John Burns, a Baptist pastor of thirty years, found himself pondering the nature of true Christian discipleship, arriving at the realization that “to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be connected with an inspiration beyond ourselves that empowers us to become more like Jesus than we ever thought possible” (6). In looking for a “follower of Jesus whose life illustrated this dynamic, artistic approach to spiritual maturity,” Burns found a surprising role model in Mary the mother of Jesus. For Burns, Mary’s story illustrates the ups and downs of spiritual growth, a “progress toward spiritual maturity [that] cannot be plotted with a smoothly ascending line on a graph.” Yet despite her spiritual maturity or immaturity, wisdom or ignorance, “she grew… so that by the end of her story… she was demonstrating exceptional devotion to Jesus.”
While some Roman Catholics may resist the idea that the Virgin Mary was a dynamic, human woman struggling with faith and doubt, others will find many riches in the insights Burns brings to our understanding of the mother of Jesus. In fact, Burns credits in his acknowledgements a seminar led by Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser at Boston College for his “new perspective on Mary.” Burns’ goal is to help readers of faith to recognize themselves in Mary, and the questions for reflection at the end of each of the eleven chapters gently nudge the thoughtful reader in this direction.
Burns organizes his book chronologically, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with Mary at the cross. A biblical text precedes each chapter which then moves toward a pastoral reflection on Mary’s discipleship. In each episode of Mary’s life Burns finds lessons in the challenges posed to his “model disciple.“ So, for example, Mary’s first encounter with God becomes an opportunity to discover that “Discipleship does not even begin until we are willing to exchange our goals for the mission God has for our lives” (15). For Burns, Mary was like most people, an ordinary, good person living a “well-managed” life with no inappropriate or sinful future plans, and “yet even she had to exchange agendas with God in order to begin her life as a disciple of Christ.” In Chapter 6, Burns draws upon Luke 2:19 and suggests that amazement doesn’t lead to much, while sober pondering creates “spiritual alchemy.”
When I give talks about the Virgin Mary at parishes in the Boston area, I am often asked to recommend books for the church library. Modeling Mary is a title I regularly include on my list.