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Mary, Mother of Deep Looking

A reading from Luke:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel. The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
Luke 2:25-35

The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil once said that by looking we are saved. I think that this Gospel reading says the same thing.

Simeon is a man who listens deeply to the Spirit within who invites him to look. To look for the Messiah. To look for salvation. To look for the light that would illuminate the world.

As a man who looks deeply, Simeon is graced with the vision to see that this Jesus and his message of love, of peace, of an upside-down kingdom in which the last are first and the hungry are fed and the powerful are thrown down from their thrones would both liberate and infuriate.

That there was both trouble and triumph in store for the One who would heal on Sabbath, turn over tables in the temple, and dare love his enemies.

Inspired by the Spirit, Simeon told the young parents that this child would himself look deeply into the wounded hearts, the petty hearts, the lonely hearts, the fearful hearts of humanity where all thoughts would be revealed.

As one who looks deeply, Simeon then turns his eyes to Mary and says, You yourself a sword will pierce.

You yourself a sword will pierce.

A short sentence but one that we should meditate on in order to understand Mary as Mother of Peace and our own vocation as peacemakers. These words spoken to Mary are also meant for us. Mary’s heart was pierced and ours will be too if we consent to look.

To really look . . . closely . . . deeply . . . consistently at our world and at one another.

If we had the courage to really look, we would never harm another. We would never carelessly abuse this beautiful planet. We would never kill.

We would see the breathtaking beauty of our lives and our world, the unspeakable holiness of life, the gift of the present moment, and we would fall to our knees in adoration and gratitude.

We would also feel the acute pain of a pierced heart. A heart pierced by grief, a heart pierced by longing, a heart pierced by beauty.

This is the contemplative heart, the seeing heart, the heart that has been broken and blessed. The heart of Mary that inspires us to unite our gaze and our broken hearts with hers.

imageAs a peacemaker, I like to relate to Mary as Mother of Deep Looking, the perfect model of contemplation.

Mary looks not only with her eyes, but also with her heart. Scripture tells us that Mary keeps things in her heart and ponders them. This is the contemplative way.

If our work for peace does not have deep roots in contemplation, in pondering deeply the things upon which we gaze, our hearts tend to become hard and brittle and we too easily succumb to cynicism and despair.

Without a life of contemplation and prayer, we become violent ourselves.

Holding the pain of this world in the quiet of our hearts is very difficult.

At times, the hurt, violence, and pain of our world seem overwhelming, and rather than allow that pain into our hearts where it can be transformed into the seedbed of peace, we either push the pain away or we project it onto someone else.

It is so much easier to shield ourselves from the pain of this world – to push it away – through mindless activity and myriad addictions than to let it touch us at a deep level.

We run, we flee, we hide from our broken world by surrounding ourselves with noise and busyness. Rather than sit in silence, we sit in front of our television screens or shop ‘til we drop. Rather than look and ponder, we avert our eyes in order to spare our hearts.

At times, we harden our hearts from pain by blaming others and seeking revenge.

Rather than ponder the deeper meaning of violence and brokenness in our world, we build strong defenses around our hearts by demonizing others. This allows us to feel pure and sinless, but does little to transform our world.

Rather than look deeply at the roots of violence and admit our possible complicity – whether through sins of commission or omission – we blame the other and too often embrace the myth of redemptive violence.

This is the old “eye for an eye” philosophy that makes us all blind. This is the way of the world, not the way of Jesus. Mary, his mother and ours, teaches us another way.

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Mary’s is the perfect heart that neither flees nor fights in a way that hurts the other, no matter who the other is and no matter what the other has done.

Meditate on Mary at the foot of the cross. Unlike the disciples, she does not run. One can scarcely imagine the degree to which her heart was pierced as she gazed upon the body of her beloved son hanging on a cross. She neither condemns the executioners of her son nor calls for retaliation.

No. Her pierced heart, her broken heart, in refusing to look away and refusing to seek revenge, becomes the heart of Peace that holds the pain of the world and invites us to do the same.

This is the way followed by all the great peacemakers from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Dorothy Day to countless others who have learned, like Mary, to look deeply and ponder without retreat or retaliation.

It is important to note that this does not mean passivity in the face of violence or acquiescence to injustice. Quite the opposite.

The Hebrew prophets and the Gospel are clear that we are to actively work for justice. There is a holy anger, a graced outrage, that compels us to speak out against injustice and challenge those individuals and institutions that exploit and crush the poor.

This holy anger should burn in our bones when we look at the injustices in our world, but it has a shadow side that can cause great harm unless it is purified by a pierced heart.

Once purified, this anger becomes the source of action that is neither self-righteous nor destructive. Once purified, this anger is transformed into selfless acts of love that are often risky and misunderstood.

Actions that call attention to injustice while respecting the dignity of the one who commits the injustice. Actions that lead to freedom for the oppressed and the possibility of conversion for the oppressor. Actions that refuse to return evil for evil or use violent means to achieve good ends.

Consider Jesus cleansing the temple of the money changers – the perfect example of what today would be called nonviolent civil disobedience.

Although Jesus is angry, he dramatically exposes injustice without striking anyone or assaulting the dignity of those he challenges. He does not retreat in the face of evil nor does he retaliate. Rather, through his bold action of overturning tables, he symbolically overturns an exploitative economic system and probably overturns a few hearts as well.

Through Jesus, the world has been offered a way that is neither submissive nor violent. This is the spirit of Mary’s Magnificat. This is the spirit of the contemplative in action.
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I have been blessed to work with contemplatives in action – peacemakers – from around the world.

Among these peacemakers are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and some who claim no formal religion but who take the time to look closely at our world and, like Mary, see with the eyes of the heart.

Whatever their background, these peacemakers come to their work from the place where their hearts have been broken. This broken place is the holy and fertile ground where love takes root and where we seem to encounter God and one another in often profound ways.

My own heart has been deeply broken and blessed in two places in particular: Palestine, where the work of peacemaking persists under the harshness of military occupation, and Haiti, where courageous efforts are made to build a more just society in the face of grinding poverty, the worst form of violence that exists, as Gandhi said.

In both of these places, I have met women and men who practice the way of Jesus in their struggle for peace and justice as a result of looking deeply at their situation and then pondering the appropriate response to injustice and oppression.

Like Jesus, many of those I have met refuse to submit to injustice or resort to violence. Like Jesus, many of them pay a steep price for challenging injustice and for daring to expose lies, hypocrisy, and state violence.

They are humiliated, mocked, beaten, arrested, shot at, tortured, and sometimes killed.

And yet they continue to invite the world to look, to look closely, deeply, honestly at what is happening to their people.

By looking we are saved. Saved from illusion, saved from complacency, saved from tolerating the gross imbalance of power that fuels the cycle of violence that has our world in its grip.

In the West Bank village of Bil’in where I have spent time as part of the Michigan Peace Team, Palestinians have been gathering for nearly five years each Friday afternoon to nonviolently protest the wall and illegal settlement that Israel is constructing on forty percent of the villagers’ land in violation of international law.

The people of Bil’in are joined each week by Israeli and international peacemakers who stand in solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters. The demonstrations are creative and colorful and almost always met with extraordinary force by the Israeli Army.

A few months ago, a friend from Bil’in nicknamed Pheel was shot in the chest by a tear gas canister and killed, and a few weeks ago, Mohammed Khatib, the man many call the “Palestinian Gandhi,” was rounded up and arrested along with other boys and men from the village in the middle of the night.

In their absence, wives and mothers hold the pain of their loved ones in their hearts. They do not succumb to hatred, nor do they succumb to despair. Rather, they pray, they march, and they offer indescribable hospitality to those who come to this small village to take a stand for freedom.

In an e-mail sent last week, Mohammed’s 27-year-old wife, Lamia, a mother of four, wrote of seeing her husband and younger brother, Abdullah, in court. She wrote:

My brother had bruises all over from the beatings he received from the soldiers . . . It is obvious that the authorities will do all they can to prevent Palestinians and Israelis from working together towards a just peace . . . But I know that Mohammed, Abdullah, and I, and everyone in Bil’in will continue our struggle for justice.

Despite the pain of the occupation in Bil’in, those with eyes to see detect something new being born there.

As a Christian, I would describe it as an inbreaking of the Holy Spirit, a glimpse of the kingdom of God, a taste of that banquet to which all are invited.

There is something happening in this place that is bringing together Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, young and old that feels like a huge gust of God’s grace blowing where it will.

A foreshadowing of what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

I experienced a similar grace in the rugged, rural area in the southernmost section of the West Bank called the Hebron Hills where I lived in the caves with a small group of Palestinian families whose simple but wholesome lifestyle harkens back to the days of Abraham.

This hospitable community of shepherds is threatened by American-born Israeli settlers who have moved onto the land and set up illegal outpost settlements.

These armed settlers have verbally intimidated and physically attacked the shepherds, killed their animals, and, shortly before I arrived, seriously injured members of the Christian Peacemaker Team who were living in the caves to provide international support to this vulnerable community.

The pain of this community as it tried to carry on day to day in the face of violence was palpable, yet I was struck by the deep spirituality and prayer life that was woven throughout the rhythm of the day.

There was almost a Benedictine feel to the days – days spent grazing sheep, milking goats, baking bread, and sharing simple meals before retiring early for the night. The absence of electricity, cars, gadgets, and clocks opened up a space for reflection that is at the heart of peacemaking.

It was here – sitting on a large rock surrounded by sheep and looming settlements – that I pondered all that I had seen in the West Bank and prayed for the grace to transform my anger and grief into acts of love and peace on behalf of all the people of the Holy Land.

As Christians who take Mary as a model, our work for peace is rooted in a hopeful heart that says YES as Mary did, no matter how difficult the task or how unlikely the desired outcome.

Peace in the Middle East? As Mary knows, stranger things have happened.

Who would have thought that a teenage Jewish girl from a backwater village in Palestine would become the mother of our savior? As the angel told Mary, Nothing will be impossible for God.

A deeply spiritual woman who has lived the YES of Mary for decades is Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Christian, scholar, teacher, and activist. Reflecting on hope, she writes:

When I speak to the issue of violence in Israel and Palestine, it is always with a message of hope. It is not naïve hope but hope that grows from the witness and history of those throughout the world who refuse to submit to forces of oppression, who refuse to submit to violence, injustice, and structures of domination. Indeed, hope is revealed when truth is spoken . . . The great rift is not between one side or the other. Ultimately, as human beings we all belong together. Rather, the great rift is between care and carelessness, justice and injustice, mercy and mercilessness, compassion and indifference.

The contemplative heart knowing both the depth of sin and the reality of redemption rejects both pessimism and a superficial optimism. Rather, it plumbs the depths where hope lies like a buried treasure waiting to be discovered and dragged to the shores of our poor world.

Nowhere is the need for hope greater than in Haiti.

As a result of both external and internal forces, Haitians have suffered a history of occupations, coups, military dictatorships, and exploitation. This summer my friend Therese and I were given the opportunity to travel to Haiti with Anne Wisda, an IHM sister who was returning to Haiti for the seventeenth time.

Over twenty years ago when Sr. Anne visited Haiti for the first time, she looked deeply and what she saw transformed her heart and informed her ministry.

Moved by what Sr. Anne saw and experienced in Haiti, the IHMs have been partners with the Haitian community of Fondwa, a rural mountain community that believes that nothing will be impossible with God.

Although poor by U.S. standards, the people of Fondwa are rich in vision. Against all odds, this community has transformed the pain of poverty and oppression into a sign of hope.

The purpose of our trip was to celebrate the first graduating class of Haiti’s first rural university, The University of Fondwa. The twenty graduates in agronomy, veterinary science, and business are committed to remaining in this impoverished region to help develop the infrastructure that Haiti’s rural areas so badly need.

As we watched Genese, the young woman sponsored by the IHMs, receive her degree in business our hearts were deeply moved by both the miracle of what we were witnessing and the knowledge that this was a joy that so many Haitians would never experience.

In Haiti, women are called poto mitan, or the central pillar of society. The women carry water on their heads, babies in their arms, and bundles on their backs, but most importantly, they carry both grief and hope in their hearts.

Life is hard, very, very hard, in Haiti, but these women are not victims.

They are not asking for pity from the wealthier nations; rather, they are asking for the world to look, really look, at the situation there so that people, having seen, may be moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in solidarity. Listen to the words of Claudette Phene, a Haitian peasant woman:

We have suffered too much. Suffer, we suffer. They say, “Mize’ yon fanm se mize’ tout fanm.” The misery of one woman is the misery of all women . . . We’re tired of carrying baskets. We’re tired of having the middle of our heads torn away. You see here? The basket has worn off all my hair. I weave extensions into my hair so no one can see I’m just a peasant woman. Why? Because we would like, when people look at us, not to say we’re peasants with dirty feet. We have what it takes to live, it’s just that the biggest always suffocate the smaller ones. We women, we have resources! We can do things! We get up early in the morning, we don’t get discouraged . . . If we find land, we’ll work it, we’ll make a few cents. Whatever it takes to give our children some education, we’ll do it . . . Our custom is always to continue on. Continue! (Bell 116-119)

I am humbled by Claudette’s words and still pondering the many, many things I saw and heard in Haiti.

I am pondering the miracle of water and how careless I have been in my use of this precious resource.

I am pondering the violence of poverty and the reality of starvation so close to our shores.

I am pondering how Haitian women hold the grief that is in their hearts as they watch their babies die of preventable diseases.

I am pondering what it means to be a Christian and a peacemaker and a person who tries to look deeply.

I am pondering the following words of two Haitian women, Kesta Occident and Marie Sonia Dely, whose words invite us to look deeply at our sisters around the world who are asking us to take the example of Mary to heart and to hold our gaze at the suffering long enough to let it transform our hearts:

We’re fighting not only for bread, but for roses. We’re fighting for dignity and beauty. Our struggle for a better life has to be rooted in a deep spirituality. Our faith makes us believe that Jesus Christ accepted dying to show us another model where there can be life. Does God live just for people who are rich? We don’t think so. We say despite our difficult situation, God is present in our situation because he gave proof: Mary was not a woman who had any money. She was a person who was humble, you understand? God doesn’t have any preference either for the poor or the rich. He loves us all. He simply asks that we make an effort to be in solidarity with each other, you see. (Bell 229, 215)

Yes, Kesta and Marie, we see, and we pray for the grace to continue looking, for by looking we are saved.

At this time, I invite you to look closely at women I have met, and in some cases lived with, in Palestine and Haiti.

Women who model peace, hope, courage, and faithfulness. Let us invite our sisters into our circle of prayer tonight.

Let us see them and ourselves through the eyes of Mary, Our Mother of Deep Looking and pray for the grace to be peacemakers.

Reflection given at Marian Octave: She Who Brings Peace, St. Mark Church, Warren, MI Aug. 20, 2009

(Quotes taken from Walking on Fire by Beverly Ball, Cornell University Press, 2001)