Perhaps the first and most difficult step toward entering the religious life is leaving one’s family, especially one’s own mother. This enormous sacrifice can only be sweetened by the awaiting embrace of Mary, the sweetest of mothers, who will never be outdone in generosity. Her perfect example of humility and total abandonment to God’s purpose is rich endowment and comfort to the fledgling and life-long security to the seasoned religious.
During her life on earth, God asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the humble Mother of Jesus and wife of Joseph. Her example of fidelity can be a model for anyone seeking to be faithful to the call God has given them. At the Annunciation, Mary gives an example of obedience to God’s will, even when it is shrouded in mystery. Her fidelity as wife and Mother in the hidden life at Nazareth provides a model of humility and poverty, while her intercession at the wedding feast at Cana shows self-forgetful love. Mary’s station at the Foot of the Cross reminds us how being faithful to one’s calling brings us also to the Foot of the Cross, there to offer everything to Mary, in union with the suffering Jesus, in order to be fruitful for souls. Being a member of a cloistered religious order, I will examine these four moments in the life of Mary as related to the cloistered religious life.
Mary was chosen by God for a special mission. Her life, perhaps, seemed not much different from other young women her age. And yet, in a single moment, everything changed. God asked her to be His Mother. She pondered, and she asked a question. God said he could accomplish what was impossible for men. Placing her full trust in God, even though, at the time, she could not imagine what it would bring, she said yes: “May it be done to me according to your word.” Mary remained the same simple young woman she had been, but that firm “YES” to God’s will opened up a way that changed the course of her life. Because of that “yes,” a miracle happened: the Virgin became a Mother. Her whole life was fully open to God’s will, whatever it may have been, however unsearchable and mysterious it may have been. She could not have fully understood the outcome, but she bowed unhesitatingly to God’s will and bore Him Who would change the course of history. There would be many more “yeses” in her life, culminating at the Foot of the Cross.
Once she had conceived the God-man in her womb, Mary immediately set off to perform an act of charity. She was able to bring Jesus to others, because she was open to God’s plan. She brought Jesus to Elizabeth, who proclaimed, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). Mary responded by giving all the glory to God. When Joseph learned of her pregnancy, she left everything in God’s hands, persevering in her “yes” despite the difficulties. And God resolved the matter in a marvelous way.
God calls each one of us to a special mission. By listening to the Holy Spirit, we can find our joy and happiness by following the path God has set out for us. When a person experiences that mysterious call to consecrate her life to God, oftentimes there are hesitations, questions, qualms, and a host of difficulties that crowd the mind. “Who, me?!” But God does not give up; he continues to call the chosen one for his special mission. Finally, overwhelmed by the great mercy and love of God, the soul cries out, “Yes!” There may still be many questions and unknowns; but, like Mary, the soul puts her trust in the Lord she is learning to love with all her heart. This “yes” opens up a new world, full of possibilities. God can even work miracles. Walls can fall, hidden paths can be revealed, the blind can see! She listens to the gentle whispers in her heart, discerning where God is calling her. If God calls her to the cloister, she leaves everything behind and continues to put that first “yes” into practice. She follows the Blessed Mother’s lead, putting her life at the disposal of God’s will. She learns to say in all circumstances, “Yes, Lord.” In all the annoyances, as well as in the greater trials: “Yes, Lord.” In all those moments when all she can do is to put herself in God’s hands, when his will is so far beyond her understanding: “Yes, Lord.” The more “yeses” there are, the more Jesus dwells in her. Like Our Lady, she can then bring Jesus to others.
The Hidden Life at Nazareth
When Jesus, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth, they took up the simple life of a poor, working family. As wife and Mother, Mary performed all her humble duties, such as cooking, cleaning, sewing and drawing water—offering everything in union with her beloved God. Her soul, being sinless, never hesitated to do God’s will. Because she was without sin, she suffered whenever she experienced sin around her.
Mary did not always understand the ways of Jesus. When she and Joseph found Him in the temple after the three days’ loss, she asked, “Son, why have You done this?” When Jesus gave His mysterious answer about His Father in Heaven, Mary pondered it in her Heart. This pondering of the Blessed Mother is perhaps one of the hallmarks of her earthly life. Although she did not understand, she accepted, pondered and prayed, drawing the episode into her pure Heart.
So the years passed in the humble home at Nazareth. Mary continued to do God’s will with joy and prayer, never drawing attention to herself. In fact, the Holy Family seemed so unremarkable to the townspeople, that when Jesus returned during His public ministry, they did not accept Him. “Is not this the carpenter’s Son? Is not His Mother called Mary?” (Mt 13:55). And so He could not perform miracles there, because of their lack of faith.
Mary’s example of simplicity and self-forgetfulness in her daily work can be imitated by any person living a busy life in the world. Within the cloister, simplicity and poverty bring joy and harmony to the community. As the years go by, the cloistered nun learns the ways of the community and comes to love the hidden life. In imitation of the Blessed Mother, she learns to do all her work of cooking, cleaning, gardening, sewing, etc., in union with her beloved Jesus and in obedience to His will. It is not always easy; many times she does not understand why things are the way they are. But, like the Blessed Mother, she ponders on these things, taking them to prayer. She offers her whole life as a sacrifice, but humbly, without drawing attention to herself, staying hidden within the heart of God, maintaining a deep belief that God is listening to her prayer.
The Wedding Feast at Cana
Just as Jesus was about to start His public ministry, He attended a wedding feast in the town of Cana, and His Mother Mary was present. The bridegroom had miscalculated, and the wine had run out, causing potential embarrassment. Mary, seeing the situation, assumed the role of intercessor. She simply told Her Son what had happened, trusting in His goodness. And then, turning to the waiters, she spoke her last words recorded in Scripture, words which ring through the centuries: “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:4). She did her part with her intercession; then, pointing to Jesus, she faded into the background. The waiters listened to the words of Jesus, following His instructions. Thus, the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry happened—Jesus made an abundance of good wine.
Mary’s maternal mediation continues, as she intercedes for all her children. She is always trying to bring us Jesus, so that we may listen to His voice and do what He wants of us. Likewise, we are all called to pray and intercede for the needs of the world. Cloistered nuns are called to this intercessory prayer in a special way. As the cloistered nun lives her vows within the walls God has chosen for her, she becomes more attuned to the needs of the world. Like the Blessed Mother, she lays the needs of the people, whether great or small, at the Lord’s feet, knowing that He alone can bring forth the “good wine” of grace, healing and mercy to comfort the souls in need. She finds that God’s grace can bring about little miracles in everyday life. Like the Blessed Mother, she always points to Jesus. She disappears into the cloister and may remain completely unknown to the outside world for the rest of her life. She also seldom knows what fruit is borne of her prayers, but she leaves that in God’s hands.
The Foot of the Cross
The crowning point of Mary’s earthly life comes when she experiences the death of her Son on the Cross of shame. She stands at the Foot of the Cross, in perfect union with the Father’s will, although her Heart is pierced with the agony of sorrow. She is crucified with Him in a mystical way. She is so united with her Son, that she becomes a coredeemer with Him, offering everything to the Father: she offers Jesus, she offers herself, and she offers the world, through her pure, suffering Heart, bearing abundant fruit in the hearts of men. Here she also becomes Mother of the Church, when Jesus gives her to the beloved disciple and, in turn, the disciple to her. Thus, her Motherhood of the entire human race begins—a Motherhood that perdures.
The Cross comes into the life of everyone. The question is: what are we going to do with it? It can be embraced in a spirit of love; or it can be flung away, only to come back in another form. When the Cross is embraced with love, in union with Jesus’ suffering, it can even be a source of profound joy and peace.
In a sublime way, the Cross represents the pinnacle of a life consecrated to God, especially for those called to the cloister. The cloistered nun is inexorably drawn to the Cross, so that she stands at the Foot of the Cross with Mary, offering her whole life in immolation with her beloved Jesus. Her union with her Spouse bears fruit, as she offers herself, Jesus, and the world to the heavenly Father. At times, Jesus brings her closer, letting her share the shame and suffering of the Cross. But she knows that in the midst of the suffering, her heavenly Mother is right there with her. She is never alone. She understands that to flee from the Cross is to flee from Jesus and Mary. With Mary, she takes the needs of the world into her heart, becoming a spiritual mother.
Mary and the Evangelical Counsels
Our Blessed Mother is the perfect model of religious life. Religious take vows in some form of poverty, chastity and obedience, with some religious orders adding a fourth vow in line with their special charism. At the Annunciation, Mary was a model of obedience. She was unhesitating in embracing God’s will for her; what mattered was that God wanted it. The question is not, “What’s in it for me?” or, “How will this affect me in the long run?” The only question is, “What is God’s will?” Once someone knows the answer, she can, like Mary, embrace it with love and joy, finding peace and freedom in embracing his will. By virtue of her vows, every act of a professed religious can bear fruit in the hearts of many.
In the hidden life at Nazareth, Mary gives an example of poverty. The Holy Family lived in material poverty, as evidenced in Scripture. But Mary also practiced an interior poverty. She was humble and self-effacing. Like Mary, we can live an exterior poverty that is detached from material things, as well as that interior poverty that is detached from self. The truly poor person can give of herself for the needs of others, knowing that God will take care of her.
Mary’s example of pointing always to Jesus is a model for chastity. Her pure Heart was centered entirely on God; therefore, it was keenly attuned to the needs of others. All, whether married or single, are called to chastity, according to their state in life. Anyone who keeps a hidden place in their heart for the love of God can have a truly expanded and ever-broadening love for all people. It is the special charism of cloistered nuns to live within an enclosure. Joining Mary at the Foot of the Cross, the cloistered religious learns the meaning of enclosure. Although she may often experience the sorrow of the Cross, it remains hidden within her heart. The enclosure places the nun at the Foot of the Cross, the only place where she can bear fruit for the good of souls.
Mary, although a pure Virgin, also became Mother of the only-begotten Son of God. Our Blessed Mother lived in union with God’s will, her sinless Heart offering everything to the heavenly Father. Her perfect union bore fruit for the world, beginning with bearing the Son of God in her womb. By her example, she teaches us how to pray, how to do God’s will, and how to love unconditionally. In a special way, cloistered religious stand with her at the Foot of the Cross, becoming mothers of innumerable souls.
The Blessed Virgin gives her protection and consolation to all her children, wanting nothing more than to bring them to Jesus, saying, “Do whatever He tells you.” It all seems so simple, yet it takes a lifetime of learning at the school of Mary in order truly to give up one’s will and be open to God’s will; to be hidden and unknown; to always bring souls to Jesus rather than to self; and, finally, to die to all on the Cross with Jesus.
Mary was the most free human being who ever existed. Her soul, untouched by sin, was completely free to fully embrace God’s will. Her pure, virginal Heart had an expansive freedom to love all of sinful humanity. Her poverty and humility gave her a freedom of detachment from the world and herself that allowed her to live in the world and place all her cares in God’s hands. Her pure and humble Heart, embracing God’s will, left her completely free to embrace the suffering of the Cross, and thereby bear abundant fruit in the hearts of others. She continues this maternal mediation through all the ages, always caring for her children, always calling them to join her at the Foot of the Cross. When anyone strives to follow Mary’s example, they will experience the true freedom for which they are made, a freedom found only in the heart of God.