This was not Mary’s first choice. I mean that in two ways. Firstly, Mary is old enough to have made many choices before this. She has obviously committed to the love of her life, Joseph. And she is old enough to have made endless smaller, daily choices like we all make as we navigate our way through the day: decisions about where we go and what we do, the people with whom we communicate, and how; decisions about the work of our hands, our rest, our diet, our dress; our thoughts, our prayer. Lots of choosing this or choosing that, each and every day. When the angel Gabriel calls on Mary with an invitation, this is not her first choice, not her first time of choosing something for her life. She has plenty of experience.
And secondly, this also is not Mary’s first choice, given the impossible plan the angel Gabriel is proposing: that Mary become pregnant in an unimaginable and culturally inadmissible way, prior to being married to Joseph. That is not Mary’s first choice. I infer this because her immediate reaction is fear, and her second reaction is incredulity: “How can this be?” Then, for reasons we are not explicitly told, she ultimately says “yes” to Gabriel’s announcement.[i]
We have at least two things in common with the Blessed Virgin Mary. For one, we, like Mary, have God’s attention and God’s love. We, like Mary, have something utterly unique about the life God has given us. There is no one like us; never has been; never will be. We are known by God. We are favored by God in an even more unique way than we are to our most precious relationships. There is a chamber in our heart which only God can enter; and there is a chamber in the heart of God, into which only we can enter.[ii] We, individually, like Mary, have a precious, unique, and eternal place in God’s heart.
Secondly, we share with Mary the capacity and need to make endless choices in life, some of them seeming quite small and custodial; some of them seeming vastly significant. I’ll draw here on the insight of C. S. Lewis.[iii] Lewis says, “[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with God’s other creatures, and with itself,” or else turning this central thing into one that is in a state of disharmony or disdain toward God, and with fellow creatures, and with your own self. “To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power.” To be the other, in C. S. Lewis’ words, can lead to “madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.” We are making choices all day long, every day, all of which change our life’s axis, and our life’s direction.
Some of the choices we make in life are irrevocable. Most choices we make in life are somewhere on the spectrum between what would be the best and what would be the worst. When we get it wrong, when we know we’ve gotten it wrong, there is the need and the opportunity to redress the wrong in the form of a confession to God – like we here are invited to do, momentarily. Our confession to God may need to be accompanied by a confession to some person or creature whom we have wronged. Each choice we make is a course adjustment in our lives which, in the end, will bring us to a very different port of call.
What we do not share with the Blessed Virgin Mary is the simpler life she lived in first-century Palestine. She had fewer choices than we do here in the western world at this time. We live with the blessing and burden of endless choices. A tyranny of choices. All of us inevitably draw on guidance for making decisions big and small. We may not be ready to publish a book on discernment, but we all have a history of making choices. Draw intentionally, faithfully, wisely on your own history of choosing in making decisions.
- I have a friend who is in recovery from addiction. He admits to sometimes being overwhelmed by what to do when he faces too many choices. His default principle is to do the next right thing. Very helpful. Just keep doing the next right thing if you are overwhelmed. Move back from the big picture into present moment, and do the next right thing. Keep doing the next right thing.
- You may find, when facing a decision, that you feel completely in the dark. Back up into the light. Go back to where you could see clearly enough, and pick up the trail again there. God gives us as much light as we can bear. The Canticle of Zechariah, who was Mary’s kinsfolk, ends with the very sweet, encouraging words: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us… to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[iv] The dawn of God’s tender compassion and guidance for you will come. Wait for it. Watch for it.
- You might ask God for a sign to help you in some choice you must make. Ask God for a sign. If you were to ask me, “What kind of sign?” I would say, “You will know.” Ask God for a sign you will know.
- Get help from someone. If you are befuddled or overwhelmed, open your heart to someone whom you trust, someone who can understand you, someone who says their prayers, someone who can mirror light back upon your countenance. Like with Mary’s going to Elizabeth, go to someone who can companion and counsel you. Help is helpful.
- And then, lastly, keep the verb “surrender” in the vocabulary of your heart. Surrender. The 19th century Quaker author, Thomas Kelly, said “the paradox is that as we surrender and are willing to do God’s bidding, our lives unfold in a way that is much more magnificent than we could ever have humanly orchestrated. Life becomes extremely simple, and oh, so good!”[v] Surrender your life to God. Keep surrendering your life, and your life will become magnificent.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, who points us to the Way.
[i] Galatians 4.4-5: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
[ii] This insight from an essay “The New Name” in the book Consuming Fire by George MacDonald (1824-1905), the Scottish poet, pastor and mentor to C. S. Lewis.
[iii] C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), in his book Mere Christianity.
[v] Thomas Kelly (1769‑1855), in his Testament of Devotion.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.