I was in one of my periodic funks that winter. A single woman with two adult children, I was and am employed in ministry in an active, progressive diocese with a fine bishop. The incentive to work hard and long in building the reign of God is a strong one for me. In winter 2002, however, a combination of overcommitment at work, the demands of family and an attempt to keep up with friends and maintain some semblance of a social life was more than I could handle. I found myself short-tempered, impatient, judgmental and with little energy or inclination to pray.
A wise Jesuit spiritual director suggested that I set aside some time (sooner rather than later) to initiate a conversation with Martha and Mary of Bethany. He pointed out that I needed balance between activity and contemplation, between serving God by doing and serving by being. His sense was that these two biblical women would understand what I was going through and would be of help to me. And he advised me specifically to invite them into my living room rather than into my office.
I am fairly good at following directions when they make sense or when I trust the person who is giving them. In this matter I relied on trust. The advice sounded odd. What I did not know was that this would be my introduction to the use of imagination in prayer.
I did as I was directed and asked Mary and Martha for tea. I imagined their arrival and greeting, what they looked like, what they were wearing, how they liked their tea (lemon, milk, sugar—one lump or two?). It felt awkward at first, but I explained why I had invited them, talked about my current state of stress and anxiety, and asked for their help. I heard them express sympathy and understanding, offer suggestions on how to cope, a promise of prayer and readiness to return whenever I needed them. Afterward I breathed a prayer of gratitude for such a graced encounter.
Asking for the intercession of the saints was familiar to me, although I found this a new way of doing so. Years earlier my mother, who longed for a child, made a novena to St. Anne, promising that if she were to have a girl she would name her Anne. On July 26, the feast of St. Anne, my mother went to the doctor and learned she was pregnant. True to her word, she named me Anne. As I was growing up, every July 26 my mother would recount this story and wish me a happy feast day.
I have long been interested in the lives of these holy people; the communion of saints is a doctrine dear to my heart. As a young girl in grammar school, two of my favorite books were Fifteen Saints for Girls and St. Patrick’s Summer, both long out of print (How I wish I still had them!). Among my favorites now are Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints; Friends of God and Prophets, by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.; and My Life With the Saints, by James Martin, S.J. Yet little did I know that with that winter tea party I would embark on a friendship with six biblical women who would become through prayer my companions, guides, friends and co-workers.
A short time later I approached Mary, the mother of Jesus. She and I had a rather checkered history. When I was in high school she was held up not only as a model, but also as a means of keeping us in line. I remember exhortations to silence, compliance and “Mary-like dress.” Things were not much better after I married and had children. One particularly trying day when my 5-year-old had spilled a quart of milk on the kitchen floor and my 4-year-old had taken her red wagon and collected the neighbors’ mail, I muttered in exasperation, “Of course Mary was the perfect mother, she had only one child, and he was perfect. I’d like to see her try her hand with my two.”
Since then Mary and I have laughed about the rocky start to our relationship. I have discovered in her a friend who understands my hassles and concerns, who has a delightful sense of humor, and who is my advocate. On one occasion when we were talking about mothers, she pointed out to me that while friends sometimes mother one another, I might want to talk with her mother, Anne, for whom I am named. It was then that Anne joined the company.
Baptized Anne Elizabeth, I have always had a fondness for Elizabeth, too, the cousin of Mary. On the feast of the Visitation, I was reflecting on Elizabeth’s faith and her role in Mary’s life. I asked her help in dealing with a delicate family situation and found a wisdom and practicality that stood me in good stead. She agreed to be a part of the group.
The last invitation went to Mary Magdalene. In my spiritual journey I have become aware that God often speaks through my body. As one who is more comfortable in her head and who sees herself as clumsy and uncoordinated, I am challenged by Mary Magdalene to break out of negative images and to accept God’s revelation in whatever way God chooses.
Most of the time I spend with these six women is early in the morning, when I take an hourlong walk. Sometimes the whole group is with me; at other times just one or two, depending on what is going on in my life. As a group they are a wonderful council of wisdom; as individuals they challenge, advise and take care of me.
When I come to these women as a group for some insight into a problem, each of them gives me her take on the issue and each promises to pray for me and to be with me when I need her. In these instances they serve as a council of mentors, advocates and friends. At other times I seek a particular individual and find in her the help I need.
When I am concerned about distractions at prayer or feeling disconnected from God, Mary of Bethany gently suggests that I bring these distractions and feelings to God. When I have had a particularly consoling experience, she rejoices with me. When I am feeling overwhelmed with too much to do or, conversely, when lethargy takes over, Martha reminds me that I am loved for who I am, not for what I do. When I have accomplished a difficult task or completed a project I had put off, she is the first to congratulate me. When I feel my years and am faced with the reality of growing older, Anne tells me to eat carefully, exercise, get enough sleep and let whatever will happen, happen. She shows me the positive side of aging.
When family tensions arise and solutions seem to be out of reach, Elizabeth is there with practical advice, often pointing out the humor or irony of the situation. She makes me laugh. When I am tired and feel unloved and unlovely, Mary Magdalene suggests that I schedule a bubble bath, a massage or a pedicure. She refuses to allow me to play the old tapes in my head that tell me only my intellect is of value. Mary the mother of Jesus and I talk about all kinds of things: her Son and my children, the state of the church and the world, work, my shortcomings, failures, joys and triumphs. She is a wonderful listener and a profound presence in my life.
I am blessed in these wise women who walk with me each day through prayer of the imagination. They serve as icons pointing to a good God, a God who is in love with his creation, a God who knows each of us by name, a God who cares passionately about humanity, a God before whom we can bring anything, no matter how trivial or silly it may seem. My prayer, expectation and hope is that at the end of my life, these six friends will meet me at the entrance to heaven and escort me into the presence of the triune God, the God whom they serve so well. And together we will rejoice!