A former love often said, “At the end of the day, we’re all alone.” He meant it in a sort-of existential way (and in one that he playfully knew would get under my skin); still, I always bristled. And more, I just don’t believe it to be true.
True: at the end of the day, we are left to our own thoughts, our own emotions, our own ways of experiencing the specific nature of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. To bear deep grief, to suffer palpably, to be exhausted beyond comprehension, to wonder if the tide will ever turn. These are realities we know far too well. False: they do not, part-and-parcel, assume or even engender isolation or alone-ness.
We need an awareness of companionship and care that permeates our very consciousness; that reminds, consoles, encourages, and strengthens at all times – no matter what. We need a place of delight and rest.
And so, I go to story.
Elizabeth was married to a priest. (Not the Catholic kind. This was a long time ago before such rules were in place.) She was very old. She had no children. This was excruciating for her – a source of shame within her family, her community, her day-to-day world. As the religious system required, her husband would go to the Temple to participate in particular rituals and practices. While there, one priest would be chosen to enter the inner-chamber and burn incense to God on behalf of the people. This time, it was her husband. While inside, an angel appeared and foretold the coming-birth of his son. Because this seemed impossible to believe, because he questioned the angel’s words, he was struck mute – unable to speak.
Some time passed. Elizabeth became pregnant.
Six months later, Elizabeth’s cousin became pregnant. Much different circumstances. Mary was young. Mary was unwed. She too, was visited by an angel – telling her she would give birth to a son, not via a man, rather the very breath of God. Unlike her cousin’s husband, she believed the angel. And hardly mute, she spoke: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
No time passed. Mary hurried to the home of her cousin.
As the story goes, when Elizabeth saw Mary, she proclaimed, ‘Honored are you among women, and favored of God is the child you will bear! As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. You are blessed for believing God’s promises to you!’
In response, Mary burst into song – refrain after refrain of glorious celebration and praise.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, probably until Elizabeth’s son John was born. The boy who would later be a “voice crying in the wilderness;” who would proclaim the coming of God in the person of his cousin, Jesus.
The relationship between these two women was more than a bloodline. It was a knowing so deep that even Elizabeth’s unborn child responded. It was an awareness and appreciation so profound that Elizabeth, no matter her own circumstances, could offer Mary the words she most desperately needed to hear: the blessing of her courage and willingness to trust in a God who doesn’t make sense. And in such, neither of them were alone. Together they established a place of delight and rest. In presence, in spirit, in heart.
We are not alone! This is our longing. This is our lineage. And this is ours to claim and count on.
Though myriad ways abound to find and know such, two are particular and profound to me:
1) Elizabeth and Mary had each other.
No matter the unbelievable-ness of their stories (Elizabeth pregnant at an old age and Mary pregnant without a husband), they immediately turned to each other, certain they would find understanding, acceptance, and love.
I have women like these in my world. Don’t you? I love them deeply and fiercely – and they me. I cannot imagine life without them. I talk to them and they listen. I weep and they comfort. I wrestle and fight and they hold me tight. They are a place of delight and rest I turn to again and again.
2) Elizabeth and Mary companion you.
No matter the unbelievable-ness of your story (the heartache, the worry, the anxiety, the exhaustion, the fear), they walk alongside you. They dwell in your psyche, your spirit, your very soul. They are bound to you in deeper-than-cellular ways. And when you seek, when you trust, you can be certain that you will find understanding, acceptance, and love from them.
I have experienced this as palpably as the most common things in my world: the feel of the keyboard under my fingers, the scent of coffee in the mug on my desk, the fog that hovers outside my window. This is the awareness of companionship and care that permeates my very consciousness; that reminds, consoles, encourages, and strengthens me at all times – no matter what. I talk to them and they listen. I weep and they comfort. I wrestle and fight and they hold me tight. They are a place of delight and rest I return to again and again.
And not only Elizabeth and Mary. Their predecessors and lineage: Eve, Noah’s wife, Sarai, Hagar, Tamar, Abigail, Hannah, Jepthah, Deborah, the Extravagant Woman, the women at the tomb, and countless more. All of them, endlessly and infinitely, offer us the words we most need to hear: a blessing of our courage and willingness to trust in a God who doesn’t make sense.
We are not alone: it is in the stories of other women that we find delight nd rest.
In flesh and Sacred narrative, in history and myth, in literature and art and film and song. Women wait to greet you with open arms, with perfect words, and with a generous heart on your behalf. Find them. Trust them. Talk to them. Be them.
One more story:
Jeanne Frances Fremiot was born in Dijon, France on January 28, 1572, the daughter of the royalist President of the Parliament of Burgundy. She married the Baron de Chantal when she was 20. However, after 8 years of marriage and 6 children, the Baron died. The young widow took a vow of chastity, as well as responsibility for raising her four remaining children who had survived infancy. In 1604, she met Saint Francis de Sales, the bishop of Geneva. With his support, she started a religious order for women: the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary (the very story I told above from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1). The order accepted women who were rejected by other orders because of poor health or age. During its first eight years, the new order was unusual in its public outreach, in contrast to most female religious who remained cloistered and adopted strict ascetic practices. When people criticized her, de Chantal famously said, “What do you want me to do? I like sick people myself; I’m on their side” (from Wikipedia).
Legend has it than when Jeanne Francis de Chantal stepped over the threshold of the stone building that would become her home and that of the order itself, she said, “This is the place of our delight and rest.”