Paul Gardiner, Mary MacKillop’s official biographer, writes this brief and telling assessment of Mary the contemplative:
People observing Mary MacKillop’s busy life would have failed to understand her spirit if they had thought of her as a “woman of action”. She certainly was a very active woman, but only because she saw it as God’s will that she should be so. Activity was the “less agreeable duty”which took her away from the contemplation that was her natural bent.
If to be a contemplative means that one must cultivate a life free of activity done to the point of burden, and rather nurture a rhythm that develops and fosters an awareness of God within – then was Mary really a contemplative? What were her priorities? Can someone be living in the midst of human hardship, as Mary was, and also be someone who can love others from the heart of their contemplative experience? One possible interpretation of the above Gardiner quote could be that Mary could have been a contemplative, but her consistent and necessary activity “took her away” from a way of living that could have been more supportive of her contemplative nature.
However, a reading of Mary’s letters reveals someone very much in touch with, and energised by, the Divine life within her person. For example, writing to Julian Tenison Woods in 1869 Mary says:
I have never felt such calm – such a sense of the Presence, the sweet
Presence of God, as I have done since I left you at the Port Station
just before we parted. I may say that it has never left me; it makes
everything that is hard, easy. I just get a taste of bitterness in some
things and then something calm and soft raises my mind above it all.
I feel this presence at all times – when I talk to old friends, strangers,
the Sisters or the Priests. Sometimes it comes, Oh so beautifully after
a little struggle with something I do not like to do. It makes me see
God – his Holy Will and immense mercy in everything.
If to be a Christian contemplative means that one does consciously sense within themselves something of the gift that is the presence of God, allowing this experience to effect and inform the way in which they relate to others and the world around them, then it can be said that these words of Mary are the words of a contemplative.
Mary was not someone who was largely too busy to have a sustained contemplative life. It was in fact in the midst of her active life that Mary experienced the presence of God with her. Also at different times during her life Mary had profoundly intimate and personal experiences of this Divine life. While part of the ordinary of life, these intimate experiences were extraordinary movements of God given as gift to Mary in the everyday. They are part of her spiritual legacy and point to our spiritual potentials.
Mary shows us that being in ‘the stuff of life’ does not stop the contemplative experience of God. To be contemplative is to be human. Yes, it is important to foster the contemplative dimension of life as best we can, yet the experience of God is made possible only by God. What is almost certainly true is that we are all having experiences of the divine every day of our ordinary lives – many of us just don’t know it. All that is needed is a little bit wonder, a modicum of attention, and the grace that is already given.