Although God created every one of us as entirely unique individuals, human nature means that we tend to follow ‘examples’ of what we should be or how we might like to be. These days, such examples are often referred to as ‘influencers’.
Looking around, I notice that there are a great many so-called influencers – some are self-designated as such, while others are viewed as such by others. Needless to say, there are both positive and negative examples.
The negative ones often teach others poor habits. These are the ones – very often celebrities or others in the public eye – who propose a life where pleasure is the goal in all things; as I saw it written elsewhere this morning, “what matters is having fun”. While ‘fun’ is a necessary part of life, it certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all, and needs to be kept in a balanced position upon the broader plane of life.
Equally powerful by their example are our peers – we tend to be like (or become like) those with whom we spend time; like attracts like. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at those whose company they keep. (Of course, this always allows the opportunity for us to become a good example to those around us.)
Speaking of good examples, the positive ones generally teach us better habits than we have already, or at least ways to improve those habits we presently exhibit. Such examples remind us that there are greater things in life than self and pleasure, more to look to than just the present moment. An example here might be the numerous people who make good out of bad situations, who put others before self, who turn the native into a positive. Their example tends to be a strong one.
For Catholics, our company is telling, too, and exerts its own influence upon us. From whom do we get our examples? Who leads us in the living out of our faith on a day to day basis? Whose example do we follow? To whose words do we pay the greatest attention?
Our best ‘influencer’ in this regard is – of course – the Holy Father. His task is the unity of the Church across the world and he alone carries the guarantee of orthodoxy – he is Peter, the rock upon whom the Church is built. If we find ourselves listening to and following the influence of any who take us away from this rock and the ship of the Church, whether knowingly or unwittingly, then our personal little boat is likely to become adrift out at sea amongst waves which threaten to capsize us. To find ourselves departing from the Magisterium of the Church is a great big red flag in the spiritual life, no matter how we might care to dress it up as being anything other than a departure.
Our best example in the spiritual life is the example of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
From reading the accounts of Her presence within the Gospels – and later, in the writings of the Saints – we can learn much about how best to conduct ourselves.
Above all else, we can see Mary as the woman of profound humility, of intense prayer, of deep and abiding faith and of perfect conformity to the will of God in all things.
These traits in the personality of Mary sound so simple and straight-forward – and yet our own experience will no doubt tell us that trying to emulate these traits perfectly is anything but easy. Humility is contrary to our human nature, which loves to puff itself up to some degree. Prayer is a path we might take but it isn’t so much about taking it as it is about where it is taking us – and often, we ‘do’ the right things but our hearts have their own destinations in mind. Faith sounds easy – and it perhaps is, any least when things are going well for us – but is in the crucible of adversity that it is tested. As for following the will of God in all things – well, remember the words of the Lord in Gethsemane to the sleeping disciples; “the spirit is willing but human nature is weak” (Mt.26:41).
Mary was able to repeat Her ‘yes’ at every moment of Her life – She was filled with the plenitude of grace and this worked within Her and upon Her nature to produce something quite singular.
We do not have that plenitude of grace, but we do have the assurance that we will be granted all the graces we need; it isn’t the grace part that is in question, but ourselves and our human wills – which often translates as choosing self over the Lord.
Looking at myself, I see how greatly I fail in choosing the Lord over self, repeatedly making the wrong choices and ultimately seeing and regretting those choices. I doubt I am alone in this.
Perhaps for this reason, I often find myself thinking about those words of Mary at the occasion of the Cana wedding – “do whatever He tells you” (Jn.2:5). I think about these words over and over again.
In these five short words there is the fullness of the spiritual life.
What is immediately interesting is that Mary is not the one who tells the stewards what to do. She does not take charge of the situation. Rather, She does what She always does – She points us immediately to Her Son.
She tells us to follow Him, to listen to Him and to do as He bids us. So it was then and so it has always been since.
Mary is our best example in the spiritual life because She has already walked the path we are walking now, and She has done so in perfection.
We are asked by the Lord to ‘be perfect’ – we are to try our very best, even though we might (often) fail in the attempt. But still we must try.
Although there is little written about Mary in the New Testament, there is more than enough for us to form a picture of Her own spiritual life and to emulate this as fully and as perfectly as we can.
In following the example of Mary, and guided by the teaching of the Church – who describes to us very carefully what this authenticity looks like when we live it out daily – we will not go too far wrong.