When Life Is Upended: A Gospel Contemplation (Horizons of the Heart 13)

Horizons of the Heart is inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

The grace we are asking of God: a deeply felt sense of trust in how God draws us into the unfolding of the mystery of the Word made flesh.

Entering Prayer

“O Holy Night!” It is one of the most beloved of Christmas hymns, immortalizing the “night” of the birth of the Savior. I must admit that for all my life my favorite hymns for the season of Christmas are the ones that talk about the night, the moment, in which the Son of God appears in the lowly and poor space where animals are kept in the city of Bethlehem. Like the manger scenes so typically depict, there is Mary and Joseph gazing with love on the Child. A snapshot in time reminding us of the most miraculous and momentous moment of history. “O Holy Night!”

“He whom God manifold to prophets hath foretold
Lies there a Child. Lies there a Child” (from the hymn Holiest Night).

“Wonder of wonders,
Myst’ry of mysteries,
Upon the heart of the young Virgin Mother
Rests the Maker of all the world” (from the Italian hymn Sleep on, Little King, Ninna Nanna).

This Christmas, however, something was different. Some welcome days of vacation meant I had extra time to pray, to ponder, to read, to wonder, and even to wander. My heart came to rest at last as I gazed on the crêche a few feet from the first pew in our chapel in our Motherhouse.

The figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Shepherds, and the Magi were no longer frozen in time, appearing for one holy night’s event that would be remembered and recalled year after year. They were suddenly for me real people with real lives who made real journeys in response to this most sacred event in the history of the world.

Image by articgoneape from Pixabay 

Imagining Yourself Present

Sit next to Mary as she rests in the stable while Joseph takes his turn to watch their Child who is the Son of God. So young is she, and yet so suddenly mature, responsible, surrendering to the Provident care of God, yet cherishing her firstborn son with the evident concern of any new mother. Feel the prickly straw that provides the only place to lie, where the blessed Mother and Son in poverty rest. Notice the fatigue. Peer into the darkness outside and wonder when you will be able to travel home with such a young child? Feel her loneliness as she rested so far away from her mother and neighbors on this most important holy night of her life. Let your heart feel compassion for Mary. Perhaps bring her some water or a bit of food. Tell her that she can sleep a little while you and Joseph watch over her newborn baby.

Before this night, before the moment when the Archangel Gabriel had visited her, Mary had been but a child herself. Her life had been unfolding in one direction as a “virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph.” Things had been easy in those days before “The angel Gabriel from heaven came, / his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame; / “All hail,” said he to meek and lowly Mary, / “most highly favored maiden” (from the hymn The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came). And yet her answer: “To me be as it pleases God,” not only set her life in a new direction. The intervention of heaven into her life made it possible for Mary to become who she was meant to be: God’s Mother and ours, the Queen of the Universe and Gate of Heaven.

There is no photographed moment of Christmas joy from that first holy night, only lives transformed by unexpected vocations and challenging manifestations of God that directed people onto new paths for which there was little preparation. Mary and Joseph both had to prepare themselves for a life they had not anticipated, but a life lived in response to the angel’s message from the Throne of God: “Do not be afraid. This is what will happen. And this is what you will do….”

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even the sleepy shepherds found their slumber and night watch interrupted by angels. In an instant they were no longer the lowest outcasts of Bethlehem, but had become the first messengers and apostles of the good news of the birth of the King of Kings. The Wise Men in their rich robes suddenly realized that their destiny was to take a very long journey in search of an unknown King who had been born somewhere in the land of Israel.

Take some time to reflect on what even one of these persons is going through as their life is upended by the Almighty and they are precipitated into unknown futures where all they have is their trust.

Imagining the Gospel Events in the Present

The quiet days of reflection that were woven into my Christmas season were welcome days of unwinding and interior relief. As I reflected on the ways my life has recently been upended and redirected into unexpected directions, I resonated with the attitudes and feelings and interior heart-spaces each of the people in the crêche before me.

And you? Have your middling years seen a surprising transformation of life form? Does it resemble the Christmas journey of Mary or Joseph, with the clarity of heaven’s clarion call? Or the wonder and simplicity of the shepherd’s search for what the angels had announced? Or is it long and convoluted and messy like the Wise Men from the East who unwittingly got caught up in the machinations of a jealous Herod?

Observe Attractions and Resistances

Enter again, as you are drawn in prayer, with quiet rest and sensitive attention into the inner world of one of the figures that make up the Christmas story.

Observe their actions, words, emotions, sensitivities, attitudes. To which of them you feel more attracted. Which of them arouse more negative feelings or resistance? Return to aspects of these meditations that seem more personally meaningful.

Entering the Mystery of the story

As you begin to enter the mystery of the story more deeply, you will begin to see or hear or touch. You will enter into the event and interact more deeply. Little by little you will become more present to the mystery and the mystery will be present to you.

Moving through deepening levels of stillness

As your contemplative prayer deepens, you will be open to being affected deeply by Jesus’ Spirit at both conscious and less-than-conscious levels of your being.

It may move you gradually through deepening levels to stillness. You may find yourself just there, totally involved—seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. It is almost as if the experience has gone into slow motion, and time passes as one is present to the Beloved and the Beloved to oneself. One is there; Jesus is there. The mystery is there. No words are necessary and no great thoughts need to surface. This is the experience of “O taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Desiring to follow Jesus

As I become more and more involved in the event of Jesus’ mystery that I am contemplating, my life and my choices are affected. I find myself changing and desiring to change. I begin to follow Jesus in a particular way.

As you contemplate more deeply, as you soak in these mysteries of Mary’s motherhood, where do you observe emotions or reactions like fear, guilt, resistance? Do any memories become more present to your awareness? How do you feel drawn toward something new? Speak to Mary, Joseph and Jesus about what you observe and experience. What do you begin to learn about your following of Jesus?

Conversing as with a friend

Continue in quiet—or even silent—intimate conversation with Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Ask them what is the grace that you should be praying for. Beg this grace of the Father. Then beg this grace of the Son, your Savior and Shepherd. Finally, beg for this grace from the Holy Spirit who is the source of all holiness.

If you wholly lived this grace that you are begging for, what would your life look like? Your relationships? Your prayer? The way you work? The way you love? The way you serve? What about you would make you the most happy?

Ask Mary, Joseph and Jesus to show you one specific gift they wish to give you. Receive it and remain in stillness and quietly relaxed presence under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Reviewing the graces of prayer

When you finish praying, write down the main gifts and discoveries from this time of intimate contemplation. What is one concrete thing you can do to solidify these gifts in your life.

Main image credit: Image by Enrique from Pixabay 

2 thoughts on “When Life Is Upended: A Gospel Contemplation (Horizons of the Heart 13)

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