Surprised by the Joyful Mysteries: They Taught Me to Say Yes

About this article

This article from The Word Among Us is by Beth Dotson Brown, author of Yes! I am Catholic. She currently lives in Lancaster, Kentucky, and happily reports that she is now cancer free.

For years I fingered my rosary at night when I couldn't sleep, repeating my childhood prayers without thinking much about their meaning. I wasn't even fully aware of the "mysteries" I was supposed to be meditating on; I just wanted the mantra to lull me into slumber.

Then Mary started becoming more apparent in my life. There was no one spectacular "sighting" of the Blessed Mother; she just started showing up in prayers from friends, artwork I admired, and the new rosary my husband gave me. Assuming Jesus was trying to steer me to his mother, I delved more intentionally into what the rosary has to offer. From the start, the Joyful Mysteries became my favorite.

I didn't know it then, but this journey of discovery was a preparation. God was giving me a support that would sustain me through a challenging period--one in which suffering and creativity came together in a way I could never have expected. Here is what happened as I came to know the Joyful Mysteries in a deeper way.

The Annunciation of Our Lord. A few years ago, my husband drove me through the hills of his home county in Kentucky and to the motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto. In the midst of the stately brick buildings and historic markers is the art gallery of world-renowned sculptress Sr. Jeanne Dueber. Her creations take visitors through the beatitudes, portrayals of the Holy Family, and the crucifixion.
Outside the gallery, her art surprises visitors as they walk the grounds and meander through sculptures in the yard or turn a corner and find another carving tucked between buildings. That's where I discovered a sculpture named The Fiat. It depicts a young woman gracefully reaching heavenward, her arms open wide, inviting into her life whatever it is God has in store for her. Her entire body is poised to receive, humbly accepting God's request.

I wanted to open myself that freely to embrace God's will, so I bought a postcard of The Fiat, and put it on my desk as a reminder. When I begin to meditate on the annunciation, that's the picture I hold in my mind. What a perfect prayer to begin the rosary with--to ask to be open, as Mary was.

This prayer was especially helpful when, at the age of forty-two, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Was God simply inviting me to deeper trust, I wondered, or was I being called to something else as well?

The Visitation. One of my favorite scenes in the movie The Nativity Story is the young Mary's visit with Elizabeth. Two women are encountering unexpected happenings in their lives--blessed events, but not without their difficulties.

For many of us, the blessing and challenge come together. In my case, the very same month I was diagnosed with cancer, I received an opportunity to write my first book. I was baffled. Could I actually write a book while going through chemotherapy? Is that what God was calling me to?

When these sorts of questions arise, I seek silent prayer time for discernment. Discussion with spiritual friends also helps. That's what the intimate sharing between Mary and Elizabeth reminds me of.

I didn't have to go through my cancer diagnosis alone. I shared it with my husband, my family, and my prayer group--three women I've been meeting with for more than sixteen years. The four of us have shared our struggles, our prayers, our moments of feeling close to God as well as feeling very far away. And in that time together, we are strengthened to go out into the world and be better representatives of Christ. We receive the resources to fulfill our mission--be it teaching a class, comforting a person in pain, or taking a meal to someone in need.

As I went through chemotherapy, my prayer partners journeyed with me. They provided cold food when that was all I could eat, flowers to cheer me, conversation to boost my spirits--and always, prayers to keep me going.

The Nativity of Jesus. After we open ourselves and spend time discerning God's call, the message we are carrying is born into the world. Here, too, I think of Mary. She knew that God was calling her to give birth to Jesus, but she didn't know all the consequences. On that day of joy, how could she foresee that her beloved son would win our salvation by dying on a cross? Sometimes what God calls us to is more difficult than we think we can endure.

As I discovered, saying yes to that writing project didn't ensure that the words would flow like magic. The book is based on interviews with people about their faith, so I had to begin by doing some talking. During my first months of chemotherapy, however, my throat became sore and infected. I couldn't eat solid food, so I sipped broths and drank liquids used to hydrate infants. Sometimes I had to refrain from talking at all.

On one of those days when I was feeling that no one could relate to my pain, I managed to interview Bill Gullickson, a former major league baseball player. I knew he had encountered some medical problems, but I didn't know the details. My voice recovered enough to ask a few questions, but I spent most of my time listening. His story turned out to be precisely what I needed to hear.

I learned that after retiring, Bill had undergone surgery that left him unable to eat except through a feeding tube. He had lost some of his physical abilities and pleasures, yet he was still praising God and loving life. In fact, he took his losses as an opportunity to delve deeper into his faith.

That message carried me through my months of physical challenges and helped me to grow in faith. The book was coming to life, being born, and it had a purpose: Surely, if I needed to hear the stories, others would, too.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I love to think about the young family going to the Temple. They were doing their duty, fulfilling a tradition and law, when a stranger, Simeon, became part of their story. He proclaimed the child Jesus to be the salvation God had promised, a light for the people.

Simeon's declaration reminds me that there are people who are waiting for us to fulfill our calling. When each of us does the work we were created for, it builds the kingdom of God. And sometimes, even if only in a fleeting moment, we get to see how our message and life can affect another human being.

As a writer, I'm blessed by readers who say that something I have written affects them. But I suspect that an equally important part of my work is interviewing--asking people to share something of their life experiences and truly listening to what they say.
As I continued work on my book, people generously talked. I discovered that for some, it was the first time they were telling their faith story. As they shared, my own story continued to develop.

Finding Jesus in the Temple. I'm sure some rosary fans are able to reflect on finding Jesus in the Temple, but what always strikes me most deeply is the losing part. I think that's because I'm human; sometimes I get lost. As much as I want to please God and fulfill the mission he has given me, I'm also flawed. I wander away. I forget the message I'm supposed to be carrying and communicating.

Certainly there were times, during those months of chemotherapy and radiation, when I wandered in a dense fog that obscured everything but the immediate task. Mary and Joseph must have felt a similar sense of loss as they searched for their child, yet they maintained faith in God and worked through the anxiety to recover their son.

Throughout my difficult months, I tried to imitate them by often reminding myself that "God is good." My book project demonstrated that sentiment, no matter how lost I felt. I hauled my laptop into the chemotherapy lab and wrote as the drugs dripped into my system. In the radiation lab, I lay on the table telling the therapists about my latest interview. When the final treatment was complete, I had also completed the last interview.

In the final decade of the Joyful Mysteries, Mary and Joseph find Jesus, who is questioning and learning. As my months of researching, interviewing, and writing drew to a close, I sensed that I, too, had grown through my journey of faith. It gave me time to ponder my purpose, while I searched for a return to health and the completion of a project. It was a chance to learn more about how to live a Christian life. Especially, it was an extended meeting with Mary, whose friendship and example now strengthen me in a deeper way than ever.
And the journey is not over! For me, as for each of us, there are more mysteries to explore, more stories to hear, and more invitations to say yes to God.

Beth Dotson Brown lives in Lancaster, Kentucky, and happily reports that she is now cancer free. The book she was working on--Yes! I am Catholic--has been published by Saint Mary's Press.


Published in The Word Among Us October 2008. Copyright © 2008 The Word Among Us. All Rights Reserved.