Play “Ave Maria” while you read.
Those of you who know me may think of me as a worldly traveler, a globe trotter of sorts. After all, my Navy duties have me traveling annually to exotic places such as Gabon, Trinidad and Germany. But in all honesty, I’m not very good at dealing with the stress of travel. In the hustle and bustle of air travel, with the risk of missed connections, lost luggage, third world accommodations and puddle-jumping turboprops, I have difficulty handling the anxiety and stress. Once I’ve settled into a location for a couple three days, I’m hunky-dory and have a blast! Until then, my nerves are frazzled.
Take, for example, my last trip to Africa. Pretty straightforward. I had a traveling companion, which always makes things easier for me. And it was promising to be a fun adventure, too, with stops in Naples, Italy and Paris, France. All went well until we started planning our return home from Benin. Because our duties ended earlier than anticipated, we tried to move our flight plans up a day. Well, best laid of plans being what they are, it didn’t quite work out. Mother Nature was being her naturally rambunctious self and threw Hurricane Irene in our way. It’s amazing what a whirling cloud of water vapor can do to ruin your plans. Not only was her anticipated path along our flight path (delaying or canceling other flights and forcing travelers to cram into the fewer available flights), but her wrath closed the only Navy travel office that could help us change our flights!
Ultimately, we did catch a new set of flights (a day later than originally planned): Air Kenya (whaaah?!) to Ouagadougou (wah-gah-DOO-goo — say that five times fast!) in Burkina Faso, then the night’s last Air France flight to Paris, continuing on home from there. Good news: Air Kenya flew safely (from what I could tell in 19C) and landed safely in Ouagadougou. Bad news: it flew late. (The only saving grace of the whole flight plan was the fact that I can now say I spent the night in Ouagadougou, which turned out to be a beautiful stop.) As Ouagadougou airport security, grinning broadly (or was he snickering?), informed us that we were too late for our connection, I felt my face blanch. All sensations fled my face and extremities, and I near-witnessed ephemeral images of a night spent in a muggy, run down, darkened third world airport, or worse, wandering the streets teeming with violent criminals, pulling my luggage on broken wheels. I felt my sanity start to fray and my grip on reality slowly start to slip. My only resort: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . . .” Over and over again until, slowly, a game plan formed in my head and I called the U.S. Embassy for assistance. I can’t say that I immediately experienced a “peace of G-d that surpasses all understanding” settling into my heart, nor would I describe my feelings as any sort of confidence or serenity. But sanity was restored. For this I owe a great deal to our Blessed Mother.
And to the two Rs: Repetition and Reinforcement.
You see, I recently began developing a devotion to the BVM that involved not only regularly praying the Rosary and the Angelus, but a habit–no, a practice–of praying the Hail Mary at various times and occasions. When my mind starts to wander or my eyes are tempted to stray, I close my eyes, focus on the words and images that they create, and settle back into the task at hand. If I get stressed about something, again, I reach for Mary’s help. Sometimes it takes a few reflective recitations for the resulting peace to arrive. Sometimes I have to repeat the words, “Hail, Mary! Hail, Mary! Hail, Mary!” a number of times before my attitude and focus catch up with the words and I can continue on with the rest of the prayer. Oftentimes I focus on a blank spot, on the wall in front of me, or in the clouds overhead, and imagine her image. It has gotten so habitual that I find myself praying to Mary just about any time, like when I’m driving–I might turn off the radio and pray to her. In fact, it has replaced other habits. Like, as I’m walking I used to grab for my Blackberry to check out the news and ESPN. I realized how obsessive this became and so instead, when I catch my left hand reaching, I pause and pray to Mary. It has greatly diminished the obsession.
It is most helpful when I’m praying to find meaning in each word and phrase. And images are great! And so, I pray, and imagine . . . .
“Hail, Mary!” Imagine, the Archangel Gabriel, a supernatural spirit, greeting you in this way! Gabriel, meaning Strength of G-d, honors Mary with this greeting. In essence, he salutes her! In the military, the salute is steeped in tradition. Junior personnel always salute more senior personnel first. When two Navy ships pass each other, the junior commanding officer is the first to render such honors to the more senior. And those who receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor, are saluted by every other man and woman in uniform — even by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff! And so, if the Strength of G-d salutes Mary, how much more worthy is she to have not only my recognition, but my focus and love!
“Full of grace.” Grace is “a supernatural gift of G-d.” And Mary is filled with it! She overflows with grace! Imagine, then, the Blessed Virgin overflowing, spilling grace upon you, me and all for whom we pray. She’s a holy font a grace, and when I pray, I hope that she directs the spillage my way. I wonder if, in this moment, Gabriel is proclaiming that intimate moment Mary shares with the Holy Spirit, the moment of Christ’s conception. At that very moment, she is filled with Jesus, Lord and Savior. What greater grace than that! This is the grace I seek to tap with my prayers and petitions.
“The Lord is with thee.” Imagine, now that the Holy Spirit has filled Mary with grace, she will now carry Jesus in utero for nine months. In the previous phrase, she has intimate knowledge with one person of the Trinity when the Holy Spirit and she conceive Jesus. Now she has nine full months to develop a close motherly bond with the second person of the Trinity. This bond she continues to maintain and nurture through today! And through this same relationship I seek grace.
“Blessed art thou among women.” I admit I initially had difficulty with this part. I first found it to be demeaning simultaneously to Mary and to women. To Mary, “sure you’re wonderful and all, among women!” (Kind of like the Sandlot insult: “you play ball like a girl!”) And to women, it initially conjured in my mind the historic second-class status often imposed on women. But reflecting on the Church’s emphasis on procreation and how our Creator endowed women solely with such creative powers — to bear life for nine months, nurture it in her womb, and bring it forth to multiply the species — I see this phrase in a different light. All of the wonderful, strong, beautiful and creative women in my life — my mother, grandmothers, sisters, my beautiful wife and daughters. They are so blessed with the grace and powers of creation! Imagine, and remember, the glow often associated with pregnancy. These women are blessed in a way no one can understand but them. And among these blessed, Mary is blessed! Imagine, then, drawing on these blessings while praying to Mary.
“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” For a Christian, this seems to be a no-brainer. But again, the images it conjures. Imagine Mary visiting her cousin, Elizabeth. Jesus is still in the womb and St. John is in Elizabeth’s when these two beautifully glowing pregnant women meet. The unborn John, still in the womb, leaps for joy in the presence of his cousin and our Lord! How can I respond differently?! How can I keep from singing! Alleluia!
These first words set the proper tone for the petitions to come: saluting Mary, recognizing her status with G-d and her special relationship with Jesus and with all of creation, and then singing the praises of Christ! Once I set this proper attitude, I can then approach Mary with my requests, a prayer pattern offered by St. Paul:
“Holy Mary, Mother of G-d.” Just as Elizabeth acknowledges the motherhood of Mary (and John the divinity of his cousin Jesus), we again re-focus on her whom we address. Imagine approaching the throne of Mary, mother of G-d, to make known your needs! We can approach with confidence.
“Pray for us sinners.” Here is where the rubber meets the road. As I pray this, I am both acknowledging my fallen nature and my need for help while simultaneously petitioning for that help. I am reminded of the Wedding at Cana. When the host ran out of wine, Mary approached Jesus who then performed his first miracle. I’m struck by two things: the obedience of divine/human Jesus to His human mother and the necessary obedience of the servants to bring to fruition His first miracle. Imagine, then, bringing our petitions to Mary who can whisper our concerns in Jesus’ ear! Jesus will listen to His mother, but I can only receive the offered graces if I “Do whatever he tells” me. This serves as a word of caution to me: am I willing to offer the necessary obedience in order to obtain Christ’s blessings?
“Now and at the hour of our death.” I’ve heard someone describe the two most important times of our lives as these: the present, and our moment of death. The former, because this is the moment we have and now is the time we can do something about. We have choices and decisions, and what we choose and decide now has ramifications. The latter, because our state at the time of our death (in grace, I hope) will determine our eternity.
One last image, and perhaps this should be stated first because it helps form the right attitude. When I begin praying the Hail Mary, I try to remember and reflect on Mary’s response to Gabriel:
Such humility! What submission to G-d’s will! With this image, I am reminded that it’s not my will I should seek, but His. And that I should not seek my own personal glory, but that I should hope to bask in the glow of His glory.
This is how I strive to communicate with our Blessed Mother. I don’t often envision all the images, nor do I always embody the right attitude. Take, for example, my unplanned stop in Ouagadougou. But despite my flawed attitude, Mary still helped me through the brief panic. And this simple practice has blessed me many times over. I hope you find in it multiple blessings for you and yours.