In his seventeenth century book True Devotion to Mary, St. Louis de Monfort wrote extensively about the Blessed Virgin Mary and encourages us to consecrate ourselves to God through her prayers.
He highlights the many attributes that make the Mother of God so special and includes patience as one of her main virtues. It’s a virtue that challenges me personally a great deal. And what’s even more challenging, when St. Louis refers to how Mary lived out this virtue, he says she lived it heroically, that she practiced heroic patience. It’s an interesting term. What might it really mean?
It would be nice to be heroic, to be thought of as a hero. Initially I think of a hero as someone who is super-human, someone who goes beyond what average humans do. In the movies, a hero is sometimes from another planet. He wears a special costume maybe with a cape. He can be found flying around the world in an instant or rushing with super-human speed into burning buildings, maybe swinging on spider webs or solving complex crimes. But what is a hero in real life? Or in the spiritual life?
A hero faces conflict, fights a battle, must show courage, and achieves victory. To pair up the words patience with heroic seems like an mistake, unless the battle that the hero is fighting is within. Heroic patience implies not super speed but maybe some super-human slowness. Maybe it means waiting and going slower than average humans go. That might actually be something heroic. Heroic patience might be more about slowing down than speeding up.
Our Lady proceeded slowly. Scripture says Mary pondered the things of God in her heart, as we must. She was not impulsive. Because she went about her life slowly, she was ready for a change of plans. Imagine the Annunciation. That day must have been a total shock for her, a big surprising change to her life’s plans.
John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “To love is to change and to be prefect is to have changed often.” Mary was called to change and she accepted that call.
The Church fathers believed that Our Lady had offered herself in the temple and already made a vow at an early age, consecrating herself to God as a virgin. God should be pleased with that, she may have imagined. That is a huge sacrifice. But now came something completely unexpected. An angel appears and tells her: Mary, you are a beautiful consecrated virgin, but I’ve got some news for you, God needs you to be a mom…
A what?! A mom?! She must have had so many questions: What do you mean I will conceive a child? How is that possible? When will it happen? Where should I go? Will it be painful? What should I do to prepare? Where will we live? Can I tell people about this? Will people want to kill me? Will they think I’m a liar? Will I know how to care for this child?
She may have had hundreds of questions but she only asked one: How can this be since I have not had relations with a man? In other words, she asked: Who is the dad going to be? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you the power of the Most High will overshadow you…your child will be God’s son.” Then she asked no more questions of the angel, they would all be answered in God’s time. Instead she declared herself God’s handmaid, or servant, accepting whatever came next.
Heroic patience means sitting with life’s questions until God decides to answer them (one at a time). We want all the answers to our vocations and future today. “Lord show me what to do now and then tell me what to do for tomorrow, and while you’re at it, five years from now! Who will I marry? Where will I live? What will I do?”
Today we want instant answers to every question. A question comes up at dinner, and out come the cell phones. We search and answers are instant. But it’s not that way with in the spiritual life. Heroic patience is a call to wait on the Lord to reveal the next step, the next stage of the journey, when He knows the time is right. It means leaving room so that God may surprise you.
Heroic patience means living in the present, letting our vocations (or our lives) unfold. There may be twists and turns, and even some wonderful unexpected surprises in life. And all that is okay.
When we drive, we only see as far as our headlights, but we make the whole journey that way. We only get to see the next step, one at a time. Mary’s next step was to go visit and share her blessing with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary’s Annunciation was big news…the biggest news ever actually. Can you keep a secret when it’s big? It must’ve been so tempting to tell everyone.
But She didn’t even tell Joseph, she let God himself do that. She patiently waited and went to Elizabeth. She let God lead. He would choose with whom She’d share her joy. She made a journey that must have allowed her much more time to ponder this good news in her heart. And to ask God who needed to hear it. Heroic patience reminds us that who we share with (and what we choose to share) is important.
Elizabeth, was a trusted older holy confidant who could offer good advice, and maybe help Mary make sense of what she experienced. The two would help each other give glory to God. Elizabeth would respect this news and consider this news precious.
We may have an experience in prayer, get an insight or direction from God and want to run off and tell someone. But it is better to stay in prayer and ask, “Lord who do you want me to share this with?” Who is it meant for? Maybe, it might even be a secret of the King that needs guarding. Maybe I need, like Our Lady, to ponder it a bit more in my heart before speaking about it to anybody other than my “Elizabeth.”
Heroic patience lets God lead in relating graces and gives God all the glory. Remember what happened in the Gospel. Jesus healed people suffering with leprosy and asked them to keep silent about it, but they didn’t. It wasn’t time for certain towns to know about his healing power. But they went off and told many people what the Lord had done. They told so many that Jesus was no longer able to enter towns openly. They got ahead of God’s plan. Heroic patience means not getting ahead of God’s plan.
Mary lived with Jesus in Nazareth for about thirty years, yet she didn’t brag and ruin God’s plan. She felt no need to knock on doors of her noisy neighbors and say, “Hey, I’m God’s mom, little God is sleeping right now. Please quiet down in here.”
Letting God’s plan unfold, she was patient. She practiced heroic patience in dealing with non-believers like her relatives. We learn later in the Gospel that Jesus’ relatives thought he was crazy or possessed. How it must have hurt Our Lady to know some of her relatives thought her Son was possessed. But she wasn’t called to convince them. Maybe she was just supposed to love them and pray for them and leave the rest to God.
Some good souls would always be open to the Spirit, like Simeon and Anna, who were prayerfully attentive. At the Presentation, the Holy Spirit spoke to their open hearts and told them who Jesus truly was. Jesus himself would later redefine family as “the ones who do God’s will”. Heroic patience means letting God form your family for you, by telling you who to share your heart with.
The Blessed Virgin Mary received her vocation in stages. Firstly, she was called to belong to God…then invited to be God’s mother…then to set him free…then later to become the Mother of the Church. She waited for the Angel to give her Jesus, She waited for Jesus at the cross to give her John. She received her new vocation at the foot of the cross, to pray with, maybe advise, to love and to witness to the early Church.
There were four seasons of Mary’s life. As a child in the temple meeting God, as a teenage girl called to be mom and enjoy every day of it, as a middle age woman called to set Jesus free and support him through prayer, and three years later, a little older, called to have her heart torn open by the cross and be Mother the church. Heroic patience means we don’t rush the seasons of our lives, but rather enjoy each one. We take our time.
The image that we can picture in our minds when we want to pray about Our Lady’s heroic patience is Mary nine months pregnant, traveling on a donkey. That’s a true icon of patience. She’s not taking a jet plane to Bethlehem, not even a galloping horse. With Jesus inside her, she was content as the donkey took one slow step after another. Heroic patience means taking your time. It can mean even taking the longer route.
A rosary is the longer route when it comes to prayer. It slows us down. It is the longer route of prayer. It may take fifteen to twenty minutes to pray but sometimes we need that much time just to settle down our minds and stop worrying about our own plans.
So our Lady’s heroic patience is a challenge to us to: Go a bit more slowly, to listen before we act, and to sit prayerfully with life’s questions, not forcing God to answer them but waiting for God to reveal next step. It’s a challenge to let God speak to our hearts in prayer, to ponder what He says, and to let Him tell us who we are to share with. Heroic patience means not getting ahead of God’s plan, it is to receive His guidance and allow our vocations to unfold in His time, one step at a time. Heroic patience is to embrace the season of life we are in today and to sometimes even take the longer route so we can fully enjoy it.
We don’t need a cape or a super hero costume to fly in the sky and meet God but we do need Our Lady’s prayers and example to teach us how to let heroic patience carry us through life and lead us into the Kingdom of heaven.