Part 15: Mary, Most Patient

The following is part 15 of a special series on the role Mary plays in the life of the Church.

Patience is the virtue that enables us to endure all the wrongs and misfortunes of life without discouragement, but instead with hope and trust in God.

Think of the patience and trust in Divine Providence that Mary must have had when she was awakened by Joseph in the middle of the night and told that their family would have to make a quick, nocturnal escape from Herod's murderous soldiers - indeed, that they would have to flee to safety all the way to Egypt, a place where they had (as far as we know) no job, no friends, no relatives, nothing at all! Only patience, founded upon complete trust in Divine Providence, could have borne Mary through this sudden flight and prolonged exile.

In his book Holy Mary, Mother of God, Fr. John Kane tells us:

Despite the severity of the trial, Mary's mind was at rest ... [in] total abandonment to God's will. Without voluntary anxiety or fear, she obeyed immediately, and started in the darkness of the night on her long journey with her divine Child and Joseph. She had nothing to fear ... because she carried God in her arms.

We are so familiar with the Gospel story of the Flight into Egypt that we can easily ignore the hardships that this journey entailed for the Holy Family. It began with a sudden crisis, when the angel said to Joseph in a dream, "Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him" (Mt 2:13). That was then immediately followed by a perilous journey across the Sinai desert and an extended period of exile in a foreign land.

Father Federico Suarez describes these hardships in detail in his book, Mary of Nazareth:

They left immediately, by night, without hesitation or delay. They left in a hurry for fear delay might cost the precious life of the Child.

It was a long and tiring journey over hundreds of miles of rough, uneven paths across the desert. It was a long time before they could feel safe and out of reach of the enemy. And at the end of the journey lay a strange and unknown country, very different from everything that was familiar to them: their fields and mountains, their customs and beliefs. It cannot have been a pleasant journey, or full of the pleasant surprises that the apocryphal gospels describe: palm trees bowing in mute adoration as they passed by, ferocious bandits who suddenly changed into tender, solicitous and kind protectors, fountain springing up miraculously in the desert to quench the thirst of the humble travellers. On the contrary, we can only believe that it was the same for the Holy Family as for other travellers of the time: an exhausting trip, fatiguing, monotonous, little rest. So, once again the journey to Egypt was made by the chosen ones of God, like Abraham and Joseph, like Jacob and the patriarchs.

In Egypt they had to start life all over again. Probably they went to some city in the north and got in contact with a Jewish colony, relying on the racial bonds to find help and make new friends. They were in a country with a different mentality and different customs, a country of idolaters. The angel's instructions had been both concrete and vague: "be there until I shall tell thee." That was very clear, but Joseph had no idea how long he would have to remain there. Whenever anything is indefinite it is uncomfortable. This uncertainty was in itself enough to make their stay difficult.

Not many of us have had the experience of being refugees, but there is no human life that does not include the challenge of unexpected trials of uncertain duration. Whether they take the form of an onset of major illness, a sudden loss of a loved one, the unplanned loss of a home or a job, the list of such tribulations that can afflict us is seemingly endless, and such crosses are especially hard to bear when the blow seems to come out of the blue, and when, for a long time, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. This kind of cross certainly puts the virtues of patience and trust in God to the test - and yet it can also strengthen these virtues within us, if we walk forward in faith, relying on the help of God's grace.

Saint Alphonsus reminds us, "patience makes us saints." If it was so for Mary, it could not be otherwise for us: The more we walk forward in patience and trust, the stronger these virtues will become within us. Drawing upon Scripture and the breadth of the Catholic Tradition in his book The Glories of Mary, St. Alphonsus explains:

Patience hath a perfect work [James 1:4], bearing in peace not only the crosses which come immediately from God, such as sickness and poverty, but also those which come from men - persecutions, injuries and the rest. St. John saw all the saints bearing palm branches - the emblem of martyrdom - in their hands: After this I saw a great multitude and palms were in their hands [Rev 7:9]; thereby denoting that all adults who are saved must be martyrs, either by shedding their blood for Christ or by patience. "Rejoice then," exclaims St. Gregory; "we can be martyrs without the executioner's sword, if only we persevere with patience." "Provided only," as St. Bernard says, "we endure the afflictions of this life with patience and with joy." O what fruit will not every pain borne for God's sake produce for us in heaven! Hence the apostle encourages us, saying, That which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory[2 Cor 4:17].

As with the virtues of obedience and holy poverty, so with the virtue of patience: It is founded on the trust that "in everything God works for good with those who love him" (Rom 8:28). Of course, this does not mean that in this life we will always be able to see how all things ultimately can work out according to God's plan. Mary and Joseph probably had no idea at the time what part their exile in Egypt might play in the plan that the Lord had revealed to them to "save his people from their sins" through their son Jesus (Mt 1:21). All they knew for sure was the fact that taking refuge in Egypt, for a time at least, meant safety for them all. No doubt they prayed every day for the chance to return to their homeland, if it should be God's will, but there is no indication from the Gospels that those prayers were answered with anything but silence for several years. Not until Joseph's dream, some months or years later, did they learn from an angel that it was finally safe for them to go back (Mt 2:20). The Imitation of Mary tells us:

Providence does not always liberate the upright from all fear and danger, nor does it always give them in their need the kind of help they want and ask for. But its plans are no less wonderful, whether it releases men from need or leaves them in it, whether it avenges them against injustice or leaves them to be its victims.

In affliction, God gives them the grace to be patient, and thereby bestows a greater blessing on them than if He were to overwhelm them with prosperity.

Whether divine providence leads us down pathways filled with sorrow or with joy (and every human journey certainly contains its share of both), with Mary and Joseph we can trust in the Lord, with great patience, that he will find a way through our trials that is best for us, and best for his whole kingdom. The Imitation of Mary sums it all up for us in the form of a prayer:

Lord, you bid me travel by paths I do not know. Your command is enough for me. Your will is my light and all the reason I need. Admittedly, I do not know where I am going, but I am sure that if I let myself be led by a guide as wise as You are I shall not go astray. ...

We often trust entirely the advice of a man who is regarded as prudent and enlightened. Have we any reason to mistrust when You, eternal Wisdom, are the one who directs us?

Therefore, however surprising I may find your plans for me, I shall simply bow down before them in adoration, for Your power surpasses my power to understand it.

Recite the Chaplet of the 10 Evangelical Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and prayerfully reflect on Mary's virtue of patience.

Questions for Discussion for Part 15
1. How does the gospel story of the Flight into Egypt show Mary and Joseph exercising the virtue of patience, founded upon trust in God?
2. Has life ever thrown you an unexpected "curve ball" that required you to walk forward through a time of sufferings and trials with sheer faith: when patience and trust in God were just about the only things that enabled you to get through it?
3. Look up some of the Scripture passages mentioned in this chapter (James 1:2-4, Rev 7:9-17, 2 Cor 4:16-18, Rom 8:28-32). What can we learn from these passages about why we can walk forward on our life journey with patience and trust in God, no matter what troubles or sufferings we may face along the way?

Suggestions for Further Reading
Read St. Alphonsus Liguori, The Glories of Mary, Part Four , chapter IX, entitled "Mary's Patience."

Access the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Mary - Who She Is and Why She Matters (Marian Press).

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