Advent Lessons From Thomas Merton & Mary’s ‘Magnificat’

Judith Valente
5 min readDec 3, 2023
Lit Advent candles atop a wreath — three purple candles, one pink and one white.
Advent is a time to “be watchful, be alert,” the gospel of Mark tells us. A time for quiet, solitude and thought, according to Thomas Merton.

Today marks the start of Advent, one of the most meaningful of liturgical seasons. The message for the first week of Advent from the gospel of Mark hits us like a cymbal clanging. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.’” But to what must we be alert? To what must we turn our attention?

As another year lurches toward a close, I can think of many things to which I need to awaken.

I need to wake up to the illusions that keep me from growing and from living as my true self.

I need to awaken my heart much more to the suffering of others.

I need to discern what is calling on me to say, “Yes!” and to what I need to say “No!”

Thomas Merton offers one of the most cogent rationales for the Advent season in an essay he wrote called “The Time Is The Time of No Room.” Although the essay appeared in his book “Raids On The Unspeakable,” published in 1966, Merton’s observations are as relevant as ever.

“We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quality, speed, number, price, power, and acceleration …

“There is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state … there is no room for man.”

Advent is a clarion call to make room for quiet, to make room for solitude and for thought.

This past weekend I had the privilege of co-facilitating an online Advent retreat along with visual artist and theologian Pat Pickett for the Sophia Spirituality Center in Kansas on the theme of “It Isn’t All About Hallmark: Exploring Advent Scriptures Through A Different Lens.” We spent a fair amount of time reflecting on the Magnificat, Mary’s famous prayer of praise to God that begins, My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

Mary offers the prayer while visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who is also experiencing an unexpected pregnancy.

In Mariotto Albertinelli’s painting “The Visitation” from 1503, Elizabeth is depicted as an older woman in a white shawl embracing her cousin Mary who is dressed in a blue shawl.
“The Visitation” of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth by artist Mariotto Albertinelli, from 1503

I told our retreat group that I used to find the Magnificat divorced from what I imagined would have been the reality. How could a teenage peasant girl spout such poetry on the spot? I imagined Mary was still reeling from the astounding and likely frightening experience of being visited by an angel who tells her she will bear a child who “will be called holy, the son of God.”

These days, though, I look at the Magnificat quite differently. I see it as a prayer that distills the entirety of the Christmas story, the story of Christ’s entry into human history. And more: it is an expression of the whole Christian message — a message that is both counter-intuitive and counter to conventional wisdom. In her prayer, Mary reminds us that God scatters the proud and conceited, casts down the mighty, but lifts up the lowly and powerless. It is the poor and the hungry who are fed and the rich who go away hungry.

For me, the prayer has become a reminder that to live gospel values is to live in the belly of a paradox, as Thomas Merton once put it. The kingdom of God is a place where things get turned around. In God’s world, much of what we humans value looks like foolishness and what we think of as foolishness is really wisdom. When I read the Magnificat now through that lens, the words have a profound meaning for me.

Many of the retreatants told of struggling to make sense of so much tragedy in today’s world. There is the death and destruction in Gaza and Israel, that is causing so much suffering for innocent children in particular. There is the ongoing war in Ukraine; the senseless conflicts in so many other parts of the world; and the anguish being experienced by migrants and asylum seekers in our own country. How can one not feel powerless, one woman on the retreat asked. In the midst of all this sorrow, how can one, as Mary did, “proclaim the greatness of the Lord?”

I always say I gain more wisdom from those who attend my retreats than I can possibly give. Reflecting on the sorrow we feel about the world situation, one of the other retreatants referred to a recent essay by theologian Ronald Rolheiser. In the essay, Father Rolheiser observes that it is often when we find ourselves “completely helpless, mute, stammering, unable to say or do anything that’s helpful,” that a crack will appear that lets the light of grace enter.

“In these particular ‘dark nights of the soul,’ Rolheiser writes, “when we are completely helpless to shape the experience, love and grace can flow in purely and powerfully.”

It is another way perhaps of saying what the gospel of John tries to communicate about the entry of Christ into the world: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Pat Pickett reminded all of us that Advent isn’t about waiting to commemorate a particular event that happened long ago, the way we celebrate the birthdays of family members and friends each year. It is rather a reminder that we are to be bearers of Christ, as Mary was. It is up to us insure that Christ is born continually anew in our hearts, and by extension, in our world.

This Advent, how can we be bearers of Christ? How can we, like Mary, “proclaim the greatness of the Lord” with our lives?

The words of the Magnificat written out on a poster. The words were spoken by Mary in Luke’s gospel following her visit to see her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation.
The Magnificat prayer of Mary distills the entire counter-intuitive Christian message.

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Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.