Sister John of the Cross is a contemporary Carmelite nun who experiences spiritual visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is sought after and revered by many people as being something of a spiritual master. The only qualification to her spiritual prowess is that her visions are accompanied by powerful headaches. Her doctor is not impressed by her amazing visions, but he is impressed by her headaches, which he finds quite dangerous and most likely the symptoms of a serious illness that requires treatment. If she is to be “cured” of her illness, she may well lose her spiritual visions, which is a devastating choice for this Sister John of the Cross. (Some of you may recognize this story, told by Mark Salzman in his book Lying Awake.) It is after yet another one of her miraculous spiritual visions – which her doctor and her Mother Superior call “seizures” – that she and Mother Emmanuel are talking together. Mother Emmanuel gives a sigh and asks Sister John:
“After your seizure, you were telling us how beautiful the view was, how beautiful everything was. Do you remember saying that?”
“Yes!” said Sister John. “The only word I will ever need again. Every breath a Yes, every thought a Yes.”
To which Mother Emmanuel responds, “Have you thought about what the view looked like to the rest of us, Sister?” [i]
This contemporary account of Sister John and her community brings to mind the ancient story we remember this evening, how a young, unwed woman received a spiritual vision, a visitation from an angel, so we hear. The angel reportedly tells this young Mary, not only was she pregnant but that she was pregnant with the long-awaited Messiah. How would that report have been heard by other people? (Set the Bible aside. Set 2,000 years of tradition aside. How does it sound to you? It could be a bit of a stretch, I would say. Would you believe it today if a young woman, perhaps of high-school age, made a similar report? And if it happened today, at least now there’s a precedent!) Initially, Mary could not believe it herself – of course not – and then somehow she came to believe it was true. She freely acquiesced to the message of the angel. She said, Okay. Whatever. “Be it unto me according to your word.” And her rather unbelievable spiritual visitation was believed by some others, too. It seems that Joseph, her fiancé believed her, and at least two other relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah. In the gospel account, the number of “believers” grew: Anna and Symeon; then some shepherds; then some “wisemen” – astrologers – from the east; and Herod the Tetrarch; and Jesus’ cousin, John the baptizer; then a band of Jesus’ hand-picked disciples; then a rather odd assortment of other individuals; then the multitudes; and then – at the scene of the cross – almost no one, again, except for several holy women, Mary among them. But that’s to tell this gospel story “from the inside out.” What did this look like “from the outside”? From the perspective of those who did not (and could not) believe the story told by this unwed, probably-teenage young woman that she had received this extraordinary spiritual vision and had been miraculously impregnated by God, with God? I think for most of us, perhaps for all of us, believing this kind of concoction would be a challenge.
My assumption about Mary’s Annunciation is that she had a rather “complicated” life, as we would say today. I think most people would have found her story throughout her own lifetime absolutely incredulous and Mary, someone who is mentally unwell or morally loose. She does bear a child, Jesus, whom we can presume is fairly normally in most ways, except that he doesn’t seem to “get a job” or doesn’t “get a life” until he is nearly thirty years old. The average lifespan in Jesus’ day was considerably lower than it is in western culture today, and so age thirty is well into years. My point is that it does not all come round right in Mary’s own lifetime. Christianity – what we call “Christianity” which in Mary’s own lifetime would have been one of many minority sects within Judaism – was little more than an irritating inconvenience to the Pax Romana, which had its own panoply of gods and its own concerns, far greater than a peasant woman with an illegitimate son from a backwater province in an inauspicious country. I would suspect that Mary died with a broken heart. I don’t mean a destroyed heart, but a broken heart, broken open by the visitation of the presence and love God in a way which, to her and to a few others, was unprecedented, and irrational, and yet irresistible. The image of the pietá, of Mary’s holding the broken body of her crucified son, is the image of Mary I carry in my own heart. And I suspect she carried this image in her own heart until her death. Ask any mother who has seen her child suffer or die, and you will hear that this is not something a mother gets over in her lifetime. Always the loss; always the wound.
What about you? Have you ever had a visitation by God? I hesitate to use this language, but have you ever been “touched by an angel”? It’s probably not something that many of us talk about very openly, but I suspect many of us here – whether we are in our teens or our eighties – have woken up one morning to a sense of God’s visitation on our life. Maybe we were given a glimpse of what our life was to be about, what we were to do, what we were to be or bear or believe. How it was going to begin, something important. How it was going to end, our career, a relationship, perhaps our death. And, if this has been your own experience or the experience of someone you know and love, the first response is not to go and tell it on the mountains. Rather, it’s to hold this in your heart, to take it in, perhaps to fight with it, laugh about it, weep over it, ask God the question, “How can this be?” If you know something about a visitation of God on your life, it might have to do with something you sense you are to take on. It might have to do with something you sense you are to give up. Where you are to go; where you are to stay. A courageous action you must take; a quiet suffering you must bear; a respectful, faithful waiting until you come into a clearing. My sense is that many of us know about such visitation of God. If that be so you, it may have taken years for you to come into the fullness of time, to understand what it meant, what God had in mind for you all along. I think this is true the world over. So many people – maybe you? – are given a heavenly glimpse, a wound of knowledge from God, what their life is to be about. It will probably entail our dying more than once in this life: death and resurrection; death and resurrection; death and resurrection.
Most of those who are called “the saints of the church” have not been recognized as such in their own lifetime. To the contrary, so many of the saints have not even been fully understood in their own lifetime. So many have died in exile or alienation or persecution or excommunication or ignominy. I’m not saying that if we are followers of Jesus, that we should “set ourselves up” to be misunderstood, or to go out of our way to be an “oddball,” or to presume the worst about life. I’m not in any way suggesting that. But I am saying that life on this earth is not a complete experience. We could call it a “foretaste” of the fuller life to come. Most of the people on the face of the earth, throughout history and to this very day, would clearly understand this. It’s what Christians call “the hope of heaven” – with the great Messianic banquet, with swords turned into plowshares, with streets paved with gold… or streets simply paved. Jesus reportedly said that he was going ahead to the heavens to prepare a dwelling place for us all. Can you imagine how the world’s homeless will hear that promise? And there were Jesus’ promises about binding up the broken hearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, the oil of gladness for those who mourn. Those “promises of heaven” would be so clearly understood by most of the people on the face of the earth who live without adequate food, much less ever a sense of banquet; who have no place to live; who are held captive, if not incarcerated, by endless injustice. But we live in a “superpower” nation which could easily presume earth to be heaven because we have so much. Not so for most on the face of the earth, down through history and into the present, and, actually, not so for us, either.
So what should you do with God’s visitations: visitations in the past; visitations in the present? Several things may be helpful. For one, hold them in your heart. I’d say, hold them in your heart (rather than ‘hold them in your head’). So many of the “visitations” recorded in the scriptures were not rationally sound. They seemed to be true, but they were not rational. If you have a visitation from God or God’s angel, hold what you see or hear or sense in your heart. Don’t run from it. If the visitation is in the form of a dream, ask God for another confirming dream. If the revelation is in a line of poetry or a passage of scripture that emerges out of our memory, does this have a kind of integration or continuity with something else you’ve come to know and trust in your life? Does it fit in some way, even if it initially catches you quite by surprise? Can you share this visitation with someone who says their prayers, who knows you well, and whom you trust. I was listening to someone not long ago and they told me how they were facing a major decision in life. Their sense was that God might be calling them to move and to take up a new life. A very difficult and costly decision for this person. And they said to me that they didn’t know how they were going to make this decision. How were they going to decide? Now this person was well into years, and they had had to make many significant decisions to get to where they were at that moment. I reminded them of that. I actually didn’t know how they had made those many, significant decisions in life, but I knew they had, and I knew that they knew how they had made those decisions. And I commended them to draw from their deep well of faithful wisdom in making this next life decision. They could do it, I told them. As can you.
The caveat, though, is what I was saying a moment ago, that life on this earth is an incomplete experience and that, for most people, it does not all come round right in their own lifetime… including whether they are understood, even by those who believe they know them the best and love them the most. For many of us, it may take eternity to iron it all out, I think. At the end of the day, we make sense out of God’s visitation or visitations on our own life by waiting with them, testing them, confirming them, sharing them… and then responding to God in a way which, to us, has a kind of faithful integrity, offering our life up to God, as best we know how. And in the meantime, sometimes a very mean time, we are cheered on by a great cloud of witnesses, all the holy saints and souls, who join in praying for us and who give us courage by the example of their own lives, the Virgin Mary among them. Surely the full meaning of her life eluded her in her own lifetime. Alla Renee Bozarth writes:
Before Jesus was his mother.
Before supper in the upper room, breakfast in the barn.
Before the Passover feast, a feeding in the trough,
And here, the altar of Earth, fair linens of hay and seed.
Before his cry, her cry.
Before his sweat of blood, her bleeding and tears.
Before his offering, hers.
Before the breaking of the body and death, the breaking of her body in birth.
Before the offering of the cup, the offering of her breast.
Before his blood, her blood,
And by her body and blood alone, his body and blood and whole human being.
The wise ones knelt to hear the woman’s word in wonder.
Holding up the sacred child, her God in the form of a babe, she said
“Receive and let your hearts be healed and your lives be filled with Love,
This is my body,
This is my blood.” [ii]
[i] Lying Awake by Mark Salzman ( New York : Alfred A. Knopf) 2000; p. 136.
[ii] “Maria Sacerdota,” by Alla Renee Bozarth, May, 1995.
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