THE PONDERING MOTHER - Dominican Nuns Ireland

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The Mother of God Symballousa
And Mary treasured all these things
and pondered them in her heart
Luke 2.19

This unusual small icon has been written after a 6th century Egyptian fresco. At first glance, one is tempted to think of Our Lady of Silence. But this will limit her message.

Truly, Mary is silent, but she does not keep silent as if she is afraid of God or because she has nothing to say (she shall be heard at Cana), but because she also, has only one true word : her son Jesus. In Him and about Him, she says everything. Her silence is not emptiness, but fullness: richness of Jesus’ presence. Her silence is constant and faithful listening to the Holy Spirit.

“Silence is the parlour of the Holy Spirit”, a French Dominican told the nuns in a retreat he was preaching to them. And Mary, with her finger upon her lips is inviting us to be silent, to make silence without and within in order to get in touch with the Holy Spirit. For God speaks. Indeed, as we know, He has only one word and that is His Son Jesus Christ. But we do not listen. Worse, we refuse to listen because this is really frightening and could be dangerous. Or so thought the Israelites in the desert when they said to Moses : “Speak to us, you, and we shall be able to listen; but let not God speak to us, because then it will be death.” (Ex. 20, 19)

It is difficult to listen carefully in a noisy surrounding. Whoever goes for a walk and wants to hear the birds’song, must hush all others sounds. It is the same for us. There are so many voices shouting and screaming inside our hearts and minds, not to speak of the perpetual dialogue with ourselves. We have to calm them down in order to let the Spirit’s voice makes his way from our heart to our consciousness. This is the prophet Elija’s experience on Mount Horeb. He had to ignore the hurricane breaking mountains and rocks, the terrifying earthquake, the roaring fire; all awesome sounds which could have been mistaken for the voice of God for anyone who remembers the Sinai’s epiphany, but God was not in them. Only after Elija overcome those sounds was he able to perceive the voice of God in “the voice of a thin silence”(1 Kg 19,12) as the original Hebrew text has it (and not “the sound of a gentle breeze” as given by most translations).

But this is not enough. Once we have heard God’s voice, we have to recognise the message, understand its meaning, ponder over it and act accordingly. This is the way of obedience. And this can also be read in this icon through the position of Mary’s thumb against her cheek. A very frequent gesture among listeners, when they mull over what they are hearing. And indeed something expressing a common attitude of Mary, underlined twice in the infancy narratives (see Lk 2,19 and 51).

Mary is not only reminding us to be silent, but to listen. To listen to God’s voice in order to obey His commandments and live a fully Christian life. This is not something new : LISTEN is the master word of the Old Testament, repeated over and over again by the Lord. So much so that it has become a key word for our brothers Jews : SHEMA Israel, (listen Israel), the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. ( see Dt 6,4 to mention but one occurrence). This, Mary did since she was a small child. This is why, in due time, she could recognise without any doubt the message of God through the voice of an angel. No hesitation, only awe before the divine messenger. Whereas “from your youth, this has been how you behaved, refusing to listen to my voice” (Jr 22, 21) the Lord reproaches to Israel and to each one of us. Consequently, Mary’s behaviour is shown on this icon to help us. With her eyes wide open to contemplate and delve into the mystery of her Son, she, at the same time, singles out each onlooker personally and invites him/her to join her. As a true mother, she gives us an example and encourages us to do likewise.

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Monastery of St Catherine of Siena
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Co, Louth,
A92 KR84

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