Handmaid or Handmade?
This year I’ve really been drawn to Scripture. Not just reading Scripture, but delving deeper into it with Lectio Divina. The word “handmaid” has popped in my mind’s room several different occasions. Every time I think my prayer with it has ended and I have learned what I needed to from it, the persistent word shows up again with a new lesson.
“Mary says, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’” -Luke 1:38
The meaning of words plays a significant role in the context of Scripture; translations can also be messy, so it is of utmost value to look into the root words as well so that we can understand fully what God is trying to communicate. The definition of handmaid from Oxford Dictionary is “subservient partner.” To take it one step further, the definition of subservient is “prepared to obey others unquestioningly.” Mary accepted her call by surrendering; she declares to be the handmaid or a servant partner with God. In this moment she surrenders her will in order for God to prepare her to serve humanity without question of who, why, or how. We have that same call. God has a particular purpose for each of us, and He invites us to partner with Him.
My first thought when I hear the word “handmaid” is actually the word “handmade.” As an artist, I know the thought, time, effort, and heart that goes into hand making a piece. Because meanings are so vital, I researched the definition of handmade, which is “made by hand, not my machine, and typically therefore of superior quality.” It was a relief to know that I am not made by a machine. In all seriousness though, God handmade us in His image and likeness. In Italian, you say handmade as “fatto a mano,” which translates to “fact of hand” or “truth by hand.” God made superior truth when He crafted humans in His image and likeness.
Scripture has been revealing that these two words go hand-in-hand. God’s hand made me in His image, and because of that, I am now a maid of His hand. Being a subservient partner means my hand is now His hand, my feet are now His feet, my words are now His words.
I began reading “Prayer of Franciscan Solitude” by Andre Cirino, OFM and Josef Raischl, OFS only to discover a connection between my Scripture and my leisure reading. This book is really comprised of several different Franciscans’ reflections and practices of silence and solitude. Whether that be as a ministry or for individual prayer, silence and solitude is an experience that is significant enough in their lives to write about it and share it. A vast majority of the writers contemplated with how Francis would invite 3-4 to go into silence and solitude together. Two are called to be Mary and the other one to two are called to be Martha.
The story of Martha and Mary can be found in Luke 10:38-42. This story begins with “As they continued their journey…” This is an essential start because it’s what Francis emphasizes. Martha usually gets the bad reputation because she slaves away in the kitchen while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Martha doesn’t handle her emotions well, so there is a lesson to be learned in that. However, Francis emphasizes that they are both walking together on the journey. Each is in need of the other in this moment frozen in time. All of us are on pilgrimage walking each other home.
Three to four individuals seeking silence and solitude is precisely a pilgrimage.
We are called to do as Mary does--to just be at the feet of Jesus. There is a point there. We are often too busy with our daily lives, work, and family to sit still, let alone reflect on our day. Thomas Merton once wrote,
“How weary I am of being a writer. How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the rain, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind; these are spiritual directors and novice masters. They form our contemplation. They instill into us virtue. They make us stable in the land we live in. You do not get that out of a typewriter.”
Mary here taught us the importance of being. As the Italians say, “dolce far niente,” or the sweetness of doing nothing. Martha is rather looked down upon because of her busyness and anxieties.
Francis has a different viewpoint however. Martha’s role is just as crucial. Martha’s role is to serve, to practice hospitality. If Martha hadn’t been prepping food or drink, Mary would never have had the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet. Martha’s servitude is ultimately the protector of Mary’s silence and solitude. Francis would invite three others to go to the Carceri. Two would be Martha-prep food, watch the clock for communal prayer time, lead communal prayer time-and two would be Mary-entirely enveloped in the timeless Presence of God in their silence and solitude. Just because Martha is serving doesn’t mean she gets a vacation. Her duty is to also enter into the silence and solitude, but more in a servant fashion rather than getting lost in the absence of time fashion. Coming back to the gravity of words. “Handmaid” in Italian is “ancella,” which has a Greek root for “angel.” Marthas are called to be angels watching over the Marys while also entering into the Divine Presence themselves. If there is enough time on this retreat, the roles will switch because balance is where peace is found-serving and being served.
This got me thinking of the ordinariness of everyday life. At times we serve in our different roles as friend, spouse, child, boss or employee, and so on. Other times we are the ones in need of help. In the day-to-day, we are also Marthas and Marys. Yet, what Francis is highlighting is that same call that Jesus had for us in the Martha and Mary story--we are chosen to be mothers to each other, taking care of one another in mind, body, and soul. Even as the Mother of God says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord”--I am a partner with God serving others without question--”May it be done to me according to Your word”--I am simmering in Your Presence and surrendering to You because it is Your Hand that Made me for Your Truth.
My husband is a chiropractor, and one of his modalities he practices is a type of kinesiology taping. One day we were praying in song. As he played the piano, I couldn’t help but take in the scene. The background was our cross wall in our bedroom, his shoulders swayed with the melody, and the shirt that hung from those shoulders had a salient message. His kinesiology shirt read, “Movement Matters.” It hit me, Spiritual Movement Matters. Our mission is to soak in God’s Presence and God’s mission for us in the silence and solitude, and then act upon it. Go out and spread the Gospel with your life.
“Wash the plate not because it is dirty, nor because you are told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.” -St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata
The transformation of a task into a prayer for the other as other is spiritual motion. Whether you are like the Mother of God being invited to serve, like Martha in the thick of service, or like Mary being still in Christ’s presence, all of us are called to find God in these things, in these daily happenings of life. This is where spiritual movement occurs--in the ordinary. I am handmade to be a maid of Your hand.