We pause this week in our meditations on the Hail Mary to consider what we are doing, and why.
Mary is a model of Christian spirituality. As we considered at the end of our meditation last week, Luke’s Gospel constantly presents her as meditating on the Word.
In fact, it goes deeper than that. Jesus says, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:28). The Greek word he uses here for “keep,” phulasso, is about guarding: keeping watch, protecting. Earlier on, Luke gives several variations on, “Mary kept all these sayings, considering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Here the word for “kept” is syntereo, similar, though slightly different: here we are “protecting” by holding everybody together – like a shepherd. It is also a word used for remembering.
It then adds that Mary “considered” these sayings, symballo. This word means putting things together; it can be used of two people in conversation, putting their heads together, or of one person pondering, putting it all together in their mind. It is similar to dialogizo – when she saw the angel she was stirred up at his greeting, and “deliberated” what sort of greeting this could be (Luke 1:29). Here too the idea is of putting things together, as in dialogue with another person, but also in our own mind: ruminating on the words we have heard, pondering them, meditating on them.
This is how traditional Catholic spirituality works. It is profoundly Scriptural. First, we “guard” the words of Scripture, hold them within us, fight to protect them from corruption, and not to lose them. We cling to the words of Scripture.
Next, we ponder them, putting them together, considering.
The tradition makes the Psalms the heart of its prayer life: memorizing, meditating, pondering, savoring, digging deeper into their meaning. Then lectio divina, which is simply meditative reading of the Bible. Also the rosary, which is a meditating on key phrases and events from the Bible. (And the original core was meditation on the words of the Our Father and the Hail Mary – the mysteries were added to help us ponder those words, not to substitute for them.) Various types of meditation, like the Ignatian exercises, are also just meditation on Scripture. In all of this we imitate Mary, who hears the word and keeps it (Luke 11:28), and indeed goes farther, keeping the word and pondering it (Luke 2:19, 1:29, etc.).
Somehow in modernity Catholics came to think of vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplation as three different types of prayer. But in the tradition – and, indeed, in the Catechism – they are all one, perhaps summarized better in St. Benedict’s admonition, “let us consider how we ought to be in the sight of the Divine and his angels, and when we say the Psalms, stand in such a way that our mind may harmonize with our voice.” Vocal-mental-contemplation doesn’t mean we should seek contemplation apart from vocal prayer, any more than it means we should have vocal prayer without using our mind. Rather, when our mind attends to the words we are saying, that is the path to true contemplation. To be a contemplative is to pray like Mary: pondering the words of Scripture.
So when we meditate on the Hail Mary, we are imitating Mary, learning to draw our spiritual sustenance from the words of Scripture.
But in imitating Mary’s meditation on Scripture, we also discover Mary herself. Or rather, in meditating on the Gospel, we find the Gospel—and we find Mary as the personification of the Gospel.
Mary shows us the reality of grace, and the power of the Lord’s being with us. When we look at Mary, we discover more profoundly that he really is with us: that God himself has become Mary’s son, our brother in the flesh. And when we look at Mary, we see what God-made-flesh comes to do: to transform us, to make us holy, to fill us with his presence.
The Gospel has content. Christian contemplation, and Christianity itself, is not like Buddhism, where our minds check out and we fade into abstract unity. The Gospel – the presence of God, and the work of his grace – is something to be heard, received, and meditated on. It is like the rosary: a meditation on specific words and actions of God.
But that meditation is not just for scholars. The Gospel, and Mary herself, is as simple and profound as the Hail Mary: simple words, rich in meaning, to be kept and pondered in our heart.