An Experience That Must Be Shared
The account in Luke tells us that after the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, she immediately went to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her what happened. On hearing Mary’s greeting, the miraculous child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt, and Elizabeth experienced an infilling of the Holy Spirit. She then proclaimed the blessedness of Mary’s faith in God’s promises, affirming her cousin as the bearer of the promised Messiah, whose reign will have no end. Mary’s response was a joyous outburst of the words we have come to call the Magnificat, a song that glorifies and praises God for choosing her to be the blessed mother of Jesus. Luke then tells us that Mary stayed on with Elizabeth for about three months before returning to her own home.
In He Qi’s painting, the scene takes place outside on a cobblestone street in a Chinese village. Two women stand in close contact with each other in stillness and gentleness. They hold hands in a moment of intimacy and deep, hushed peace and acceptance. Perhaps this moment in the painting comes after Elizabeth has exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42).
On the left side of the painting, Mary, the more youthful of the two women, stands with her head bowed and covered with a veil. Her eyes are closed, a suggestion that she has begun to ponder these things in her heart (Luke 2:19). Hers is a posture of humility and receptivity. At the time of the angel’s visit, she may have questioned this amazing act of God in her life. By the end of the angel’s announcement, she expressed her acceptance of her calling with the words, “May it be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Her right arm is folded protectively across her abdomen, indicating the precious gift that she holds within her. As she stands with Elizabeth, we see her completely, humbly, and peacefully surrendered to God’s will.
Elizabeth, whose body suggests a more mature woman who is further along in her own pregnancy than Mary, stands on the right of the painting. Her eyes are wide open. Could this be suggestive of her spiritual insights, her recognition of the movement of the Spirit of God? She holds Mary’s hand in support and encouragement. In her other hand she carries a water pitcher.
The two figures are completely alone in their encounter. There are no witnesses to their conversation, but we sense this is a holy moment. They stand in sacred space highlighted by the pure brilliance of the white walls behind them.
Companions on the Way
The scene having been set, let us look at some of the implications this painting offers for our reflection on the process of spiritual direction. The artist has placed the women in the middle of an empty street. This serves as a visual reminder that, as travelers on the Way, we are all in need of soul hospitality, which offers safety, generous space, and silence in which to share our journeys. Elizabeth seems to have been on an errand, perhaps to the well for water. But she stops to listen to Mary, her empty pitcher in her hand. For her, the rest of the world stands still, and her entire focus is on Mary. Her eyes are fixed on Mary; her body is turned toward Mary, and her attention is undistracted by anything else around her.
Notice that the two women meet on the street. Mary has hurried over to Elizabeth to announce her news. In this painting, they meet each other not in Elizabeth’s home, but en route to her house. The initial excitement of their meeting has been replaced by silence and attentiveness. Mary is welcomed right where she is with a response that is immediate and warmly inviting. Acutely aware of Mary’s pressing need to share her story, Elizabeth attends to her without hesitation.
Elizabeth is not reluctant to touch and be touched by Mary. She reaches out and holds Mary’s hand in a gesture of acceptance and encouraging support. Even though Elizabeth herself has been wondrously favored by God with a child in her old age, she is keenly alert and responsive to Mary’s own story. She has laid aside her own concerns, her own story, in order to give her undivided attention to Mary. In doing so, she clears a wide-open space where the two of them may listen to the leading of the Spirit.
By opening her heart and home to Mary, Elizabeth has offered her space and safety—soul hospitality—where Mary can share her journey without reservations or fear. This is a relationship of trust and openness. Having heard Mary’s story of the miraculous visitation by the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth’s child leaps within her, and she is filled with the Spirit. For Elizabeth, this is an affirmation of the work of the Spirit of God not only in her own life but, more importantly, in Mary’s. Together both women must have sensed the very real and close presence of God.
As we look further at the painting, we sense an atmosphere of stillness and silence as Mary and Elizabeth meet. In order really to listen to Mary, Elizabeth is depicted with one hand at her side, her mouth closed, and her eyes wide open. She says nothing, listens without distraction, and notices much. She appears to be listening with her whole being as she bends her head toward Mary, with her body directed completely toward her.
Elizabeth has laid aside her own concerns, her emptying of self symbolically portrayed in the empty pitcher in her left hand. For this moment in time, she has forgotten about her errand to the village well in order to give her full attention to another. The emptiness of the container highlights her openness as well as the confidentiality of the awesome event that Mary has shared with her. In a sense, Elizabeth is a container for Mary’s story, receiving it and holding it with reverence as a sacred gift.
It is possible to push the symbolism even further by suggesting that the water container represents the presence of the true spiritual director of this relationship—the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, often metaphorically associated with water or rain in the Bible, who may be seen as present in this encounter. Both women have been met by God, blessed and gifted by God, and now wait in stillness to receive the Spirit’s direction.
With her eyes open to the Mystery of the Spirit, Elizabeth is given spiritual insight into Mary’s experience of God. Here in the painting, she seems to look beyond Mary to somewhere deeper and further away—to unseen spiritual realities. Her verbal expression, as well as the leaping of the child within her, confirms that what she has heard is indeed from God and that this event in Mary’s life is a fulfillment of God’s word.
Once Mary has shared her story, she then stays on at Elizabeth’s house, receiving continued support, encouragement, protection, and space. Mary is not left to struggle with any lingering doubts or fears on her own. Instead, she is given ongoing spiritual nurture in an atmosphere of safety and warm hospitality for the next three months. Within a relationship of trust and with the guidance of the Spirit, both women must have discerned together when the time was right for Mary to return to her own home.
Notice that both women in this depiction are about the same height. There seems to be some mutuality here. Both appear open and vulnerable, seemingly waiting for something. Both stand in humble obedience as they listen for and attend to the movement of the Spirit. Elizabeth does not present herself as an authority but rather as one who humbly unites herself with another, sharing in Mary’s journey.