The Lamp of Imagination & the Womb of Faith – Br. Keith Nelson

1 Samuel 1:19-28 & Luke 1:39-56

The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth always captures my praying imagination.

I see an old, tough woman suffused with the giddy joy of a young girl, the kind that visits mothers, grandmothers, and aunts at wedding receptions. In squeals of laughter, flushed cheeks and bare feet on the dance floor, a youthful radiance gleams from the young at heart.

And I see a young girl, centered, purposeful, and wise beyond her years, with a confidence and vision that are usually the gifts of chronological maturity. She declares words of passion and purpose about the true order of things in a voice that does not quiver. It is a strange combination of purity and precociousness, the kind that we glimpse in the old souls of certain children.

The Spirit touches the first with a buoyant exuberance and a cry of joy that begins deep in the belly. The Spirit touches the second with anchored assurance and a song that echoes down the generations.

Or so I imagine. I am fascinated by the distinction psychologists make between perception and imagination: what is imagined is generated from within rather than perceived based on input from without. The images I have just offered are surely based on memories of women and girls I have known, alongside and underneath the words of the gospel. But they have been shaped by something else unseen, something else that does not rely on perception, brought to bear on the encounter with the Word, which I can only call faith: “the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[i] This symbiosis of imagination and faith is the fuel that is keeping my lamp lit in the darkness. Imagination and faith also are at the heart of the mystery we prepare to celebrate at Christmas.

So I lift my lamp and walk a little further.

I see Mary act as a “Gabriel” to Elizabeth. Elizabeth has been informed by the words of her husband about his encounter with the angel in the temple sanctuary. She accepts by faith the experience of Zechariah and what it means about her pregnancy. But now there comes a different kind of knowing. Now, a new kind of reassurance wells up: within her body, at the words of another woman, whose experience touches and parallels her own.

Likewise, Elizabeth’s joyous welcome enfolds Mary’s secret in the loving confidence of a fellow mortal. Now is the profound relief that comes when something known only to oneself is entrusted to another who understands. When the weight of that knowledge is shared beyond the walls of our hearts, something in us breathes new air. There is a deeper alignment of the inner and the outer. Though Mary speaks only a greeting, it is enough to prompt the unborn John to leap and to fill Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit.

Finally, I see Elizabeth companion Mary through the first three months of her pregnancy; and I see Mary companion Elizabeth through the last three months of hers. I imagine this time was tinged with fear: the fear of this old, tough woman about to give birth, a hard and dangerous experience even for the young and the strong. I imagine the fear of this young woman, whose belly would have begun to show her pregnancy: the fear of confrontation on her arrival home.

In all this, I am aware that these are the imaginative leaps of a man at prayer and a male preacher; and, at least in the case of the Brothers in this chapel, the imaginations of male listeners. Perhaps we are a bit like John the Baptist, leaping in sympathetic joy at what we hear but enclosed within the darkness of a womb. To become pregnant like Mary or Elizabeth; to wean a child off the breast like Hannah; the unique danger of becoming pregnant at a time or in a community that will disapprove; the unique shame of failing to become pregnant when it is desperately desired or socially expected. These are experiences that I – we – have looked upon only as observers, but have not, cannot, know from the inside.

It is with this kind of imagination, I think, that Luke authors this scene and sets his pen to write the song of Mary. Luke imagines what words might emerge on the lips of this young girl at this moment. Whether he imagines Mary recalling and appropriating the words of Hannah’s prayer, or simply uses it as a point of departure for his own inspiration, his choice to return to Hannah is consistent with his sensitivities throughout his gospel. Perhaps he sees Hannah place the child Samuel in the hands of Eli, entrusting her only son into the arms of the God who gave him. Luke knows that the Virgin who magnifies the Lord will also be called, in time, to give her only son. Above all, Luke knows when the experience of a woman as a woman must offer its own witness to Jesus Christ. This imagination is a kind of compassion, and a kind of solidarity.

Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary – I have savored, inwardly, the companionship of these women in the communion of saints. Among the many people we miss, our life in this monastery under COVID is starved for living contact with women: friends, family members, mentors, and fellow pilgrims without whom our Christmas will be profoundly different. Without this daily mutuality of witness, I confess that a dimension of my personhood is borne along on the tired wings of imagination and faith, riding on the wind of treasured memories.

In these last days of Advent, I have knelt down in the darkness, turning my imagination to Christ’s threefold coming: in the stable at Bethlehem, in his daily visitation, and at the end of all things. I cannot see the face of the Virgin I love as clearly as I would like, or her strong but tender hands pointing the way to the Way of Life. There is not enough light. But I can hear her voice, anchored and assured, in a song that reaches down the generations and fills heaven and earth. And I can hear the heartbeat of her Son at my side, here, in the dark womb of faith. That voice and that heart are enough.


Lectionary Year and Proper: Year B, Tuesday in the Fourth Week of Advent

[i] Hebrews 11:1.

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