The annunciation and the act of study
To study is itself an act of hope, since it expresses our confidence that there is a meaning to our lives. And this meaning comes to us as a gift, a Word of Hope promising life. There is one moment in the story of our redemption which sums up powerfully what it means to receive that gift of the good news, the Annunciation to Mary. Mary, in that meeting, that conversation with the angel, is a powerful example of what is meant by being a student.
First of all it is a moment of attentiveness. Mary listens to the good news that is announced to her. This is the beginning of all our study, attentiveness to the Word of Hope proclaimed in the Scriptures.
And the angel came to her and said: Greetings, favoured one! the Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be (Lk 1:28-29).
Mary listens to the words of the angel, the good news of our salvation. That is the beginning of all study. Study is not learning how to be clever but how to listen. She listened to the promise spoken to her by the angel, and she bore the Word of Life.
But the story begins also with her puzzlement. She was perplexed. Listening begins when we dare to let ourselves be puzzled, disturbed. And then the story continues with her question to the messenger. How can this be, since I am a virgin? (Lk 1:34)
What makes good students is not to give right answers (although it helps!) but to ask good questions. Good questions lead to the heart of the matter. They penetrate to the real alternatives that are hidden behind the tactical and strategical considerations.
Secondly it is a moment of fertility. There she is, as Fra Angelico portrays her, with the book on her knees, attentive, waiting, listening. And the fruit of her receptivity is that she bears a child, the Word made flesh. Her listening releases all her creativity. And our study, the attentiveness to the Word of God, should release our creativity, make us bear Christ in our world. In the midst of a world which often seems doomed and sterile, we bring Christ to birth in a miracle of creativity.
Thirdly, in a moment when God’s people seem deserted and without hope, God gives his people a future, a way to the Kingdom. The Annunciation transforms the way in which God’s people could understand its history. Instead of leading to servitude and despair, it opens a way to the Kingdom. The Child will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Lk 1:33). Now the people sees its history in a bigger picture. And this is precisely the purpose of study. It is to let ourselves enter into God’s own perspective. It is to have a “God’s-eye-view” of how everything in our life will turn out.
In the end, study is also an act of faith. It is the belief that we can discover some meaning in our lives, a meaning that is not imposed, but to which God makes us participant. Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Lk 1:38).
(With gratitude to Timothy Radcliffe for allowing us to use ideas from his letter to the Order of 21 November 1995).