September 06, 2012
Since the glorious days of Mary MacKillop’s canonisation in Rome and the celebrations we shared in other parts of the world, we have been thinking about how we continue to tell Mary’s story.
Many artists and musicians have already given us evocative images and lyrics that express in new ways how Mary continues to influence our lives. One of the new ways we’re now telling Mary’s story is in terms of inviting her to be our ‘friend’ in prayer.
Up to now we’ve been in the habit of asking Mary MacKillop to ‘intercede’ for us with God, or of asking for her ‘intercession’. It is a Catholic tradition to do this with other saints as well. The Mary MacKillop novena prayer that many of us have used speaks of asking Mary MacKillop’s ‘intercession’. This way of talking about Mary and prayer may not represent how we want to continue thinking about our relationship with God and with Mary MacKillop now and into the future.
When we explore the idea of someone ‘interceding’ for us it conjures a judicial context in which we ask a lawyer or sponsor to put our case forward to the judge because that person is trained in the ways of the court system and in the language of court. Sometimes it could even be prejudicial to our case for us to speak for ourselves in court unless we are conversant with the proper language of the court.
A more historic way of thinking of intercession is within a monarchical context where the monarch and the nobles hold the power and the majority of the wealth and they operate by granting favours to those of less consequence in the system. In such situations those more favoured in the monarch’s eyes can represent a less favoured person’s case to the monarch. In each situation, the person hopes that the lawyer, sponsor or noble will get them a better outcome to their situation than they could negotiate on their own. In each scenario, the person needing the favour is not able to approach the judge or the monarch themselves either because they do not hold a particular role or education, or, their social class makes them unworthy to approach the monarch face to face.
Do we think, or even want to think, of God - as a judge or monarch – being distant from us and unreachable? We can also ask, do we think that Mary MacKillop would consider us too unworthy to speak to God ourselves?
If we make God into the judge or the monarch of our scenarios, we can continue to think of God as distant and even aloof from us. We can continue to get the help of go-betweens to approach God instead of speaking for ourselves. We can continue to think of ourselves as unworthy to approach God directly even though we have pressing needs and worries. And we can wait for the outcomes of our intercessory efforts. We can wait wondering if God is hearing us. Maybe we might prompt our intercessor to greater efforts on our behalf with visits to her tomb or flowers?
I don’t think that God is distant from us in the way of a judge or monarch and therefore needs to have only special people approaching. Instead I think that God is very near and is listening with particular keenness to those suffering, worrying, ill and anxious. God knows our heart’s desire, our deepest hopes and yearning. God certainly knows about our illness, our unemployment, our child’s diagnosis of cancer. We read in Scripture that God listens as a mother to her child, as one truly upset by injustices meted out to people, as one aware of suffering and as one conscious even of a bruised reed.
We also know that God does not have a protocol as to who can speak and how we speak. Jesus, God’s embodiment, welcomed little children to him, listened to tax collectors and sinners, to the mothers and fathers worried sick about their children, to Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed, and to Mary and Martha grieving their brother Lazarus’ death. In fact, Jesus taught that God’s mission favours the lifting up of the downtrodden and anxious and bringing relief to the worried.
We also know that Mary MacKillop lived in God’s presence - but not in the front room where no one else could go or on a mountain top. She discovered God’s presence in the chapel and the kitchen, in the street and the ferry, in the children and the workers, in her family and her benefactors. Like the psalmist she could ask, “God, where can I go from your presence?” and like the psalmist she found that God’s presence was everywhere. She never spoke of God as being aloof or distant but rather as being concerned for her and for those with whom she was concerned. To treat Mary MacKillop as our ‘intercessor’ now may do her own understanding of God an injustice.
How then can we speak about Mary and prayer and not use intercessory language? I think that we find our answer by watching what happens when people come to Mary MacKillop Place to pray at Mary’s tomb. Every day dozens of pilgrims come alone or in groups. They often share their stories of why they have come with the Sisters engaged in pastoral ministry in the chapel. They come to Mary as to a friend and helper and as someone who would really understand what they are going through. They converse with Mary, write notes outlining their concerns, leave flowers that can be used to beautify the space. They kneel at her tomb, sit close, touch it, lean on it and lie on it. They sit quietly, pray sotto voce, weep, converse aloud, pray traditional prayers, and sing. They act like her friends! I think that why so many make the journey to the chapel is that they are coming to someone who will understand and accept their anguish or joy, their fear or their hopelessness.
So instead of asking Mary to be our ‘intercessor’, why don’t we simply ask Mary to pray WITH us? Many coming to Mary already have a circle of friends who are praying with them for their particular need. Mary then, becomes one more friend in that circle who will pray with us asking God to hear us and help us to cope. And if someone comes because they feel alone, Mary becomes their friend and partner in prayer. They need not feel alone because she is joining them in prayer to her good God. As our friend, Mary lends us encouragement and confidence because she has lived before us and now lives in the mystery of God.
By asking Mary to pray WITH us, rather than FOR us, we claim our worthiness to approach God and we learn from her belief in and experience of God’s creative, immanent presence.
You may have noticed that we have begun to change our language already. The new WITH language is coming into printed copies of new prayers and the novena of Mary MacKillop. If, however, you happen to have an older version, you might like to change it for yourself and ask Mary MacKillop your friend, mentor and encourager, to pray WITH you to our Good God.
Ann Gilroy rsj