One of the healthy signs of life in the Church today has been the desire for personal prayer. Christians of all ages and walks of life have felt within themselves the need to commune with their God on a personal one-to-one basis and deeply within their hearts. Thus they turn to Mary as a model of the praying disciple.
In the Gospels we see Mary displaying a full range of prayerful attitudes: thanksgiving and praise (Magnificat), petition (Cana), humble surrender (Annunciation), painful acceptance of God’s will (Calvary), obedience (Presentation), concern for others (Visitation), learning in faith (Finding in the Temple), and offering (Calvary).
But beneath all these ways of praying Mary displays a consistent attitude towards God: she always prays “with a noble and generous heart”, seeking to hear the word of God, take it to herself, and yield a harvest through her perseverance (cf. Lk 8.15).
In this text Luke concludes his account of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed. This parable occupies an important place in his Gospel, for in it Jesus gives the heart of his teaching about what it means to be one of his true followers a disciple who listens to the word of God and responds whole heartedly to it in his life.
By holding up his mother as one of those “who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Lk 8.21), Jesus is also telling us that his mother is one of his true followers; indeed, she is the model disciple. Naturally enough then, she brings to her prayer the soul of a true disciple. We find the fullness of prayer in her. There are three principal elements: (a) listening to what God has to say.; (b) taking it to heart; and then (c) allowing it to have an effect in one’s life and activity.
The first disposition one must bring to prayer is a listening heart. Even if we want to ask God for some favour, we should first of all find out what He has to say to us. And then even while we are asking for what we want, we should still be listening to Him. For the fundamental attitude of any follower of Christ must be the fundamental attitude of Jesus’ life that the Father’s will be done.
Mary listened. She entered into dialogue with God: listening, questioning, listening again, responding, and so on. The story of the Annunciation gives a vivid example of this way of praying. The Annunciation was a deep personal prayer experience for Mary, for in that prayer she encountered the Father, was overshadowed by the Spirit, and conceived the Son.
If anyone wants to belong to Jesus’ family, he/she must also want to do the will of God. “Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mk 3.35). But we can do the will of God only if we know first of all what it is. And in order to know God’s will for us, we must first of all listen to Him, hear what He is saying.
But as anyone who has consistently tried to pray knows, God does not always seem to be saying anything in our prayer. How can we listen to Him if He is not speaking? Here Mary can be of help to us.
Luke twice tells us that Mary “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2.19, and also 2.51). And what were “these things”? From the context we can see that “these things” were primarily events in her life the birth of Jesus and the visit of the shepherds on Christmas night, and the finding of Jesus in the Temple.
Mary “listened” to these events. She sought to discern what God was saying to her in the things that happened to her. She did not fully understand at first. She had to ponder these things in her heart before she could detect the hand of God in her life.
And so it is with us. God does not always speak to us directly in prayer. Sometimes indeed He does, as He spoke to Mary at the Annunciation. But more often He manifests his will to us in the people we meet and the events of our daily life. We need to bring a listening heart to these people and events too. Our prayerful attitude must extend into all aspects of our ordinary life, so that we may be constantly on the alert to pick up what God is saying and asking of us. A discerning heart is not to be kept just for formal prayer times. It must be our habitual disposition a delicate sensitivity to the hand of God in the mundane things of life. Or to put it in another way, our prayer is not to be reserved just for formal prayer times. It must extend throughout our life, permeate everything we do. Mary prayed always, because she was always a disciple, ever ready to hear the word of God and put it into practice.
But Mary had not only a discerning heart. She had a reflective heart as well. “She pondered these things. For the word of God is not always made clear to us in the present events of our life. We need to reflect on them in the light of our past. We detect this note of reflection on history in the Magnificat, where Mary recalls the deeds of mercy God has done for Abraham and her ancestors throughout Israel’s history (cf Lk 1.54-55).
Sometimes the meaning of what is happening to us seems obscure until we look back over our past. If we look back over the past year, or even longer, we may detect a pattern in all the many things that have happened. The good times and the bad, the doubts and difficulties, the joys and the triumphs may all reveal that God has been guiding us with a sure and to the point where we find ourselves now. The present even can now be seen in context and fitting into the pattern of God’s providence for us.
This reflective way of praying is particularly valuable when we are faced with an important decision a life-decision and we want to know which choice of action is more in accord with what God is like. Through reflection and paying attention to the pattern of God’s dealings in our life in the past, we may then be able to see which course of action conforms more to that pattern, and thus is more likely to be in accordance with God’s will.
When Mary was faced with a crucial life decision at the Annunciation, her awareness of God’s dealings with his Chosen People in the past and his promise to send them. a Messiah gave her the insight to see that what was happening to her at that moment was all part of the pattern of God’s plan of salvation. It became clear to her what her decision should be. God’s will became plain to her and she consented to his plan for her.
Thus when we come to prayer with a listening heart, we are also bringing a discerning and reflective heart as well. This is the first requirement for a Marian style of prayer.
The prayer of Mary went deeper.
It is perfectly possible to hear the word of God and do nothing about it to ignore or reject it. The parable of the sower of the seed makes that clear. The seeds that fall on the edge of the path, or on the rocky ground, or are eaten by birds, are all examples of people who hear the word of God but are distracted from allowing it to take root in their hearts (Lk 8. 11-14).Only the seeds that fall on rich soil are true disciples. “As for the part in the rich soil, this is people with a noble and generous heart who have heard the word and take it to themselves and yield a harvest through their perseverance.” (Lk 8.15).
“Taking the word of God into oneself’ means identifying with it, making it one’s own. In prayer hearing the word of God is not hearing some alien voice. Absorbing it, allowing it to sink deep into one’s heart, is not like taking some foreign body into oneself. Rather it is like hearing something that resonates deep with the inner-wellsprings of one’s being. It reveals the truth to one’s self. It reaches into the intimate depths of one’s being and it “rings true”. This is indeed a sign that the word is truly from God.
As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts.” (4.12)
The power of God’s word is such that it can transform the person who truly hears it. But this transformation is an integrating one: it draws all the fractured pieces of one’s personality together. It helps overcome those elements in us, which are not the true person, those disturbing forces and urges which frustrate our good intentions and lead us to do things we would rather not do, because we feel they are not representative of what we truly are.
Thus hearing the word of God requires us to take it to ourselves, allow it to become part of us so that it becomes a true wellspring of our action. This is best accomplished in prayer, where in an atmosphere of tranquillity and silence we have the time to pay attention to what God is saying and hear it resonate in the deepest recesses of our being.
Mary is our model here. She was a fully integrated person, because she took God’s word deep into her heart and identified herself with it, allowing it to become the unifying point of her life. Indeed she did more. Unique among all creatures, she received what God had to offer in a uniquely special way. God did not just speak words to her. He spoke his Son the Word of God to her. And she received the Word so completely in her heart that she actually conceived him in her womb. Literally she gave flesh to the Word. He became part of her. She took him into herself, so completely identified herself with him, that he lived a new life in her womb. As St Augustine so succinctly put it: Mary conceived the Word in her heart before she conceived him in her body.
We too are called to give flesh to the Word not literally as Mary did, but figuratively inasmuch as the Word still seeks to come alive in us and continue his saving presence in our world. As St Paul said: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2.20)
Our Life Response
One must also respond to what one hears and takes to heart.
This means one must allow it to have an effect in one’s life. After hearing the word of God, one must also put it into practice. Our Lord holds his mother up as an example of someone who does precisely this (cf Lk 8.21).
It is no good merely to hear the word of God, or even to take it to heart, if it has no further effect on us. This is a repeated refrain throughout the New Testament. The Gospels are harsh on those who say “Yes, Lord” but do nothing about it (cf Matt 7.21; 21.28-32), and St Paul declares that our whole lives (all our activity and behaviour) must be conformed to the Gospel. St James joins in the chorus: “But you must do what the word tells you, and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves (James 1,22).
It is an interesting fact that in ancient Hebrew the same word was used for “hear” and “obey” throughout the Old Testament. There was no separate word for “obey”. Obeying was hearing. But hearing was not merely the superficial taking in of sounds. It implied the fullness of listening, taking to heart and responding in action. And when it was a matter of hearing the word of God, then this became the fullness of religious obedience.
The famous “Shemal, O Israel” of Deuteronomy (6.4), a text still very sacred to Jews today, begins with the ringing words: “Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God is the one God.” These words are not merely to be heard with the ears. They are to be taken to heart and one’s whole life is to be lived in response to them. This is true obedience.
Mary was a true daughter of Israel. She too was truly obedient, for she heard and cherished the word of God. Her whole life was in a sense a living out of what she heard from the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. When God invited her to be the mother of his Son, her response was not limited just to that moment. By saying “yes” she was committing herself to something which she would be living forever more. From that moment she never ceased to be the mother of God, a vocation to which she remained perfectly faithful even up to this day. Truly she heard the word of God and put it into practice.
In our prayer too we are called to put what we have heard into practice. So often we feel that no matter how much we pray, we never seem to get better. We seem to remain the same old spotty persons we were before we started to pray.
But perhaps we are expecting our prayer to work like magic. Perhaps we are expecting our prayer to transform our lives miraculously. Perhaps we are neglecting this third dimension to our prayer. Perhaps we are failing to put what we have heard in our prayer into practice. This requires effort. Effort is needed not only during the time of prayer, but perhaps even more importantly afterwards.
Mary never forgot this. Her whole life was a prayer not only in the hearing and the pondering, but most importantly in the doing as well. Let our prayer be Marian, like Mary’s prayer. For in imitating her we shall become like her a true disciple who hears the word of God, takes it to heart, and yields a harvest through perseverance (cf Lk 8.1 5).
Patrick Bearsley, a member of the Society of Mary, held a PhD (Angelicum) and an M.Lit from Oxford. He is a former Professor of Philosophy and Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Greenmeadows, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s College, Auckland, New Zealand. He died in Rome 2000.