The Holy Particular – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Matthew 1:1-25

In my early twenties I had the opportunity to visit the Benedictine abbey and shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, situated in the jagged mountains above Barcelona. I was not then a Christian, but was driven by curiosity to see this local holy place with its distinctive, black image of the Virgin and Child. I watched as an elderly man lifted a little boy, presumably his grandson, to kiss the wooden ball held in the tiny hand of the boy Jesus. I surrendered to a yearning felt in my body – to connect with the divine not just anywhere, but somewhere, in this physical place to which I had traveled many miles from home. Without needing to understand why, I too kissed that image of the earth held in the hands of a divine child, held in the lap of a human mother, on the top of a mountain in Spain.

Listen once again to the antiphons we sang at Morning Prayer:

  • “Blessed are you, O daughter, by the Most High God: above all women of earth.”
  • “Truth has sprung up from the earth: and righteousness has looked down from heaven.”
  • “Everyone was born in her, and the most high himself shall sustain her.”

There is a repeated, evocative, lyrical and theological connection between St. Mary of Nazareth and the earth itself, our earthiness as creatures formed from the dust of the earth.

Christian communities from the earliest days of the church have surrendered to a yearning felt in their bodies to venerate the Mother of God in particular places. She is accessible anywhere her Son may be found, that is, everywhere.  And yet she is also the Virgin of Montserrat; the Virgin of Rocamadour; the Virgin of Guadalupe; the Virgin of Walsingham.

Some would see in this a simplistic transposition of the worship of local goddesses of the landscape – only baptized by the Church. Cultural associations with the sacred feminine in the land surely played their part. But why not also understand this Christian impulse as one manifestation of a healthy yearning to draw closer to God: a God who became flesh to redeem each particular place, creature, and body?

This particular and localized connection with God, with our fellow human and other-than-human creatures, and with the land itself is a powerful antidote to the failed hopes of a highly developed, globalized society increasingly caught in atomization, isolation, and unmet longing to know an embodied connection between the parts and the whole; between the good things that sustain our life and their source in the good earth; between our wild wonder at a creation we did not make and the Creator who speaks each creature into being each new day.

The Rev. Steve Blackmer, one of my mentors and founder of Church of the Woods, writes:

“We connect once again with Earth herself by grounding ourselves in a particular place, where our commitment to love, heal, and bless the Earth becomes tangible, incarnate, and local to each of us, rather than merely an abstract expression of concern. In effect, we offer ourselves to “fall in love” and to live in intimate relationship with the Earth in its particularity – with the land we belong to and within ourselves.”

Today we honor St. Mary of Nazareth in the liturgical observance of her birthday. A birthday is a humble but beautiful occasion to cherish the particularity of a person – all the things that make them adorable to us and to God – and a person’s universal membership in the family of all creation, all creatures who have come forth from God, lived a finite mortal existence, and returned to the heart of the Creator. Each of us is an irreplicable instance of divine creativity and love. Yet we ourselves did nothing in this process of entering God’s created order; we simply received the gift of being.

With the blessed Virgin Mary, may we cherish that essential gift today in the particular places, people, and beings around us.

Lectionary Year and Proper: Year C, Proper 18

Solemnity or Major Feast Day: Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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  1. Jean Scott on September 8, 2023 at 10:55

    I love this, too! I have always had trouble with what in my mind was a kind of “cultish” admiration of Mary. This reflection was a new way, for me, of understanding both Mary’s and our humanity and link to divinity. It is especially relevant to me today on my eldest son’s 44th birthday, as I reflect on what a gift he is to me and to the world! I sent it to him and will be sending it to my other children as well on their birthdays. It is a wonderful reminder of God’s grace in the particular and finite places in our lives.

  2. Katie Fedor on September 8, 2023 at 08:12

    I love this! The concepts are beautiful and your writing is lovely and lyrical. Thank you, Br. Kieth!

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