Mary and the Contemplative Life
“But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
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The American church is renowned for its activism. We are a “can do” people, and in the Christian context that often means we see ourselves as “saved to serve.” We commend “being about the Lord’s business,” and value that which works and produces results.
On the other hand, we don’t always appreciate the value of practices like contemplation. For some, the idea seems too mystical. For many evangelical types, such disciplines seem too “Catholic” or associated with movements that come dangerously close to “new age” thinking or a lack of doctrinal stability.
It is unfortunate that we divide action and contemplation. It is unfortunate that we sometimes suspect those who pursue a robust inner life.
For example, let’s take a passage like Ephesians 2:10 — “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
This text teaches plainly that Christians are to live out their faith actively. In Christ, we have been made new to walk in the good works that God planned that we would do. On the other hand, the context is instructive. Eph. 2:10 comes in the midst of one of the longest, richest, most prayerful meditations in the New Testament, a breathtaking panoramic examination of the blessings with which God has favored his people in Christ (Eph 1:3-3:21). The section ends with Paul praying that the Ephesians “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (3:18-19).
Apparently for Paul, holy contemplation and action go hand in hand.
In the Christmas story, Mary exemplifies the contemplative side of the coin. Whereas Luke highlights the actions of the shepherds by using six vibrant verbs of motion, he describes the Virgin Mother in quite different terms: “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
To “keep” or “treasure” the things of God in my heart is to put them in a place where they are hidden from the world, yet accessible to me so that I may take them out to consider their value and significance. That place is my private world of heart, mind, and spirit. To live a contemplative life is to walk on the surface of a semi-arid world while drawing from a hidden aquifer far below. To live a contemplative life is to resemble an iceberg in the ocean — what you see is only a small percentage of who I am. To live a contemplative life is to follow the path of the artist, the musician, the craftsman, the athlete. The end-product you see coming from my life is the result of an extensive unseen life of practice and preparation.
Contemplation means to “ponder” as Mary did. It means to thoughtfully and prayerfully meditate on Scripture, on my life, on what’s happening in the world and especially in the part of it that I inhabit. It means to ruminate, to chew things over. Luther said meditation is like shaking a tree until you get the fruit to fall. Some have said it’s like preaching to oneself, taking a thought and drawing out its implications and applications for life. To be a contemplative means to be attentive, a good listener, an observer of details, a believer in the unseen and mostly unappreciated presence and activity of God in every circumstance.
I have a wonderful opportunity in my current job (of which I don’t always take advantage). Between visits, which are often intense, I get in my car and drive. Sometimes I just need a break, so I turn on some music or listen to sports talk radio to clear my mind. But often it’s meditation time. Time to contemplate. Time to think about the people I’ve met. Time to ask what God might be doing in this home, in that family, in this situation, in our team, in me. Time to draw connections between the Bible and life, between what I think is happening and what might really be happening. Time to ponder people’s words and consider what they might really have been saying. Time to review what I said, to reconsider, to repent, to rejoice. Even time to think about what I might write next on Internet Monk.
I know this is a luxury not afforded to everyone on the job. People in different situations or at different seasons of life have more or less space in their daily routines for quiet, solitude, prayer, and formal practices of devotion. But being a contemplative is more about what we are than what we do. It is refusing to skim along the surface of life. It is renouncing the way of busyness and frantic activity. It involves embracing intentionality. It requires developing powers of observation, analysis, and imagination. It means cultivating focus. It is about maintaining an active inner life before God no matter what is happening in one’s outer circumstances.
Think of all that Mary must have been thinking and feeling during the events described in Luke’s Christmas story! Imagine the difficulties of a journey to Bethlehem in her condition, the disappointment and discomfort of finding no lodging, the anxiety of realizing her time to give birth had arrived, the process of labor and delivery, the postpartum emotions, the startling interruption of the shepherds, the realization that people all around town were hearing and wondering and gossiping about her and her baby. This does not sound like a situation conducive to contemplation. “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
In Mary, the seed found good soil. When the Word came to her, she held it fast “in an honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15), exemplifying for all believers the blessings of the contemplative way.