Mary… the name of that beautiful flower

which I always invoke

morning and evening.” ~ Dante

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I remember learning the Hail Mary when I was 20. I was dating the Catholic boy who I would one day marry. I was curious about the Hail Mary, never having heard more than the first line of it in a movie.

I asked him to teach it to me. After a few tries, I still wasn’t picking it up well. He was frustrated. I asked, “How fast did you pick it up when you learned it?” He said he didn’t remember ever not knowing it. I was impressed.

As for me, I received it as something precious and exotic. Once I finally learned it, I could hardly stop praying it. I went on to learn from him how to pray the rosary.  I didn’t know what to make of many of the stories to be pondered during its recitation, but I prayed it anyway, making the best of it. I interpreted the mysteries of the rosary in my own way that made sense to me, until, gently, the stories started to change me. The Gospel became for me, not just an old story I was learning about, but something that was happening still, even in my life as I lived it.

At the center of the Hail Mary is JESUS. I didn’t know what to make of Him, either. But I held Mary’s hand like a child until she led me into the great romance of my life; Jesus: Jesus in His Catholic Church, Jesus in the Word of God, Jesus as experienced personally and within, Jesus shining through human love, Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus in the mercy of the confessional, Jesus in Mary, Jesus in the lives of the Saints, Jesus, inseparable from life and being itself.

All that stuff used to freak me out. But now it’s everything to me.

The Hail Mary is half Scripture. The second half is a product of the Church’s prayer response and reflection, over time, on the first half already given to us. Elizabeth repeats Gabriel’s greeting as she recognizes Mary as Queen Mother, confirming her in her mission by her own humble words of wonder, joy, and encouragement, filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary responded with her song of the Gospel that we call the Magnificat. (See Lk. 1-39-56)

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What must have passed between these earliest Church Mothers, these prophetesses, and friends, during Mary’s three month stay at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house? I imagine that three months was a lovely weaving, as in the lives and friendships of many women, of daily work, love and prayer; maybe for them it was dishes and divine secrets, cooking and singing Psalms, sewing baby clothes, drawing water, feeding the animals, tending the fire, breath-catching prophesy, washing and folding, praying and cleaning, laughing and crying.

Maybe Elizabeth gave Mary tips on morning sickness before the household recited the Sh’ma. (Dt. 6:4) Perhaps there were harmless jokes on the speechless Zechariah. What did they think when they went to the Temple on the Sabbath knowing what only they knew?

I imagine they pondered the Scriptures, pulled weeds, planted seeds.

They must have encouraged one another.

What was it like in their quiet moments?

Did they star gaze at night in humble awe, overcome once again with the mercy, greatness, and faithfulness of God, at the the ancient promise He was fulfilling in their persons?  How amazing it must have felt that it was them in the midst of it, at the epicenter of this secret new beginning for humanity.

How they must have grown in faith, in love, and determination, in the presence of the Holy Spirit in their relationship, this first Christ centered friendship, this prototype of the Church.

What did they talk about as they swept the floor, watched the sunset, walked with the silent Zechariah after dinner?

Mary was most likely present at the birth of John the Baptist along with the woman neighbors who would have come to help. It seems she would have stayed for the circumcision and naming ceremony (Lk. 1: 57-80) as well. Did she stand in awe beside Elizabeth and witness the return of Zechariah’s speech with his own beautiful, prophetic song? I bet she did.

When Elizabeth watched Mary go, I wonder if she prayed that start of the Hail Mary again, to accompany the younger woman on her way, and to lift her up in prayer as she went home to face all that she had to face, and to do all that she must do?

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I think of my friends, my soul sisters, who love, confirm, walk with, and encourage one another every day in our own Christ centered relationships. Through them I have often known the Holy Spirit’s presence and confirmation, love and strength. I have often thought, over the years, that there was nothing more beautiful to me than their faces at prayer, than being in the midst of their love, their work, as they transform the world around them. I would not be myself without their friendship. I would have been someone else.

I think of my friendship with Mary and how it has changed my life beyond recognition.

And I have to say a Hail Mary.

Because I love my life!

On this last day of May, of this month of Mary, this feast of the Visitation, let us say a Hail Mary together with gratitude. Pray another in thanksgiving for your friends, and another for all the intentions of Mary and St. Elizabeth as they continue their work together in Heaven for the Kingdom of God.

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