Maria der Verkündigung by Antonello da Messina

Accurate discernment of God's will in our lives requires a pondering heart. How often do we launch quickly and blindly into an activity, pleasure, or comment without first pondering in our heart whether God would have us do it? There is no better person to teach us this astute and peaceful discernment than Mary.

Even before the age of fourteen, when the Angel Gabriel dropped into her life like a lightning bolt, with a shocking invitation, she had mastered this sacred art of pondering with the heart. "She was greatly troubled at what was said," but "pondered what sort of greeting this might be." We are a highly reactive human race—running, avoiding, hiding, shunning--or screaming, attacking, hurting--when something disrupts or disturbs us. But Mary wasn't this way. Although frightened, she turned immediately to pondering and prayer, stayed present in the moment, and with trusting submission to God's holy will, said: "May it be done to me according to your word."

Mary kept her troubled feelings to herself, sharing thoughts of her new situation with no one but God, until she would greet her cousin Elizabeth. Mary walked a little more thoughtfully through life than the rest of us, with more awareness of the Spirit within her and the everyday sights, sounds, and conversations of her environment. Artists do not often portray Mary as a deep thinker like St. Jerome. But the New Testament makes it clear that on any number of occasions and as a general rule, she took time to ponder in her heart before speaking or reacting—rejecting the temptation of assumptions and actions born of pain. Mary was willing to patiently and trustingly penetrate the meaning of opaque events, including the most disturbing of them all, the crucifixion of her Son.

What precisely does it mean to ponder in the heart? The word "heart" in the Hebrew of Mary's time had none of the sentimental Hallmark card connotations as it has in English today, but referred to one's whole self—body, mind, and spirit. As a Jewish woman who read Scripture and lived among Jewish men who learned Hebrew in the Nazareth synagogue, she likely understood through them this broader meaning.

Of the many human behaviors and qualities Mary models for us, learning to ponder in the "heart" may be the most important. To ponder this way can enable us to be who we've always longed to be, to do what we know in our depths is right and good for ourselves and for everyone else. This is a difficult calling, but God's grace and Mary's prayers are at our beck and call to see us through. This means living the Christian life of love.

Before we can release such beautiful potential into our lives and apply love to all the ways we spend our time, much spiritual work needs to be accomplished. Socrates said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Self-understanding provides the foundation of having the presence of mind to pause and think with love about oneself and the world and people around us. The fruits of integrity and self-respect become literally visible in the body, for the stronger the spirit and the more alive the conscience, the more we carry ourselves with poise and presence.

Honest questions aimed at our "hearts" can help us probe who we really are in the light of God. To name but a sampling, we might ask ourselves, Which virtues of mine are being severely tested right now? How can I spend time asking God to replenish me? Why am I spending time with this person—these people? Should I be with them? Is my spiritual practice working? Could I do more or go deeper? What activities keep me from prayer time and spending quality time with God? What brings me close to Him? If I were at the end of my life, what do I wish I would have done differently that I can still change now?

Let us invoke Mary's presence and ask for her help. Providentially, the raw material for this work is provided through the seemingly mundane, but always profound events of daily life sprinkled with the holy. A day of drudgery pondered as a sacrificial gift to God can change everything. What might look to the non-reflective eye like a terribly poor man rushing his pregnant teenage wife into an unsanitary, cold, and smelly stable for her to give birth, can become what it truly is—a holy night of angelic beings, the timely arrive of gifts and kings, and God becoming man.

When we learn to ponder things as Mary does, the most ordinary or difficult events become numinous, and our life's words and deeds bring heaven to earth.

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Copyright 2012 Christine Watkins