The word visitation has a rich biblical heritage. Familiar to most Christians as the time when Mary and Elizabeth meet, greet, and talk to one another before the births of their sons, this biblical visitation throbs with the energy of women’s voices pregnant with life and hope.
But theirs was not just ordinary “visiting.” They proclaim! Calling upon the memory of the women who have gone before them, they speak with excitement and confidence about spiritual matters. Revelation is in their words, and prophetic witness shines through their message. It is a rare portrait of two otherwise insignificant women meeting and greeting, touching one another on the inside, and shouting God’s goodness. It is preaching at its soul stirring best.
Entering. Greeting. Hearing. Feeling. Blessing. Responding. The simple visit of these two women offers a vivid example of the structure of healthy and holy human encounter. It gives us a glimpse of what can unfold when women, indeed any people, meet one another on the inside. Though words are few, and details of this biblical visitation are sparse, when Mary takes her leave, both women are more aware of who they are, before one another and their God. That is what true visitation ought to effect in us.
The visitation that is upon members of women’s religious communities now bears few of the marks of this model of visitation given to us in Luke’s nativity narrative. The apostolic visitation, as it is unfortunately called, was not born of religious women’s desire to meet, greet, and talk of things important to them. Rather, it was decided for them and thrust upon them. The topics of the “conversation” are less about a desire to know the heart of the other, and more about getting information—some of which is perceived as a violation of privacy.
It is not surprising to me that there has been so little enthusiasm demonstrated by the sisters themselves, as well as their lay friends and co-ministers. Visitations worthy of the name are supposed to generate spontaneous leaping of life within—not a report—especially a report that will not be previewed by those whose lives it describes.
In that biblical visitation, Mary went to Elizabeth with haste. The word in Greek is spoude. It is the same word that Luke uses to describe the journey of the shepherds as they went with haste to find Mary and Joseph with their newborn babe, lying in a manger (Lk. 2:16). It implies more than physical speed. Beyond swiftness of the feet, spoude involves eagerness, an expectation that something important awaits at the end of the journey. The word, which can also be translated earnestness or earnest care, suggests that Mary’s travel to visit her kinswoman was a true journey of the heart.
It should be the same for us whenever we meet one another. Every significant human visitation ought to be undertaken with care, with free choice, with thoughtfulness. The greetings we exchange and the words we share have power—power to comfort, power to heal, power to cause insides to quiver. There is little room in genuine human meeting for imposition.
The haste of Mary’s journey to Elizabeth had energy—little sparks of power that charged their encounter with a new recognition of the goodness that each of them carried in their bodies. It is the same holy energy that is carried within each of us. When we journey toward one another with this same spirit of earnest care, each of our meetings effects visitation once again. It is hard to imagine the apostolic visitation having such an impact of grace.