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A Magnificat Year

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.

And Mary.

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.

Charla Mary

The Magnificat– a prayer of trust

magThe Magnificat

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever. 

(Lk 1:46-55)

At our school mass on the Feast of the Assumption, Deacon Kevin spoke of the words in this prayer. He challenged us to say these words and mean them.  What would the world look like if I do as Mary did and as she continues to do in miracles such as Fatima and Lourdes. Proclaiming God’s greatness is only possible if I truly believe, but more than that, it is only possible if I have true Faith.

Faith is so much more than belief however, because believing is a mere starting point on our journey towards Christ. We can proclaim, but when do we live it out fully?  What does it mean to rejoice in God? The prayer calls Him our “savior,” but what can that mean for us really?  To be saved means we must allow ourselves to be humbled and be rescued.  Nowhere in any of this fits our pride. We must succumb to God as a higher, more ethereal being who is capable of loving us beyond how we enable ourselves to be loved. We also must think more of ourselves in order to accept such love and rescuing. Our lives must maintain a fine balance between pride and humility and hope and despair.

I contend that we only fully live out our faith when we understand and redeem ourselves from the sin of Eve, just as the Blessed Mother did. Eve’s sin was only partially the sin of disobedience, though that is often the understanding we have of the Fall of Man. We understood God to be transcendent and lofty who, through His love, dictated what Adam and Eve were to do and how they were to conduct themselves. That always sounded reasonable to me. However, the more I thought, and the more I read, and the more I prayed, the more I discovered that Eve truly sinned when she failed to TRUST in the Lord. 

faithHow can our souls show the Lord in all His glory if we don’t trust him to love and care for us? I must have complete confidence in God and His ways so I can celebrate Him and his works, one of the “works” being ME. I NEED God like my body needs air. I have to trust that He is all around me though I cannot see him. This is why belief, faith, and trust are all interconnected. My trust lies also in knowing that no matter how desperate the world feels or how much we or others are suffering, we are capable of achieving Hid grace if we only place our confidence in Him and his claim that we are in a temporary state and that our real lives are of all eternity with Him.

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St. Hannah Pray for Us

I am going to take this opportunity to introduce you to a saint that I have developed a special devotion to, St. Hannah. St. Hannah is the patron saint of childless wives and infertile women (whether they have children or not), and I strongly identify with her suffering. When I was going through active infertility treatments I spent a lot of time prayerfully conversing with her about my frustrations, my sorrows, and my pain. Since today is St. Hannah’s Feast Day I wanted to take this opportunity to help our readers get to know this little known saint a little better.

I first “met” Hannah through the book (not Catholic) Hannah’s Hope: Seeking God’s Heart in the Midst of Infertility, Miscarriage & Loss by Jennifer Saake and then the Catholic Infertility blog Hannah’s Tears Ministry. I have since read her story in the Bible so many times I felt like I knew her – or know her.

Hannah’s story is told at the very beginning of the first book of Samuel. Elkanah had two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah and Elkanah had children (sons & daughters), but Hannah remained childless. The reading says

When the day came for Elkanah to offer sacrifice, he used to give a portion each to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters, but a double portion to Hannah because he loved her, though the Lord had made her barren. Her rival, to upset her, turned it in to a constant reproach to her that the Lord had left her barren.” (~ 1 Samuel 1:4 – 6, NAB)

I think it’s key here that the author of this book says “a double portion to Hannah because he loved her.” Elkanah wanted Hannah to be viewed as equal in the temple, he wanted her to feel special. He knew that Peninnah reproached Hannah for being barren and he wanted her to feel loved and honored. Some have even speculated that Hannah was the favored wife of Elkanah. The passage goes on to show us that Elkanah was greatly troubled by Hannah’s sorrow over her barrenness: “Her husband Elkanah used to ask her: ‘Hannah why do you weep and why do you refuse to eat? Why do you grieve? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8)

If you’re infertile, or if you know someone who is, you know that this is not an uncommon conversation. My husband and I have had it more than once during our journey so I can really relate to Hannah. She feels broken, she’s wondering to herself “what’s wrong with me? Why does Peninnah get to be a mother? Look how mean and nasty she is to me!” and Elkanah is simply thinking “Hannah has everything she needs and I love her? Why isn’t that enough?”

The next part of the story makes me laugh every time I read it.

Hannah rises early in the temple and is seen by the priest Eli. While she’s praying Hannah begins to weep. She says “O Lord of hosts, if you look with pity on the misery of your handmaid, if you remember me and do not forget me, if you give your handmaid a male child I will give him to the Lord for as long as he lives neither wine nor liquor shall he drink and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (1 Samuel 1:11) and while Eli watches her pray he thinks that she’s drunk and says to her “How long will you make a drunken show of yourself? Sober up from your wine!” (1 Samuel 1:14) She’s so upset that he thinks that she’s drunk! While I’ve never been in prayer in a public place and become so upset that I’ve been mistaken for being drunk, I have had people look at me – and I can only imagine what they’ve been wondering.

Eli assures her that her request has been heard by the Lord and she goes on to give birth to a son, Samuel, whose name means “God heard.”

As she leaves Samuel at the temple (at the age of 3, after he’s been weaned) with Eli she offers up a beautiful prayer that  some have said is similar to the Magnificat that Mary sends to God when she arrives at Elizabeth’s house (another infertile woman in the Bible who also conceives a son after many years of barrenness).

Hannah’s prayer begins:

 “My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted in my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord; there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

The Magnificat begins:

 “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46 – 49)

Hannah disappears from the book of Samuel after the author tells us that the Lord blessed Hannah with three more sons and two daughters.

The greatest comfort that I have found in the Communion of Saints is not only that these holy people now reside with God and can intercede on our behalf (let’s face it, I need all of the help I can get), but that they were real people with real problems and real humanity. Hannah deeply felt the pain of infertility. Elkanah deeply felt the pain of his wife. The Lord blessed them with six children – in God’s time. The saints are there for us to serve as our guide and to help us understand that pain is a normal part of life, that it’s normal to beg & plead with God when we don’t think He hears us, that it’s normal to be confused about our call in life. St. Hannah is in heaven now and there are days when I can almost hear her saying “I understand.”

I don’t think that there’s any coincidence that St. Hannah’s day falls during Advent – the season of waiting. Hannah teaches us that good things come to those who wait. Hannah teaches us that the Lord wants to see our pain, the Lord wants us to lay our emotion at his altar. Hannah reminds us that husbands who love their wives want them to feel whole and loved and valued.

St. Hannah pray for the childless women and those women who long for another child who read this post today, intercede for us that we may soon join you in prayers of thanksgiving and celebration.