradually, I found my jealousy lightening. The pain still remained – that pain of feeling left out and being afraid I would be forgotten by my friend. But infused into that pain was hope. In praying for my friend, I began to feel hope that my own insecurities would not always leave me feeling so overwhelmed. Healing was possible!
If we rely on our own strength and goodness in friendships, they will inevitably be lacking in the kind of authentic charity and joy we long for. And, if they are lacking in this way, we will ultimately find our friendships to be unfulfilling. Yet, if we bring our friendships and relationships to God – honestly giving him our insecurities, failures, and fears – he can and will heal them. In his loving providence, he will provide for us what we are lacking. He may work through other people to do so (a therapist and/or a spiritual director can help to uncover the underlying reasons why we struggle in certain relationships), but he will provide the grace we need to find him in our relationships with others. We know this because, “Where charity and love prevail, there is God.”