In The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander attempted to show just how important it is for our faith to venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary and meditate upon her life. She strove to make Our Lady more relevant to our lives, and achieved this by emphasising her lay vocation and the ordinariness of most of her day-to-day existence. Houselander’s central point is that, in the grand scheme of salvation history, Mary, our Blessed Mother, immaculately conceived and ever-virgin, represents us – humanity – and so we must, if we are to allow her to help us in our daily tasks, recognise that she did many of the things that we do too.
She washed dishes, she raised a child, she got over-tired and scared; all the things that we do and experience were her lot as well. To affirm this is not to deny anything of the ways in which she does differ from us, or the special place she has in the economy of salvation, but it is simply to appreciate the degree to which she represents us and that we can identify with her, and therefore also how we can hope to follow her example. As today is the Feast Day of the Annunciation, I shall begin with a passage from the book that illustrates the representative role Mary has via an account of the Annunciation itself:
‘It is in Our Lady that God fell in love with Humanity. It is upon her that the Dove descended, and the love of God for Humanity culminated in the conception of Christ in the human race. When she surrendered herself to God, there was indeed a miraculous New Heaven and New Earth. The Spirit entered the world – light and wisdom and love, patience, fortitude and joy entered the human heart and mind, and in the sight of God a springtime of loveliness woke in the world. In the virginal emptiness of the girl, Mary of Nazareth, Christ was conceived; it was the wedding of God to a human child, and the wonder of it filled the earth for all time.’
The Reed of God (1976), p.10, Sheed and Ward.
Houselander then elaborates by examining what Mary’s active role in this whole process was – the importance of her fiat – and what this means for us today, as we look to the Blessed Virgin as not only Mother of God, but His first and finest disciple:
‘This proved that God knew Our Lady’s trust in Him was absolutely without limit. Everything that He did to her in the future emphasised the same thing. His trust in her trust in Him. The one thing that He did ask of her was the gift of her humanity. She was to give Him her body and soul unconditionally, and – what in this new light would have seemed absurdly trivial to anyone but the Child Bride of Wisdom – she was to give Him her daily life…
…Our Lady said yes for the human race. Each one of us must echo that yes for our own lives. We are all asked if we will surrender what we are, our humanity, our flesh and blood, to the Holy Spirit and allow Christ to fill the emptiness formed by the particular shape of our life.’
What Houselander is saying here is that Mary was not asked to take on extraordinary tasks or make heroic resolutions, but simply to say yes to God with every fibre of her being, every moment of her life – to make an act of faith in Him that was unconditional. So it is also with us – God can only work in and through us to the degree that we give up self-possession and self-justification, and simply open ourselves up to Him whole and entire.
Mary’s fiat was one moment, one ‘yes’, but she spoke it her whole life and with her whole being – this is the absolute essence of Christian discipleship, and insofar as she also lived an ordinary life, she can show us the way to say ‘yes’ to God amidst all the ordinary comings and goings of our own existences:
‘How much easier it would have been for her, had she been asked in that moment in time to withdraw from the common life, to tear up her heart by its roots and, renouncing all “earthly joys,” bring forth Christ in cloistered security. How much easier for her if she had had at least a guarantee for the safety of the precious burden, Christ, in her. But she was consenting not only to bear her own child, Christ, but to bear Christ into the world in all men, in all times; not only in secluded lives, protected lives, the lives of holy people, but into the lives of those haunted by worry, by poverty, by debt, by fears and temptations, subject to chance, to accident, to persecution, to the fortunes of war…
…In her brief historical life, of which we know so little, the history of the whole world is concentrated, particularly the lives of all the common people of the world, who often do not know themselves that they are Christ-bearers, living the life of the Mother of God. She began at once, as she stood up before the angel, and uttered her fiat, to live all our lives, and Christ in her was subject to the unknown, to the hazards of life in the world, as He is in us.’
This last point is something that Houselander returns to again and again in her book – that, just as we are called to repeat that fiat, that act of trust in God, we are called to continue Mary’s bearing of Jesus into the world, to be Christ-bearers to others. Mary gave birth to Our Lord, nurtured Him, united herself to Him in suffering and joy, and was with Him at all the central moments of His life. But we, as members of His mystical Body, are now His very hands and feet, eyes, ears, and voice to the world – we are called to follow Saint Mary and Saint Paul in saying ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
As we look to Mary today, and consider the great role she has played (and continues to play) in the scheme of redemption, let us think of how it was she lived out that initial ‘yes’ before the angel, and how she lived out that affirmation every day of her life. As the Catechism says:
‘By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity. Thus she is a “pre-eminent and…wholly unique member of the Church”; indeed, she is the “exemplary realisation of the Church”.’
So, in her we have a great example of what it is to devote oneself to the Lord, to truly love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength, and to take up one’s cross daily. Our Blessed Mother is a model of what it means to persevere in faith and love, and that she does so amidst not only great trials but also the routine happenings of earthly life, means that she is perhaps the one saint we can all hope to emulate to some degree – she has been through all the things we have (and more) and so knows the way we must walk. Therefore, when we talk to her and ask for her intercession, we are talking to one who has faced the frustrations we meet every day, and can sympathise with them. She is our Mother, who knows our wounds, and knows the places from where they come – let us go to her, that she may support us in our journey, and counsel us on our way.