The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are filled with miraculous events: an angelic messenger appears twice, with the promise of God’s bold and unexpected action, and then the promise is fulfilled in the impossible births of John and Jesus, the latter accompanied by a heavenly chorus. In between, in verses 39-56 of the first chapter, the two women who will be the mothers of Jesus and John meet and sing a song of thanks and celebration. No angels, no apparent miracles. This brief narrative, known as the Visitation, would seem an unlikely source for a vibrant spirituality.
Yet during the seventeenth century, when Marguerite Bourgeoys was gathering women to form a community dedicated to service lived outside the cloister, she turned almost instinctively to what she called the “journeying life” of Mary as inspiration for her Congregation of Notre Dame. Ever since, the sisters and increasingly now the women and men associates of the Congregation have followed Marguerite’s urging to “go through [Mary’s] life and stop at whatever Our Lord inspires us to do.” Since Visitation serves as a paradigm for the whole of Mary’s “journeying life,” the Congregation has paused there often to contemplate the three movements of this simple story: Mary’s journey, her visit with Elizabeth, and their song. Our hope is that this story will become the pattern of our own lives.
In this approach, Mary is not simply an object of devotion but a mentor, a companion on our journeys, “truly our sister,” as Pope Paul VI put it. This image of Mary as a woman actively engaged in service challenged seventeenth-century assumptions about women and about holiness. Today our assumptions are different, but we still seek to remain both spiritually grounded and responsive to the needs around us, in the midst of lives very much on-the-go. Visitation can challenge as well as inspire us in that quest.
Our culture prides itself on taking initiative, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, setting and meeting goals, working efficiently. We are taught to value activity in terms of productivity, always keeping an eye on the bottom line. It’s all too easy to internalize the values of our culture and then translate them into the spiritual realm. It seems to me that too often contemporary first-world Christians evaluate themselves by the work they do, so that service becomes a “product.” They – we – are tempted to get lost in the activity and ignore its Spirit-dimension. Visitation implies a different kind of productivity.
In the first movement of Visitation, as Luke recounts the story, Mary learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy from the angel who declares Mary full of grace and receives her yes to the invitation to bear God’s Son. As soon as she hears about Elizabeth, Mary sets off quickly, eagerly, and apparently without a plan. Service in the spirit of Visitation flows out of the experience of being graced by God. Sometimes we simply happen into it; it does not always wait for the “right” moment, when we are prepared and everything is in place. Living Visitation calls for a readiness to be interrupted, to be surprised.
Of course, service is not always spontaneous. Often we must choose and plan how we will serve, and then continue serving day after day. Even and perhaps especially then, it is important to hold our plans lightly. The initiative remains God’s, and so does the “product.” Maintaining the delicate balance between passion for service and nonattachment to the outcome can be very difficult.
Humbling though it is to admit it, the impulse for service often comes from our need to be needed or our need to succeed. Acknowledging our mixed motivation can be the first step to letting go of the fruits of our action. At the same time, the angel’s message to Mary remains true of us as well: “blessed are you... the Lord is with you.” Visitation service requires reaching down into that well of mercy and kindness again and again, praying as if everything depended on God – for it does – while working as if everything depended on us – for somehow that is true as well.
The second movement of Visitation begins with Mary’s arrival at Elizabeth’s home. In Luke’s account of the Visitation, we don’t hear Mary’s voice at first. Her greeting to Elizabeth, which causes the child to move within her, is spoken off-stage, as it were. In those first moments of their encounter, Mary serves Elizabeth not by what she does or says, but simply by her presence to the older woman and to God’s action within her. This may be the most challenging aspect of Visitation service for many of us. The urgent needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, alienated, imprisoned draw us into service, and we want to be do something! It’s hard to believe that our presence could be enough.
These days when CND sisters first go to serve in foreign settings, even when they know the language they often do not move right away into a specific work of service. Rather they are asked to take several months exercising a “ministry of presence” during which the people there can begin to reveal themselves and their giftedness, as well as their need. It’s important to continue a ministry of presence, making room for that listening stance, even after the initial stages are over and we’re engaged in very active service. This implies a discipline of stopping at regular intervals to take stock.
And what is the effect of Mary’s ministry of presence? New life moves in Elizabeth, and she speaks. In the memorable feminist expression, Mary’s coming has heard her into speech. And she continues to speak with courage and clarity. When her child is born she does not hesitate to contradict those who assume he will be named after his father: “No, his name will be John.” Visitation, then, involves becoming present to others in a way that calls them forth, enabling them to claim and speak a word that is their own.
Hearing another person into speech demands intent listening, the way we have to listen to someone speak a foreign language, or even someone who speaks our own language, but with a foreign accent. A few years ago I participated in a five-day gathering of over three hundred Congregation sisters and associates who spoke four languages. We met several times in three different groups of eight, two of which involved at least two languages. These groups included some people who knew more than one of the languages, but most had no professional translators. Yet somehow we managed to hear and understand one another, and that experience seemed to prepare us for when we met in single-language small groups, where we continued to speak simply and listen intently, and as a result shared very deeply.
In conversation people often say, “I know just what you mean” in order to encourage the one who has been speaking. The phrase seems to suggest that I’ve heard you and understood. But in reality we often begin as “foreigners” to one another. When we begin to speak, I probably don’t know what you mean, but if I can wait and listen, our conversation may give you the opportunity to reveal it to me.
The need to begin from a listening stance points to another characteristic of service in the spirit of Visitation: mutuality. Luke tells us that Mary stays with Elizabeth for about three months, a long time for a visit under any circumstances. This visit cannot happen unless Elizabeth makes a place to receive Mary into her home and into her heart. Because of Elizabeth’s hospitality, Mary has plenty of time to ponder what is happening within her and come to terms with it, as she shares her wonder and her fears. When it feels as if she must be deluded in thinking that God is working in her, she can turn and see the new life coming to birth in the older woman. In other words, surely Elizabeth “visits” Mary, as truly as the reverse. Visitation is mutual.
Thus, in order for service to become true Visitation, the one serving must allow himself to receive from, as well as give to, the one being served. This mutuality extends into the final movement of Visitation, when Mary is freed to sing Magnificat, the joyful song that proclaims the great things that the holy and merciful One has done for God’s lowly servant and celebrates how God has overturned the fortunes of the powerful, raising up those who are hungry for food and for God.
Luke gives the impression that Elizabeth is simply a silent witness to Mary’s prayer. But how could that be? Mary is singing about what Elizabeth has experienced: God’s lifting up the lowly. Not only has Elizabeth seen her status as barren woman reversed, but she has also felt new life stir within her as God’s Spirit filled her and made her prophet. If asked how she had the right to join in Mary’s song, she’d have to respond in the words of the nineteenth-century hymn: “How can I keep from singing?” Visitation draws Elizabeth as well as Mary into Magnificat. And serving in the spirit of Visitation always invites the other into that joyful song of praise.
As Mary moves toward Elizabeth in Visitation, her presence stirs the new life already present within the older woman. She becomes a mirror, enabling Elizabeth to see herself as she can be. Surely Mary’s greatest joy is to be transparent enough that Elizabeth comes to encounter, recognize, and celebrate the Holy One who visits her through Mary. In Marguerite Bourgeoys’s invitation to live out this mystery of Visitation, she entrusted a treasure to the Congregation of Notre Dame. In this time when the Church is called to spread the “joy of the gospel” in new ways, the whole Christian community is invited to share in this treasure.