The Visitation: A Bubble of Glee and Mystery

The Visitation: A Bubble of Glee and Mystery May 31, 2012

I’m trying to get past being a sad, angry old Catholic lady today.

First there was CBS This Morning (which I’d recently switched to from TODAY, out of the blessed relief of finding a Kardashian-and-Kate-Gosselin-free zone with some actual news in it) getting the CDF inquiry into the LCWR’s positions and practices spectacularly wrong. Vatican Vs Nuns! was the title, promoted at every bump in the first hour, with Gayle King kicking it off by implying that if you thought the Inquisition was bad, just you wait. I know I had the same kneejerk reaction when the news first broke–weeks ago–but you’d think there would have been time for Gayle and Charlie Rose to have read an 8-page document by now. It only took me a day to engage my brain, and these people are paid to be way smarter than me. I’d actually had some hope of fair treatment from CBS after the good segment this same team devoted to the HHS lawsuits, with Cardinal Dolan in the chair. Perhaps the network received some blowback for being too nice to the world’s favorite strawchurch. In any case, this morning they gave Sr Maureen Fiedler the pulpit she’s been itching for all her life, and–well, I would say “put words in her mouth,” but the words were already there; Charlie and Gayle just got to say them faster than Sr Maureen could.

So we got footage of beleaguered nuns (many in habits, which means they probably weren’t from congregations represented by the LCWR) going about their business of saving the world from men in gold dresses swinging censers and threatening censorship. We got a sister who is also an emergency room physician saying she has no time to think about Church teachings like the importance of life; that’s not on her agenda, which is saving people. Even (shudder!) gay people. (I kept expecting her to say, “Damn it, Charlie, I’m a doctor, not a theologian!”) We got Sr Maureen explaining the Real Gospel, in which if you are not a radical feminist you’re not a Real Catholic. We got Gayle and Charlie cheerleading and tut-tutting from the sidelines. (“Nuns! Who could hate nuns?”) We got Sr Maureen reminding the world that nuns make vows to give their lives to other people and no pointy-hatted envious guys who care more about oppressing women than they do about the poor can make them break those vows. (Huh? Somehow I thought the vows were made to God.) We got Gayle saying that if this were the corporate world, we’d be talking hostile takeover. (Well, no, Gayle. Hostile takeovers occur between two separate entities. The LCWR is not a corporation; it’s a branch office, and what we have here is an attempt, probably futile, to retrain middle management before they go rogue on the brand entirely.) We got Charlie asking how the Church could be transformed into The Church Sr Maureen Wants, which is a democracy, preferably one comprising only blue states. In response, we got Sr Maureen convening the Third Vatican Council.

But it wasn’t just that. It was a flurry of stories, in blogs and Facebook links, repeating the new party line: that women (and, well, men and children, too) are nuts to be Catholic, and that the Catholic Church had better change into the The Church Sr Maureen and Anna Quindlen and Charles Pierce and MoDowd Want by, oh, about a week from Friday, or it’ll die–either of hardening of the arteries, or helped along by the euthanasia that nobody has time to think about the morality of because Damn it, Charlie, I’m a doctor, not a theologian.

All this, on a day when we remember the profound, humble, world-saving witness of two women, brought together in fear and joy by the improbable gift of new life rising up in them. The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, recounted in Luke 1, is perhaps the only real answer to the sadness and anger I’m feeling today. It begins with Mary’s Fiat, a humility and obedience so uncharacteristic of The Church Most People Want as to be shocking. Bless it, Charlie, I am God’s handmaid, not his boss! Out of all the angel’s difficult and challenging words, what sticks with Mary is the news of Elizabeth’s longed-for pregnancy, offered as proof that nothing is impossible with God. Without hesitation, Mary heads off for the hill country, her first thought being not her own exaltation but sharing in another’s exultation.
Artistic representations of the Visitation capture that glorious moment when the two women–young and old–meet and embrace, and life calls to life from within them. Elizabeth feels quickening, that first indescribable bubble of mystery and glee as the child in her womb leaps for joy. And Mary bursts spontaneously into song, praising God. Her Magnificat is often cited, and rightly so, as a text of liberation theology, a text that places God squarely on the side of the poor and the least ones. But it’s especially important to remember Who is doing the liberating and the saving here. Mary’s Magnificat is not a charter for women to save the world: it is a song of thanksgiving that these two women are among the world of those God saves every day. Mary’s name is remembered from age to age not because she is autonomous and liberated and radically feminist and better at knowing what God wants than those damn men in the Vatican–though I would argue that in the best of ways she is all of those things–but because she hears (the root of “obedience”) and is directed by God’s will.

So instead of wallowing in my anger and sadness, I will be quiet and listen. Jennifer Fulwiler does a bang-up job of responding to some of Anna Quindlen’s arguments for leaving the Church (H/T to Deacon Greg Kandra), so I will simply concentrate on my own reason for staying–which is that this old, barren woman has felt an impossible quickening since returning home, a bubble of glee and mystery I haven’t felt the likes of since I was pregnant with my son, who turns 38 this weekend. I will rest awhile in the moment of encounter that is the Visitation–the joy and promise of what is coming to birth in the Church, what is always coming to birth in the Church, by God’s grace. None of us knows what it will look like. None of us can threaten or bully or hasten it into being in our own image. But it will come to birth . . . for the Mighty God has done great things for us, and holy is His Name.

Here’s John Michael Talbot singing his setting of that wonderful promise. Let it be our prayer, today, for peace in the Church and in the world.

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