I sometimes wonder just what Mary was doing when the angel Gabriel appeared. Was she out for a long walk in the hills? Stopping to rest for a moment while hauling a heavy water jar from the village well? Or was she in the kitchen? Luke’s gospel tells us nothing. Whatever she had planned for that moment, for that day, I’m almost certain she did not imagine an angelic visitation.
“How can this be?” she asked Gabriel. I can almost hear her thoughts, “What are you doing here, in my kitchen, on this hillside, on the cool damp steps up from the well? Right now?”
Years ago, a friend told me about her then very young daughter’s reaction to this story. Her daughter wondered, not about Mary’s reaction, but about her own, turning around the thought that an angel might yet appear to her crying, “Hail, Heather!”
At the time, I found it a charming story, but perhaps Heather was right, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility of such encounters. In his book “What is contemplation?” Trappist monk Thomas Merton blithely reminds us that while we might be tempted to think of the gift of mystical prayer — of God’s invitation to stillness within Him — is reserved for the holiest few, it is rather “part of the normal equipment of Christian sanctity.”
It’s a daunting thought, that God might invite us at times to experience his love so deeply, to be overshadowed as Mary was by the Holy Spirit when we least expect it. While in the kitchen, or walking down the hill by the elementary school. How can this be?
If we imagine such encounters at all, I suspect we envision ourselves in a serene chapel, composed in prayer, alone with God. But as Madeleine L’Engle points out in her essay “The Icon Tree,” Jesus did not go looking for disciples in the synagogues. Instead he called them from beaches and street corners and kitchens, while they were about the tasks of daily life: fishing and making dinner.
I imagine that none of us is expecting such encounters with God’s Holy Spirit, but the response of Mary and of the disciples to these un-looked-for visits, offers us a window into our response. How can this be? As Gabriel says to Mary, grace. God’s own gift of Himself to us, set within us, which spills over into the lives of those around us.
These are experiences that have the potential to change us, even if they do not change the external circumstances of our lives. The daily remains. The disciples still worked their nets after the resurrection; Peter’s mother-in-law surely kept preparing meals.
Like Mary and the disciples, I think we encounter God, perhaps less eventfully but no less certainly, in the midst of our everyday lives. Could it be that we are called to be ordinary mystics, that we ought to pray for this gift and long for it? The answer is obvious, says Merton: Yes.