SPIRITUALITY TODAYMary Lou Kownacki:
Winter 1991, Vol.43 No.4, pp.
Giving Birth to the God of Peace in an Age of Unrest
Mary of Nazareth is our model for peacemaking. Her example leads us beyond self focus to action in behalf of peace.
Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB former director of Pax Christi, USA, is now director of Alliance for International Monasticism located in Erie, PA. This article is reprinted with permission from the December 1989 issue of Praying (P.O. Box 419335, Kansas City, MO 64141).
I attended an ethnic Catholic grade school in the late 1940s and early 1950s when Marian devotions were the backbone of church life. In my grade school we sang Polish and English hymns to the Blessed Virgin every afternoon for at least an hour. Our religion classes were a series of lectures oh Mary's apparitions, especially Fatima. The whole school stopped dead in its tracks when the noon angelus bell rang and recited the rosary at the end of each lunch hour. Every Wednesday evening we were expected to attend Marian devotions.
The highlight of the parish calendar was the May procession, hundreds of us walking through the neighborhood streets, carrying Mary's crown enthroned on a satin pillow, dropping flower petals as we processed. A thousand or two others lined the streets. Everyone was singing Polish Marian hymns. These are warm memories. I also believe my love for a well-organized and orchestrated peace march began with those processions.
As a child I couldn't fall asleep unless I recited a bedtime rosary and kissed my statues goodnight. Goodnight, Immaculate Heart of Mary, smooch. Goodnight, Lady of Fatima, smooch. Goodnight, Queen of Heaven, smooch. Honest.
I even did this all through high school. In fact, I almost killed myself one night when I came home from a wild party at which I had a little too much to drink. My friends couldn't put me to bed until I put a rosary around my neck and performed my sacred, nightly ritual. This included balancing myself precariously on a wobbly dresser to reach shelves of statues and climbing on a narrow ledge to kiss the Lady of Czestochowa, whose picture hung high on my bedroom wall. Believe me, it was dangerous enough cold sober.
But devotion to Mary touched me, affected me, marked me. Mary was -- whatever the pieties of the time -- vital to my spiritual development.
MARY AS PEACEMAKER
Consequently, childhood fanaticism aside, I think Mary, this peasant woman from an ancient culture, has much to bring to the church's quest for peace in our nuclear age. The United States Catholic Bishops think so, too. In their Peace Pastoral, they encouraged devotion to Mary. The Bishops asked us to pray to the Queen of Peace so she might intercede for us and that we might walk in the way of peace. I agree. The intervention of the feminine into a world-view and world politics, the intervention of gentle strength, patient endurance, contemplation, cooperation, and nonviolence is absolutely crucial if the earth is to avoid nuclear suicide.
But what I'd like to concentrate on is a question and image posed by the fourteenth-century mystic, Meister Eckhart. Eckhart offers a challenge to all of us to reflect on the topic, Mary as peacemaker. He writes: "What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be Mothers of God." If that is true, then we had better examine how this Mother gave birth to the God of Peace in her lifetime. And we had better ask ourselves what, if anything, Mary can teach us about mothering the God of Peace in our materialistic and technological society.
To do this we turn to the scriptures. What a surprise awaits us. Here we find that at every major turning point in her life Mary had to make a choice about how to give birth to the God of Peace. And the dilemmas she dealt with are the same ones facing us today.
THE ANNUNCIATION: GOD CAN BE TRUSTED
The first scene is the Annunciation. On center stage we see Mary and the angel Gabriel dramatizing a conflict that confronts each of us in the nuclear age. In the Annunciation Mary has to decide between the rational and the intuitive. We agree, don't we, that what Gabriel announced to Mary did not make sense? The plan of Almighty God depends on a young girl's consent. Nonsense. This will be a virgin birth. Laughable. On a lowly woman's decision rests the salvation of humanity. Ridiculous.
No, this messenger of God does not present a proposal built on logic or reason. Mary could have debated Gabriel and won. Instead she changed the course of history by staking her life on an insight stemming from her intuition: that God could be trusted to keep God's word. To give birth to the God of Peace, Mary rejected rational analysis, logic, and fear of the unknown, the untested. To give birth to the God of Peace, Mary embraced intuition, feeling and faith.
And our Annunciation moments? What do our lives say to the world about giving birth to God? Do we put our faith in these rational arguments: only the arms race keeps the world at peace; only the willingness to use nuclear weapons prevents their use; first strike arsenals are logical responses to conflict.
Or do we, as faithful followers of Jesus, live our lives in faith by choosing these alternatives: to stop testing nuclear weapons is a Gospel step toward the peace promised by Jesus; to kill a child in Moscow is just as evil as to murder a member of my own family; the world will know that we are Jesus' disciples by our love and that love includes Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and the terrorists.
As we give birth to the God of Peace in our culture, must we clutch to the rational as the only reasonable response for Christians in these times? Or can we inject into the world's agenda the wisdom of Gospel imagination and intuition? With Mary, we are asked to give birth to the God of Peace every day of our lives. How do we answer? Be it done unto me according to the word of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, the President and the Pentagon? Or be it done unto me according to the Word of God?
THE VISITATION: EMBRACE THE WORLD
The Gospel continues with the visitation. In this vignette Mary resists an axiom popular in our times. The axiom: We must be more concerned with the inner spiritual journey than with the planned destruction of the planet. Try to imagine Mary after the Annunciation. Talk about peak experiences; talk about the need to process. Think of how satisfying it would have been for Mary to remain at home meditating on prayer rather than living out her personal relationship with God.
But Mary never hesitated. "To give birth to God," she shouts across the Judean hills, "is to reach out to others, to extend yourself in care and concern for the community, especially the dispossessed and the poor." By journeying to her cousin Elizabeth and proclaiming in praise the Magnificat, Mary challenges our current addiction to self-fulfillment and self-development. How many Ennegram workshops, Myers-Briggs inventories, thirty-day retreats, stress management seminars, hours of centering, and spiritual counselors doth a narcissist make?
One cannot give birth to the God of Peace, Mary cautions, by concentrating solely on self-transformation, by reaching some magic pinnacle or personal and inner peace. A devout Jewish girl, Mary knew the Psalms well. Often she prayed Psalm 124: "Open wide your gates, that the God of glory may come in," means opening your arms wide enough to embrace the whole world. Letters opposing apartheid become as important as journal writing. Boycotting grapes to support farm workers equals the latest holistic health approach. Spending a Saturday volunteering in a women's shelter can be as valuable as a desert day. Standing in a vigil to stop the Trident Il submarine is as precious as an hour before the Blessed Sacrament.
The Visitation, Mary's first act after the Annunciation, and the Magnificat, her only prayer recorded in scripture, push and prod us out of our preoccupation with self. Giving birth to the God of peace means walking toward those who need us singing in a strong voice: "God has put down the mighty from their thrones and uplifted the humble. The hungry God has filled with good things. The rich sent empty away."
THE BIRTH OF JESUS: LETTING GOD BE GOD
Imagine the wonder of the next moment. In the silent watches of the night, when all was still, the eternal Word leapt down from heaven. The Christmas readings ring with the mystery of it. He whom the whole world cannot contain enclosed himself in a woman's womb. In that split-second of the child's first cry, with the glorious song of archangel, cherubim and seraphim soaring through stable and sky, with all of heaven and earth prostrate before the all-powerful one, certainly in that timeless moment of history Mary must have confronted the choice between domination and humility.
If ever there was a moment to test and display the power of being the chosen one of God, this was it. Scripture, however, does not record any attempt by Mary to control either through force or fear giving birth to God at Bethlehem. In fact, the scene that unfolded is such a splash of splendor and horror, such a mixture of pathos and terror, that we are once again faced with the magnitude of Mary's fiat.
Certainly Mary could have imagined the long-awaited Messiah to be born in a mansion or palace, not in a stable among strangers, surrounded by the stench of oxen and sheep. Certainly Mary would have preferred that no nightmare force Joseph, the child and herself to flee for their lives to a foreign land. Certainly Mary could have demanded of God that the birth of the Prince of Peace not be proclaimed by the blood-spilling of holy innocents. But there is no display of power no attempt to force God's hand, to control God's will.
A good lesson here for those who think their country has the right to impose its will and intentions on the rest of the globe. A thoughtful pause here for those who believe it is a moral duty for the United States to convert the world to the American way, whatever the cost. A strong statement here for those who think themselves number one on the globe and therefore accountable to no one. Given the choice between dominance and humility, Mary gave birth to the God of Peace by letting God be God. For her, true humility of heart was God-like enough.
THE PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE: ACCEPTING THE CROSS
An ominous prophecy penetrates the muted, prayerful joy that otherwise permeates the presentation in the temple. Simeon praises the greatness and goodness of God but proclaims to the mother, "Your own heart a sword shall pierce." Here Mary discovers that giving birth to the God of Peace means forsaking personal comfort and accepting the cross. It's one thing, however, to accept the cross, another to build our own. Mary's life reflects what all of us know and deeply fear: the cross comes into our lives as it is seldom anticipated. For Mary the stripping of self took many forms: a midnight escape into Egypt to protect her newborn child; the sudden disappearance of her young boy and a frantic search; a public rejection, "Who is my mother?" The anguish of wondering if a son is mentally ill, somewhat mad; the woman left at home to face the ridicule and scorn of neighbors; a son hunted like a common criminal no heroics for Mary. Her cross came in ignominy, rejection, isolation, scorn and silent grief. Definitely not a cross she chose to build herself, but one she certainly accepted.
So comfort or the cross? Shall we give birth to the God of Peace or not? And if we decide, like Mary, to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, can we shoulder the cross each of us secretly fears? What will my family and friends think if I get arrested protesting Trident II? What will happen to status, upward mobility, to promotions if I take peace seriously? The problem is too immense; I can't make a difference. I've been involved in peace and justice for twenty years and I'm too tired to continue. I'm afraid to get involved. I don't want to be laughed at or looked upon as naive. But, I like it when my peers call me "prophetic." I enjoy the publicity, prestige and power that comes with leading a peace movement.
Some of us fear the cross facing us; others embrace the magnificent crosses of our own making. The challenge remains: What cross will we allow others to strap on our backs so that we, like Mary, can give birth to the God of Peace?
THE FINDING IN THE TEMPLE: MAKING NO CLAIMS
A contemporary poet writes: "We cannot make an new situation unless we are prepared to let go of what we hold most dear." When Mary lost Jesus in the temple she was plunged into a personal, yet global, pull between possessiveness and openness (abandonment). When Mary found Jesus in the temple she discovered a new and deeper insight into what it means to give birth to the God of Peace. If peace is ever to be born into our world, we must learn to live as if we own nothing, making no claims on anything or anyone, not even on our own lives.
The finding in the temple forced Mary to face her own possessiveness. What did she hold most dear? What did she have to relinquish in order that something new could unfold?
Certainly Mary held close to her heart the personal love of her son Jesus. No doubt she wanted him to confide in her. Surely she wanted some say in his future, some dialogue about their shared destiny. "Jesus," Mary asks, "where have you been?" And Jesus answers, "what is that to me, Mother? Don't you know that I must be about God's business?"
A stark answer, true, but a clear one. I don't belong to you, Mother. I don't even belong to myself. I belong to God. A stark answer, true, but a freeing one. If Jesus found his true identity in the temple, Mary also found hers. She let go of the young man Jesus and with it all need to protect, to control, to live in constant fear of losing a possession that possessed her. Into God's hands she commended her son.
Today, we also encounter a temple moment. In the nuclear age, we also must decide what to let go of so that a new creation can be born. What do we hold most dear? Our position in the world? Our standard of living? Our love of comfort? Our immediate satisfaction of every need and want? Some believe that it is our need and desire to maintain and escalate our lifestyle that lurks behind the nuclear fortress we have fashioned. The more we amass and possess, the greater our need to protect. If we disarmed, we might lose the privileges that come with holding the poorer nations of the world hostage by our might and power.
The prospect so frightens us that we clutch our possessions and seek to protect them by surrounding ourselves with missiles and armed space stations. Meanwhile, the spirit within us both starves and suffocates as we hoard beyond security and gorge beyond sufficiency. In truth we have become a people whose excessive lust for possessions now possesses our souls.
A sufi mystic wrote that a true pilgrim is one who possesses nothing and is possessed by nothing. This is what Mary found in the temple. It is what each of us must search for if we want to give birth to the God of Peace.
WEDDING AT CANA
At a wedding celebration in Cana, Mary shows us that giving birth to the God of Peace is like attending a lavish banquet, where in the midst of loving family and friends, festive dance and the finest wine, one can take a radical risk. To those who plead the practical: "there is no more wine," "Woman, my time has not yet come," Mary refuses the reasonable and pushes us toward the impossible. To those who preach the pragmatic, "peace through strength," "you cannot trust the Soviets;" "peace is not possible," Mary dares us to reject the realistic and venture toward gospel vision.
Act now, she commands. Do what God tells you. Change stealth bombers into bread. Turn swords into plowshares. Transform enemies into friends. Do not settle for what can be seen, but leap with abandon into the imaginable. Giving birth to the God of Peace will take the dreamer, the prophet, the poet, those who believe in miracles and have hope enough to perform them.
The way of the cross has become so familiar and so spiritualized that we forget the human passions exploding around this event. Here a mother watched an innocent son brutally tortured to death. Who can imagine the pain of holding the bruised and bloody body of one before whom the angels bowed? In this instance the labor pains that accompanied the birth of the God of Peace must have been excruciating, almost beyond the point of human endurance. When confronted with the killing of her son, Mary was asked to choose nonviolence over violence, forgiveness over retaliation. Who could ask this of a parent? Don't we find closer kinship with those whose parents call for the killer's blood after an innocent child has been murdered?
Take the case of Vernon and Elizabeth Harvey whose eighteen-year old daughter, Faith, was raped and stabbed to death. When one of the murderers was sentenced to death in the electric chair, Vernon told the press: "I can't wait to see the S.O.B. fry." When the murderer was executed, Vernon was a front row witness while the rest of the family broke out a bottle of bourbon and danced. "I feel better now knowing we're all safe from that scum," Vernon was quoted as saying, "But he died too quick. I hope he's burning in Hell." Who of us can stand in judgment of those feelings? And yet, giving birth to the God of Peace through nonviolence and forgiveness penetrates to the very heart of the gospel. Mary, the pieta, models the choice of unconditional love, of unlimited forgiveness, of suffering borne so that others might live.
It is our choice too. The bomb, Daniel Berrigan reminds us, is a countersign to the cross. There is no way the two can be reconciled. One stands for revenge, retaliation and the taking of human life. The other calls for forgiveness, mercy and self-sacrificing love. The bomb or the cross: an eye for an eye or love your enemies. Kill those who kill your loved ones or forgive them. 'Nuke' Hussein or be willing to suffer and die for him. Mary, the Mother, had every reason to respond to the death of Jesus with a bitter and revengeful heart. But to give birth to the God of Peace she reached for the heroic. She returned pardon for injury, love for hatred, death to self so that greater love could be born to a suffering and wounded world.
Tradition has Mary in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost. It is the fullness of time: strong, driving winds, tongues of flame, the unleashed, wild passion of God who had come to set the world on fire and finally found it ablaze. You know the story well. The breath of God descended and all began to speak in different tongues. People gathered in Jerusalem from every nation understood the message being proclaimed. The final giving birth to the God of Peace took place on this first feast of Pentecost. Here Mary witnessed to God's inclusive love of all humanity and rejected a narrow, exclusive nationalistic love.
Who is my mother, my brother, my sister? Jesus had once asked. Now Mary answered. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Asia, Egypt; those from the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome are all your mothers, brothers, and sisters.
"Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother," Jesus had whispered from the cross. Now Mary understood that all of the sons and daughters of earth were entrusted to her and she embraced the children of the world as her own.
It is the fullness of time. We live in a country that has the military capacity to destroy the world many times over. How do you answer the question, who is my mother? My brother? My sister? Can you respond from the heart that all the inhabitants of South Africa, Libya, China, Israel, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Haiti, those from the district of Iraq near the Euphrates, as well as the travelers from Moscow are all your mother, brothers, and sisters? We are all members of the same family.
At Pentecost we pray: "Lord, send down your spirit and renew the face of the earth." We cannot give birth to the God of Peace until all the faces of the earth become precious in our sight. To bring forth that kind of spirit the fire of God's love must so kindle in us that the world is set ablaze with new light and all plans of war are wiped forever from the human heart.
Mary of Nazareth, then, is the great sign of how to give birth to the God of Peace in the nuclear age. Her sojourn through scriptures shows us that if we are to mother the God of Peace on a planet poised for destruction, we must make choices; we must chance the intuitive over the rational, refuse selfish pursuits and serve the poor, choose humility over domination, accept the cross over personal comfort, share God's gifts with the whole human family, leap with abandon into what others see as impossible, forgive without limit and love unconditionally, look in the face of each human being and see our brother, our sister.
In the aftermath of World War II, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the great Catholic orator and writer, made this prediction: "There need not be World War III and there will not be one if we set the woman, Mary, against the atom." His words rang true then and they resound with greater urgency today. Let us set the woman against the atom. Like Mary, let us give birth to the God of Peace. Like Mary, let us mother the new creation.
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