Monday, February 27, 2012

Our Lady of the Refugees

I researched this wonderful poem by the poet Sister Maura.

           Mother who knew
          what hardship shakes
        a woman bundling clothes
     and putting by her wheaten cakes:
       Mother who urged the donkey
               (making happy riot
             on the straggling stones)
          urged the beast to be more quiet.
              Mother who heard the Child
          whimper beneath the thin blue shawl,
             our aching prayers cry out to thee,
                   Mother, pray for them all.

              A thousand Bethlehems
          mask dark tonight;
        the eyes of little friendly homes
have lost their light;
pathetic heaps of poor, dear things
are laid aside; a small bird sang
where a latched door swings.
Mother, whose sad Egyptian flight
preceded all of these
guide them in faith beneath familiar stars,
Our Lady of the Refugees.

Sister Maura SSND
Marian Library Collection
Used with permission

Catherine Nicolette;

Sr. Maura SSND wrote this poem which speaks of Mary of Nazareth as being a refugee, who fled to Egypt. The poet movingly expresses the experiences Mary underwent as a mother when she and her family were fleeing for their lives. An allusion is made to the tragedy that occurred in Bethlehem at the time of the flight. Details on which this beautiful poem are based may be found in the Gospels in the New Testament;
The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, verses 13 to 18. Allusion is made to the prophecy of the great Jewish prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament, the Torah; the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapter 31, verse 15.

If you are a refugee, or have come to a new country, experiences may prove hard for you. It is comforting to know that we are not the first to be strangers in a new land, but that the earthly mother of God underwent just the same experience. Many people find it a comfort to reach out in prayer to Mary of Nazareth, believing in her strength as a holy woman of God, asking her for assistance with protection and with their difficulties in their new land. It is believed by many Christians that as the mother of God, she is often blessed by God with ability of assistance to humans in difficulty and need. Christians further believe that the assistance they receive through prayer is from God directly; it is gained for them by the tender maternal care of Mary of Nazareth. Many people who do not have their mother with them on earth find it a comfort to turn to Mary as a mother figure.

*Photograph of the lotus was taken in beautiful India by Rev. Catherine. Please feel free to use copyright free for any educational or spiritual purpose

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Ave Maria in art and letters


On March 25, a gestation before Christmas Day, many Christians celebrate the Annunciation to the Blessed Mary of Nazareth, the incarnation of her Divine Son.

In the words of St. Luke, Mary was greeted by the Archangel Gabriel with the words, 'Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.' In Latin the words translate to 'Ave, gratia plena'. Early Christians added the names of Jesus and Mary to the greeting in which they added the salutation of her preganant cousin Elizabeth: 'Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.' The greeting is concluded with the words; 'Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.'

For centuries the Ave Maria formed part of the Christian's daily prayer. We find Chaucer early in the second millenium referring to the 'Ave Marie or tweye' (a couple of Hail Mary's). Millions of pilgrims of all faiths visit Marian apparitional sites such as Lourdes, Fatima and Guadaloupe annually. The understanding of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus Christ, may now be entering a hitherto unsuspected dimension.  On December 20, 2003, The Economist traced alleged links in the veneration of Mary between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In the Economist  article,  the writer named the thousands of lines of 'subtle and expressive religious poetry addressed to Mary, the Mother of Jesus,' as one of the great cultural achievements of the Christian era. England was no exception. In Anglo-Saxon or Old English,  spoken in England from about 700 AD to about the first century of the second millenium, we find references to Mary in the so-called Christ-poems, ascribed to the pen of Cynewulf, a 9th century writer probably resident in Mercia, the West-Midland.

In one of these poems a description of Mary's virginity is given in the following lines, as heart-stirring as they are simple;
   The woman was young. A virgin
   free from sin., Whom he chose to
   be his mother. It came to pass
   without man's embrace So that for
   the sake of the child's birth the
   bride became pregnant. No
   women's reward, before nor since
   in the world, occurred in this way.
   It was kept secret. God's mystery.

Paintings of the Annunciation abound, particularly in the works of the old masters. One widely known one, housed in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, is Sandro Botticelli's masterpiece painted in 1489 and 1490. It shows the Blessed Virgin kneeling beside a wooden lectern. She apears to be looking inward rather than outward, her hands at once beckoning and resisting Gabriel who kneels before her, a hugs St. Joseph's lily in his hand. The angel has wings which could belong to him or perhaps symbolise a hovering Holy Spirit, awaiting Mary's fiat: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord, Let it be done unto me according to thy word,' ILuke 1;38).

Famous in Victorian times, the Irish-born playwright Oscar Wilde (1858-1900) could have been referring to the Botticelli picture when he concluded his poem Ave Maria, gratia plena with these words:

  With wondering eye and heart I
  stand before this supreme mystery
  of Love: some kneeling girl with
  passionless pale face, an angel
  with a lily in his hand, and over
  both the white wings of a Dove.

In medieval poetry which teems with the mystery of the Annunciation we often encounter the Eve-Ave theme. Eve (Latin: Eva), the earth mother, and Adam broke faith with God. Their innocence was reclaimed by Mary of Nazareth and her Son, Jesus Christ. During the Reformation the Douai-trained Robert Southwell (1561-1595) wrote;
  Spell Eva back and Ave shall you

Using the same inspiration the metaphysical poet John Donne (1573-1631) calls Mary 'Thy Maker's maker and thy Father's mother.' A fellow metaphysical poet, George Herbert; wrote;
  How well her name an Army doth
  present, in whom the Lord of hosts
  did pitch his tent.

With the rise of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century, the composition of the English Marian poetry began to come back into its own. Gerard Manley Hopkins (188401889) is arguably the major exponent of Marian poetry during this century, although his works were only introduced to the public at large after the start of the twentieth century. He took his inspiration from the medieval religious lyrics, resuscitating sprung rhythm, a poetic conceit  last used in Piers Plowman in the 14th century. In his organic poetry he compares the Blessed Virgin 'to the air we breathe', saying;
  She, wild web, a wondrous robe,
  Mantles the guilty globe, Since
  God has let dispense Her prayer
  his providence: Nay, more than
  almoner, the sweet alms' self is
  her And men are meant to share
  her life as life is air'
The sheer volume of Annunciation art and poetry is a sign that though it passes without pomp and circumstance, the annual feast of the Annunciation represents a landmark in the faith of all Christians.

It marks the day when Mary was requested to allow herself to be used as bridge between God and the human race. In reply to Gabriel's invitation she joyfully proclaimed: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
Let it be done to me according to Thy word.'
It is Mary's joyous obedience to God's redemptive plan which is the reason why Christians throughout the ages have turned to her in good times and in bad, asking her to speak to Jesus her Son to ask us for help.

And as in Chaucer's time and in the ten centuries before it we still do so using the prayer beginning with the angelic salutation: 'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.'

Catherine Nicolette;
When I was twenty years old, I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Israel. Coming from a totally Christian background in South Africa, I received deep witness in Nazareth where the Annunciation is remembered. The beautiful religious memorial site there is at the site of a well. Since getting water was a main part of the workday of women in past centuries, many legends have placed Mary of Nazareth's meeting with the Angel Gabriel near a well. Egeria the pilgrim, as well as Paula and Jerome visited Nazareth in previous centuries.

When my friends from Welkom and I entered the memorial site, we found ourselves the only five Christians present. Many women stood around, devoutly praying and murmuring prayers to God, remembering the wonderful Mary of Nazareth who made Jesus' incarnation possible to our human race. Each and every one of those devout women were of the Islam faith. I stood round eyed at the depth of spiritual devotion and prayer each woman showed as they reached out to God for assistance in their personal lives at that time. I learned after seeing the wonderful witness of the prayerful lives of the women that the Qu'ran, the sacred texts of Islam, mention Mary of Nazareth over thirty times. Submission to God's Will is central to the Islam faith, and Mary is the paragon of such obedience. The Qu'ran further tells of  Zechariah and Elizabeth.

I came to Nazareth that day as a young woman from Africa seeking to find God's Will in my life, and to obey it - I left at the end of the day a woman who had been witnessed to by other women who were following God's Will in their lives. And I have never left seeking to follow God's Will every day, having been enriched by the wonderful example of prayer and devotion of those wonderful women of Islam.

*Photograph taken in Switzerland by Rev. Catherine. Please feel free to use picture copyright free for any educational or spiritual purpose.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Who composed the Magnificat?

Mary of Nazareth visits her cousin Elizabeth


The Bible states that the glorious song in praise of God we know as the Magnificat was sung by Mary of Nazareth during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Mary made this response to the greeting of Elizabeth, who was then expecting her son, John (known in later years as the Baptist).

Biblical scholars are not unanimous in their belief that Mary herself composed that magnificent incantation. Some suggest the Magnificat represents Luke the evangelist's understanding of the song of praise sung by Hannah (1 Samuel 2; 1 - 10), suitably altered to include the miracle of the incarnation - Christ's becoming flesh in Mary's womb through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The wife of Elkanah the Zuphite, Hannah had been universally believed to be barren until she conceived her son Samuel. After weaning him when he was aged three, she presented him to the high priest Eli and left him to serve at the temple of the Lord.

There are numerous points of similarity between Hannah's canticle in the Old Testament and Mary's in the New (Luke 1; 46 - 55). Nevertheless, it does not follow that Luke, who though erudite as befitted the doctor of medicine (but not divinity) which he was, is responsible for the existence of the Magnificat.

During her childhood Mary would have been instructed in prayer by her parents, inspired by her Creator and fired by her personal devotion. Mary would have had the opportunity to grow in wisdom and grace. As a devout worshipper, Mary would have been familiar with Hannah's canticle herself. This makes it seem unlikely that Luke rather than Mary herself may be responsible for the words of the Magnificat as found in the Bible.

Striking to recall, Hannah's son Samuel became the first prophet to forecast the coming of Christ the Redeemer, while Elizabeth's son John would be the last person to herald His coming. John baptised the multitude and preached on the banks of the river Jordan as Christ was about to embark upon His public life. Christ even sought baptism from this beloved cousin.

The remembrance of the Visitation, described in churches as the feast of the Visitation, is held annually on 31 May. As evidence of Mary of Nazareth's yearning to serve anyone in need, this event is as indicative of her nature as was Christ's first miracle at Cana, which He performed at her behest. Despite her concern for her own unborn Child, Mary undertook the journey to Ain Karim, home of her cousin, to take care of Elizabeth and her unborn child for three months. When the women greeted, Elizabeth was divinely inspired to acknowledge the motherhood to the Divine which God had bestowed on Mary, who in her response intoned the Magnificat.

Allowing the needs of others to precede her own is Mary's own vision - in her humility, she became everything to God the Creator. The poet Jessica Powers compares Mary to a pool of limpid water, crystal clear, reflecting neither impurity nor imperfection but mirroring only God's greatness:
     There was nothing in the Virgin's soul
     That belonged to the Virgin -
     No word, no thought, no image, no intent,
     She was a pure, transparent pool reflecting
     God, only God.
     She held His burnished day, she held His night
     Of planet-glow or shade inscrutable.
     God was her sky and she who mirrored Him
     Became His firmament.

Powers believes that Mary's littleness is at once her greatness, since it causes her to open her mind and her life to God's design and hold back nothing for herself. 'When I so much as turn my thoughts towards her, my spirit is enisled in her repose,' the poet continues. Nevertheless Mary's visit to Elizabeth shows that Mary's prayerful serenity is accompanied by diligence and practicality.

In the Magnificat Mary admitted she knew that all generations would call her blessed.  Despite her humility she rejoiced in the thought that in this way her praises would be sung for all eternity. This had nothing to do with personal pride. Seeing God as the only author of her good fortune, she regards any blessings she may receive on this account as belonging to God as a direct consequence of the marvels that He has worked within her.

In November 1948 in Sign magazine a poet identified as Sister Agnes likewise refers to the fruitful 'emptiness' within Mary.
     It is just as she said
     The day she bowed her head in Elizabeth's room
     When her womb rang out with the Word
     Bounding against the pure curve of her emptiness like a bell
     Giving tongue to her young blessedness.

It was during that Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth in Ain Karim that the unborn cousins first made contact as John leapt in Elizabeth's womb. The martyred priest-poet Robert Southwell provides us with this inspiring word picture of that stirring moment;
     With secret signs the children greet each other,
     But open praise each leaveth to his mother.
We know from the Bible that Jesus greatly approved of, and loved his cousin. Though St. Stephen is often regarded as the first martyr of the New Testament, it was really John who would be the first of Christ' supporters to be martyred for courageously refusing to be silenced in the cause of righteousness. The Visitation is therefore a very significant feast with links leading both back in history and indicating Christ's public life and ultimate suffering and death. The feast celebrates the humanity of Jesus, showing that Jesus was as authentically human as he was authentically God who truly loved His family and His cousin.

Created by God the Creator, Mary has a human nature. Yet it was destiny that she was to become the bridge along which all members of humanity are invited to travel to heaven by their imitation of her openness to God's plan for them. It is thus a blessing to remember her words and to pray the greeting of Gabriel to Mary in the Hail Mary prayer; and to say the Magnificat, the magnificent poem of praise by mary of Nazareth.

As Sister Agnes wrote in 1948:
     Now we tell in our generation
     What the old have told
     What they will tell who come after
     Hail Mary, Holy Mary, blessed art thou!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Lumiere Charity remembers Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro

Dear Readers,

Lumiere Charity remembers those who have died in freezing temperatures, including many homeless. Our thoughts and prayers are with all in Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro at this time. A lit candle has been burning as remembrance for all who have died, or who are suffering from the extreme weather conditions. In the spirit of Lumiere, if there is any way in which you can help, please extend a helping hand.