Mary is chosen for the sacred work of bearing the Incarnate Son of God, and the unforgettable words we know as The Magnificat come tumbling out:
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55, NIV)
As commentators have long noted, the words are not chosen at random. Reaching back into the deep wells of salvation history recorded in Israel’s Scriptures (Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel lies just beneath the surface of Mary’s exultation) while also looking forward to the subversive ministry of her son (the blessings and woes of Luke 6 are quite obviously anticipated here), Mary’s spiritual perception of the work given to her is from first to last a biblical vision, formed in the crucible of prayerful engagement with Scripture — the very thing, I think, that is missing from a great many of our current attempts to reclaim the sacred value of our work.
I am an unapologetic fan of Frederick Buechner. I find him uncanny for his ability to illuminate the sacred value of the ordinary with pith and poignancy. Consider the following reflection he offers on how to discern our life’s calling:
By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Now I think there is very much to be said for Buechner’s “rule.” In my own life it has certainly proved itself true. I am a born communicator with a lifelong love for the church and desire to help people. No surprise then, that I would discover a deep sense of vocation in the ministry, where writing and preaching and offering spiritual direction (my deep gladness) meets the human need for words that unfold new vistas of possibility for understanding the great mystery that is God and God’s dealings with the creatures his hands have made (the world’s deep hunger). I am blessed to live a life where those two things consistently intersect.
Likewise, I am friends with many people who live the truth of Buechner’s rule. My friend David is an accomplished artist who has found great satisfaction working in urban planning and design, where day in and day out his artistic gifts intersect with the world’s need for cities that are conducive to human flourishing. My friend Michelle daily brings her keen insights into child and family development along with her extraordinary gift of leadership to bear on the world by leading a vibrant family ministry at our church. Even on the more domestic side, my friend Kyle is an exceptional cook and host who regularly turns his table into a place where the risen Christ is encountered by friends new and old, serving up extravagant feasts he’ll often spend days planning and preparing—his love for hospitality satisfying the world’s need for connection.
So, yes, I think that Buechner is on to something. As a pastor who believes deeply in the role that human work plays in the plan of God and in the joy that comes from discovering the work that God has called us to, I have often counseled people directly along Buechner’s lines. Do what you love, as the saying goes, and you’ll never work a day in your life—the line between work and play being virtually erased in the endeavor. As Dorothy Sayers said many years ago, “[E]very man should do the work for which he is fitted by nature,” and that, if and when this is the case, we will “no longer think of work as something that we hastened to get through in order to enjoy our leisure;” instead, we would “look on our leisure as the period of changed rhythm that refreshed us for the delightful purpose of getting on with our work”.
To both Buechner and Sayers I say, “Yes, may it be so.”
I have journeyed with the notion of what the late Eugene Peterson called “vocational holiness” long enough now to recognize that while Buechner and Sayers are right, they are perhaps not right enough. Or perhaps (to give a bit more credit) we ought to do a better job recognizing and exploring the very-much-overlooked provisio that Buechner himself offers—“By and large,” he writes, “a good rule of thumb is…”
Whatever is left out by the “by and large” is what I am interested in here, because, as it happens, a great deal of God’s call on each of our lives is left out by the rule of thumb Buechner offers. There are profound limits to the “deep gladness + deep hunger” formula, dimensions of vocational holiness that it simply cannot illuminate. (I beg the worried reader to trust me: I have not left my meditations on Mary and her song. I’ll return to them and the light they shed presently).
I am thinking, for instance, of the way in which the formula represents something of a First World luxury. Grateful as I am for the opportunities my life has presented to me, through which I have been able to bring my gladness and the world’s hunger into alignment, I also recognize that for most people over the course of world history and across the globe today, my situation is an opulence bordering on fantasy, which their lives did not, could not, and will not afford them — their “deep gladness” notwithstanding. Are they thereby barred forever from “the place God calls?”
Relatedly, I am thinking of the way in which the formula limits our sense of vocation exclusively to whatever it is we do to earn money. This is one of the reasons why over the years I have personally tried to carefully distinguish the words “vocation” and “occupation.” Vocation, to my mind, is the more encompassing of the two concepts, including not only what we do with our so-called working hours to earn a wage, but more broadly 1) who we are as human beings in our totality (and how God intends that totality to be a blessing to others), and 2) the network of relationships we find ourselves in which represent arenas of sacred obligation. “To be sure,” I have often said to people, “if you can, find an occupation that brings your gladness and the world’s hunger into contact with one another; but do not think that in so doing you have exhausted what it means to be called by God in your particular life.”
In that same vein, and finally, I am thinking of the way in which the most important vocations of our lives have a way of finding us, and how one of the surefire ways we can recognize those vocations is that there is a cross (and often many crosses) buried in them — crosses that not only summon and demand a life of prayer, but indeed come to us precisely because of our life of prayer.
This is where Mary and her Magnificat help us. What strikes me about Mary and the central “work” of her life as the bearer of the Incarnate Son was that she did not choose it; it chose her, or more accurately, God chose her for it, and that not at random but because there was something God saw in her. We need not lapse into any kind of “Mariolatry” to recognize this. Twice the angel Gabriel remarks on her status of “favor” with God (Luke 1:28-30). Raymond E. Brown explains that “this has the connotation of being especially graced” and goes on to say, in a passage worth lingering over, that
[t]he one whom God has chosen for the conception of His Son is one who has already enjoyed His grace by the way she has lived. Her discipleship…comes into being when she says yes to God’s will about Jesus; but such readiness is possible for her because by God’s grace she has said yes to Him before. Thus Mary’s discipleship does not exhibit conversion but consistency.
She has said yes to him before. This, it seems to me, is the terrain of Scripture-soaked prayer, which teaches us to know the voice of God and readies us for the high holy labors of our lives.
I remarked at the beginning of this essay that “Mary’s spiritual perception of the work given to her and the place it occupies in terms of the wide sweep of salvation history is from first to last a biblical vision, formed, so it seems, in the crucible of prayerful engagement with Scripture”— and now we see why this must be so. What fitted her for her role as Theotokos was that she had always, in her way, been anticipating and welcoming and yielding to the advent of the word and call of God. We can imagine her at the synagogue or at the Temple, mind and affection soaked in Israel’s Scripture — anticipating, welcoming, yielding… Or at the prescribed times of daily prayer with her family, reciting the Sh’ma — anticipating, welcoming, yielding… Or as she (to borrow a phrase from the 17th century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence) “practiced the Presence” in the ordinary rhythms of life, pondering the mysteries of the Law and the Prophets in her heart — anticipating, welcoming, yielding…
…so that when the Word and Call of God finally came to her, in a way she could never have anticipated — Incarnate of her own flesh — drawing her into her most important vocation, she not only recognized it for what it was and what it meant in terms of the wide sweep of salvation history, but was ready to go wherever the call took her. Her prayer of assent — “be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38, KJV) — rings down through the ages, and Simeon’s word to her (Luke 2:34-35) pierces our hearts as well, for we discern in Mary’s story the nature of true discipleship: that like the Messiah whose Mother she was (and is), her prayerful acceptance of her divine vocation will pierce her soul. His cross is hers also. Her cross, her many crosses, are occasioned by and gathered up into his. And through the cross, as the old acclamation from The Book of Common Prayer has it, “joy has come to the whole world” — the joy of the kingdom.
As it always does.
When I was in seminary, I noticed one day an elderly woman with a severe physical disability working in the library. Her limitations being what they were, she could not work quickly — or, truth be told, very effectively. For hours she sat stooped over the card catalog, organizing as she was able, often requiring assistance, at a snail’s pace. Day after day she worked. And day after day I wondered about her.
And wondered more when one afternoon I saw one of my systematics professors sitting with her in the cafeteria, eating lunch. She ate as she worked — slowly, stooped over, requiring assistance. He would reach across the table every now and again to help the food into her mouth, or to wipe her face. I was touched, quite deeply, by what I saw, knowing this professor to be a man not only of great intellect, but also great prayer and love for the Scriptures; and now, quite evidently, a man of great kindness too. My guess was that she was his sister, or another family member he had brought under his care. How sweet, I thought.
This went on for months until eventually I became curious enough to ask around. “That’s not his sister,” I was finally told. “That woman is his wife. Early on in their marriage she was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition that would eventually rob her of all her motor skills. She’s been like this for years — slowly deteriorating. He is her primary caretaker.”
I buckled inside. Newly married, I wondered how I would have responded to a similar diagnosis, how I would have handled the long loss of my bride. It was obvious to me then, as it is obvious to me now, that only the daily surrender of prayer — “be it unto me according to your word” — would have made it possible, and my professor’s willing assent to the cross buried in the heart of his vocation to love the wife of his youth “till death do us part” said more to me about the nature of the kingdom and of the God he worshipped than any line from his thousand page systematics ever could.
It is the life of prayer — which Mary models — that makes a life of true vocational holiness possible. Yes, to be sure, there will be times when engaging the various callings of our lives will be as easy and as natural as simply doing what we love, living at the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger collide. But even those places, if they are genuine vocations, will carry crosses, for the call of God always does. “When Christ calls a man,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously, “he bids him come and die.” How will we handle the divine bidding unto death?
In my own callings I have died many times over. As a husband, as a parent, as a son and brother, as a pastor, as a friend. Gethsemane just keeps coming — for each of us, in each calling. “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” says Jesus, trembling in prayer as he approached the terrifying climactic hour of his divine vocation. And it is there, in prayer, that he finds his resolve: “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39) — a prayer he surely learned at his mother’s knee: “be it unto me according to your word.”
So may we learn to pray. And so may the kingdom come.