World Youth Day - Mary, Mission, and Discernment
“During those days, Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to the town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, and how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Gospel of Luke 1:39-45)
This passage from Luke was the theme of 2023’s World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, and it is an appropriate theme for pilgrims – or anyone - to reflect upon. How do you get the courage to go with haste, and how do you make sure you’re heading in the right direction? This is the definition of discernment. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si refers to this as “attentiveness” to the moving of the Spirit within us. Or perhaps we think of it as our conscience or inner knowing.
Mary is a prime example of this inner knowing and attentiveness. She received what the angel Gabriel told her and she consulted with what she knew to be true - about herself, about God, about scripture - before giving her consent, her fiat to carrying Jesus.
Mary also consulted with this inner knowing upon hearing that her cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant, and at old age. Mary decided, of her own freedom, that she wanted to be with Elizabeth during what would’ve been a nerve-wracking time, and she went with haste. Her conscience propelled her to go.
As I prepared for pilgrimage, I not only reflected on Scripture, but on a poem from Mary Oliver called The Journey:
One day you finally knew
What you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
Their bad advice‚
Though the whole house
Began to tremble
And you felt the old tug
At your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
Each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
Though the wind pried
With its stiff fingers
At the very foundations‚
Though their melancholy
It was already late
Enough, and a wild night,
And the road full of fallen
Branches and stones.
But little by little,
As you left their voices behind,
The stars began to burn
Through the sheets of clouds,
And there was a new voice,
Which you slowly
Recognized as your own,
That kept you company
As you strode deeper and deeper
Into the world,
Determined to do
The only thing you could do‚
Determined to save
The only life you could save
In our modern world, where things are very loud and many demands are made of us, pulling our attention in various directions, we must prioritize listening to our inner voice. The God within us.
This requires listening to our bodies. If God is all-powerful, and if He was able to create humans out of dirt and a single ribcage bone, it is reasonable to think Jesus could have come to Earth in all sorts of interesting ways. But He came of human pregnancy in a human body, and He encountered his family in utero, proclaiming the good news of the savior in the leaping and fluttering of a human embryo. The story of Mary going with haste is a bodily one.
Discernment is a profoundly bodily experience. There is innate wisdom in our bodies that we must listen to in cooperation with our freedom. Pregnancy is difficult. Traveling while pregnant is difficult. Traveling in a human body of any kind is difficult! God works through bodies that are changing, that don't perhaps function like they used to, that bend under the weight of trying physical experiences. But we must learn to cooperate with our bodies. If Mary's inner knowing had told her "Travel is too dangerous. Your body feels bad. Don't go." That would’ve been a valid decision, rooted in attentiveness. If God within your body tells you to go, you go! The same must be said about staying.
Are we sick? Are we tired? Do we need to get out of the house and into the sunshine? What do the physical signs of burnout tell us about what changes and choices we should be discerning about our lives?
What's more, who in our society is crying out for greater respect of their bodies? What do chronically ill, mentally ill, and disabled bodies have to teach us? What do LGBTQ+ and, specifically, trans bodies have to teach us? These experiences require attentiveness to one’s safety and self-understanding. We should honor and respect the wisdom of these experiences.
And finally, what "mission" awaited Mary at her destination? The word “mission” can make us feel like God wants us to go out, with haste, on some grand adventure to “save” other people. But Mary did not go with haste to save or even serve Elizabeth. She went with haste to be in relationship with Elizabeth.
The religious charism that is closest to my heart is the charism of the De La Salle Christian Brothers. At the core of the Lasallian charism is "touching the hearts of those entrusted to your care."
In this Gospel passage, Mary and Elizabeth are entrusted to each other's care. John the Baptist and Jesus are entrusted to Mary's and Elizabeth's care. And Elizabeth and John recognize that they, in the Holy Presence of God, are entrusted to Jesus' care.
At the root of all our "missions," at the core of every destination of every journey, we are first and foremost to accompany each other through relationship. That is the root of all justice.
This requires empathy, which is fostered - returning us to the very beginning – through inner knowing. If we can recognize how our bodies respond to difficulties in our own lives, we can see the signs of difficulty wearing on our brothers and sisters. And we can feel the leaps and flutters in our hearts when we see them succeed.
Madison Chastain is a writer of books, poems, essays, and zines. Her work sits at the intersection of faith, bodies, and culture. You can find her at madisonchastain.com or on Instagram @maddsienicole