What did she think along the way, as she walked to the hill country of Judah? Mary is the first Christian pilgrim, journeying with the growing presence of Jesus, and today’s gospel reading at Mass stirs us to poetry and song, and an “everyday, effortless verse.”
“And I was travelling, lightly, barefoot / over bedrock, then through lands that were stitched / with breadplant and camomile. Or was it / burdock.”The Dead Sea Poems, Simon Armitage (1995)
Google maps tells me that the distance from Nazareth to Ain Karem, the place where Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judea is 150.9 km. By car, it would take me 1 hour and 35 minutes. Public transport: 3 hours and 2 minutes, but if I was to walk , it would take me 31 hours. Making the rather over exaggerated assumption that I would be able to walk for 8 hours a day, it would take me four days to walk there. The truth is that it would probably take me much longer.
Assuming that the young teenage Mary was a little fitter than a middle aged priest who has seen better days, perhaps she experienced four or five or even six days of walking and wondering, aware of the growing presence of Jesus within her.
She’ll become more familiar with travelling in the months and years to come. She makes the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, heavily pregnant. Some time later, she journeys from Bethlehem to Jerusalem with a new born baby. The frantic escape into Egypt, seeking safety from danger, a refugee far from home.
Years later, she makes the many-time journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem with her twelve year old son, wise beyond his years, causing her to wonder. As she watches her child grow into a man, and become public property, she continues to travel with him. She is always at a distance, but never far away. Her travelling takes her to the torn body of her son, grounded on the way to Golgotha, raised aloft for all to see. Her heart broken. Still, she moves on.
Mary is a well-travelled woman. As she made that first journey with Jesus’ growing presence within her, cells separating into cells separating into cells, being human, becoming human, her mind is filled with thoughts. Walking helps one think, perhaps. Heart beating, blood pumping, feeding the mind. The momentum of steps sets the rhythm, the pace of pondering. With each step pressed into the ground, perhaps she speaks a word to herself which move into song, a litany of living, a litany of love.
She is anchored in the words of her ancestors as Scripture spins in her mind. She digs deep into the well of Tradition, plucks out a song which sticks with her, claims it as her own, the song of Hannah whose own child bearing was equally unimaginable.
As she arrives in the hill country home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she is greeted as blessed. The music of the moment stirs Elizabeth’s unborn child to dance in her womb, baby-kicking his way, impatient perhaps to prepare the way.
Mary’s words and wonderings along the way are tied together, intertwined. Unable to know which is her thought or someone else’s taken to heart.
She proclaims the greatness of the Lord, takes the words of Hannah and sees something equally special, more special, beginning to take root in her life, in her very being, in her womb.
“Knowing now the price of my early art,” writes Simon Armitage in his own journeying poem called the Dead Sea Poems, “I have gone some way towards taking it all / to heart, by bearing it all in mind, like / praying, saying it over and over / at night, by singing the whole of the work / to myself, every page of that innocent, / everyday, effortless verse, of which this / is the first.”
The song of Mary, the Magnificat, is an effortless verse sung or said each night at Evening Prayer. Hannah’s words become Mary’s words, and Mary’s words become our words, so taken to heart that we can hardly tell who they belong to or even, at times, what they’re worth.
“I found poems written in my own hand,” writes Armitage in his poem, “Being greatly in need of food and clothing, / and out of pocket, I let the lot go for twelve times nothing, but saw them again / this spring, on public display, out of reach /… apparently worth an absolute packet.”
Mary’s song moves us beyond the limits of ourselves and our own needs to those who are unclothed and hungry, the poor powerful falling from their thrones, and the downtrodden layabouts lifted high. It is a song that proclaims the greatness of God who makes mountains out of molehills, and sees into the heart of our little lives and makes something more of us and the world than we could ever imagine. It may, at times, seem out of reach, hardly effortless, a long way off. Yet not so far.
“To get / There takes no time and admission / Is free if you purge yourself / Of desire, and present yourself with / Your need only and the simple offering / Of your faith, green as a leaf.” (R.S. Thomas, The Kingdom’)