My palms were sweating like crazy. It was only my second attempt at the Sacrament of Reconciliation since returning to the Catholic Church after a 25-year hiatus. I stood in line at an unfamiliar church with unfamiliar people in order to sit across from an unfamiliar priest and confess my sins and struggles. Somehow I suppressed my overwhelming desire to turn tail and run, if only because I was concerned that my new boots would slip on the marble floor and I would end up doing ungainly splits in front of an imposing statue of Saint Joseph. This was not on my life bucket list. So I imagined myself breathing into a brown paper bag to calm down and I stepped into the confessional area.
Sisters, am I glad I did.
The priest—a gentle, scholarly man who had been presenting a retreat on the topic of The Spiritual Exercises to me and 25 other eager participants that day—graced me with a gift beyond measure. After listening to my failures as a parent and my unwillingness to acquiesce to God’s will for my family because it didn’t match the plan I had for my family, the priest fell silent. Did I just push him over the edge? I wondered as I opened one eye to check. No. Good. He wasn’t waving a white flag or crying or even shaking his head. His eyes were closed. He was thinking. And then he offered a brilliant penance: I was to read and ponder Mary’s Magnificat and reflect on her submission to God’s will.
Whoa. Wait. What?
At the next break of the seminar, I stole away to a nearby classroom by myself and googled “magnificat” on my phone to make sure I knew what the priest meant. I flipped to Luke 1:46–56 in my bible. I read the verses of Mary’s humble prayer to God after Elizabeth had greeted Mary and acknowledged her role in salvation history. I read Mary’s reaction of praise after her grand Fiat to God’s request. And then I re-read it.
I wish I could say a thunderbolt of understanding and wisdom struck me right then and there in that classroom and that I absorbed all the beauty and significance and application of that prayer to my life at that moment. It didn’t work that way. But it did plant a seed.
And the Holy Spirit does wonders with seeds, my friends. He scatters them, cultivates them, provides the right conditions for germination. And He never gives up on them, even if they are planted in ridiculously stubborn, prideful and self-centered people like me. Especially if they are planted in ridiculously stubborn, prideful and self-centered people like me.
Fast-forward to today: Girlfriends, I could write an entire book on Mary’s visible and invisible influence over my life the past four years. Suffice it to say that perplexing penance assignment opened the doors to a relationship with her that is still growing and amazing me in ways I never imagined. I have moved from borderline indifference to Mary (especially during the many years I spent in a Protestant church), to a true devotion to her as the mother of God, the mother of my soul, someone who loves me and so clearly wants to draw me nearer to her son.
Here’s Exhibit M: (I would say Exhibit A, but it’s been four full years of Mary influence, so we are at least at M by now.) Just before Christmas last year it dawned on me that I am weak at praising God. I may get a passing grade in thanking God most of the time, but praising God? A definite Must Improve category. So I prayed for some help in this area. The next day I read in my Advent prayer book that “in the whole of scripture, the Magnificat of Mary is an unmatched prayer of praise for almighty God.” And a few days later, during my prayer journaling time, I read in Word Among Us that Mary’s Magnificat “shows just how much Mary loved to praise and glorify God.” “Mary is not only your mother,” it read, “she is your prayer partner as well. So join her today and pray your own Magnificat!” Bingo! Asked and answered. I could learn to better praise God through Mary’s example. She could be my helper, my partner, my coach.
As 2017 rolled around, I found myself penning the word “FIAT” atop my Spiritual Goals sheet and adding a bullet point underneath: “Magnificat/Praise.” I am using Mary’s world-changing “Yes” to God as my one-word guide for the year, and I’m using her Magnificat as a tool for praising God.
This makes me smile. I’ve come full circle, thanks be to God! And the Holy Spirit. And a holy priest.
Who would have ever pictured this development? Not the sweaty, panicky, hyperventilating me from four years ago, that’s for sure. This year, with Mary’s help, I am forging ahead, saying yes to God more and praising Him more.
And, with Mary’s help, I am certain that no brown paper bags will be necessary.