By Danielle Harrison
One of my favorite New Testament readings is the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. I have many reasons, but the main one is because I had the pleasure and honor of attending Visitation Academy in St. Louis for my primary, middle and high school years: Yes, I am a “lifer.” The school is sponsored by the sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, whose founders are St. Francis de Sales and St. Jeanne de Chantal. St. Francis chose this encounter to inspire the sisters in shaping this community. In all things, live Jesus: In hospitality, kindness, unselfishness and love.
Every time I hear the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth after the Annunciation, I am transported back to my days at 3020 North Ballas Road. Twelve years of memories flood my mind, starting with the uniforms: the sailor dress and red shoes, moving into the blue jumper and brogues, and “graduating” into the red jumper and blue blazer.
But it wasn’t just about being a student of the Academy; I was reminded repeatedly that I was a “daughter” of the Visitation. I carried within me the message, hope and responsibility of the power of saying “yes” to God. It comes not from sitting, waiting for recognition, but rather searching for the ones most in need. At its heart, it is about service with a joy-filled heart and embracing others with that light, in celebration.
Once, during the years of me in the sailor dress, I went on a search to see if I could find a picture of this scene the way I imagined it. I struggled to find a depiction that resonated with me. Mary and Elizabeth always looked so…not happy. Elizabeth seemed stiff and Mary, sad. The Scripture talks about John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when he hears Mary’s voice. Why couldn’t I find any like that? I decided to draw my own version of the story: Mary was running towards Elizabeth, who was laughing and holding her belly — and John, inside of Elizabeth, was doing a dance. Now, drawing is not one of my gifts, but I was excited to show this to my family and ask, “What do you think this is?” No one got it.
I went to school, sad, wanting to hide my picture. When religion class started, instead of a prayer, Sr. Karen Mohan, VHM, started singing this wonderful song called “The Visit” by Miriam Therese Winter. In four short verses, she was able to capture all the different emotions of the moment. And the last verse made it not only about Mary and Elizabeth, but how we are all invited to be “brave…for it’s Christ that we carry.” Although I could not draw, I did love to sing. I was enthralled with the picture that was being painted with the words and the music. At the end of class, I asked Sr. Karen how she saw that encounter. “Oh Danielle — I imagine there were a lot of tears and a lot of laughter…and most of all, a lot of love.” I asked her to teach me the song, which she was happy to do.
Years later, I heard that Sr. Karen, along with a few other sisters, discerned that God was inviting them to their own “visitation moment:” To move from the comfort of their St. Louis Monastery and start a new community in the North Minneapolis area. Their mission: to be a presence and light to the people and to carry the good news to those who needed to hear it. Thirty plus years later, they are known as “the nuns in the hood,” and although the sisters are small in number, they are large in love and relationship. In their home, they have a depiction of the Visitation made especially for them by Mickey McGrath, OSFS. Mickey IS gifted.
This Advent, I’d ask you to look up Mickey’s “Windsock Visitation.” Then find Miriam’s “The Visit.” Listen to the words as you ponder the picture. And remember that through all the busyness of the season, it is indeed Christ that you carry, and isn’t that something to smile about?
Ready to respond to Danielle’s Advent challenge? Join Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS, and the Jesuit Media Lab on December 11 at 7:30 PM ET for an Advent evening of art and stories! Sign up here.
Danielle Harrison serves as a member of the preaching team at King’s House at Our Lady of Snows Center in Belleville, Illinois, and is the president of Mission, Faith, Equity Consulting, which works with secondary schools and religious communities throughout the country in helping them integrate their mission, vision and charism into their daily practice, focusing on diversity, faith, equity and belonging. She is also a contributor to the African American Catholic Youth Bible.