by Teresa McCaffery
I have been fond of the story of the visitation ever since I had to do a meditation on the picture by Claudia Williams displayed at St Beuno’s in the retreatants’ lounge. Aware of some of the potential blocks to praying with the imagination, I settled down to do the mini-retreat on the visitation offered recently on the spirituality website Pathways to God.
This story is part of the infancy narrative, written long after the events with no chance of direct conversation between evangelist and protagonists. It feels to me like something written to stress the importance of the events to the evangelists, not an encounter between two real pregnant ladies. Surely Mary would not have spoken poetry when talking to her cousin? Resistance became complete when, in the meditation, I was asked to make myself comfortable in the home of Elizabeth. How could I do that? I’m not Elizabeth, or Mary; there are no children in this scene and no passer-by would have remarked on this very private meeting, it seems unlikely that either would have wanted to confide in any third party. How can I realistically imagine that I am present in this scene?
The Gospel passage was then read a second time and I heard that Elizabeth gave a great shout after the infant leapt in her womb. Somebody must have heard that shout. A passer-by would not think it significant, but was there anyone else around who might? Zechariah was a cynic, struck dumb because he did not believe that the power of God could make his wife pregnant. He had already been forced to acknowledge that his wife was indeed pregnant, and he may have been ready to wonder what else the Holy Spirit might have in store for him. Perhaps I was talking to him in another room when we heard the shout and wondered what had so excited Elizabeth? Elizabeth was literally jolted into awareness by the kicks of her unborn son so it’s not surprising that she shouted, and what about that poetry of Mary’s? She knew her scripture and would have been familiar with the story of Hannah, the barren lady who became the mother of Samuel. Maybe Mary wondered if she might one day have an unexpected baby which was terribly important. Maybe she learned Hanna’s canticle and sang it often in her heart as a sort of prayer of offering. In that case the words would have come easily to her lips as she responded to Elizabeth, with modifications relating to her own situation. The whole song is anyway a collection of quotations from psalms (which she would have known by heart as well)
So now I can imagine myself in conversation with Zechariah (was I a colleague, or a servant?). We hear the shout and are told by two glowing ladies that the story has moved forward a step. I become part of the beginning of this wonderful event
Dear Lord, do not let common sense become cynicism in me, help me to help others to overcome their difficulties in prayer.