The Angelus – for the simple, the faraway, and me

The Angelus by Katherine Bogner (Look to Him and Be Radiant on Etsy)

I don’t remember how I first heard of the Angelus.

I do remember that praying it was an act of desperation.

Things were always worst just around noon. Alone at home with twin infants in highchairs both sobbing to be held, I staggered around the kitchen trying to prepare lunch, my three-year-old clinging to my ankles and crying that he was too hungry to eat. With every passing second, the window of time to feed everyone and get them into their beds for their naps was narrowing. Failing to get the three children napping before this critical window of time elapsed meant I would have no quiet moment to myself, no chance to collect my strength to make it through the rest of the day and evening until bedtime.

Maybe this sounds overly dramatic, but this was every day, and it felt dire.

When I had time, I read books (sometimes) and blogs (more often) by women a few steps further down the road of motherhood than I was. They talked about their prayer practices, their “rule” of life, the rituals and routines that composed their days and helped them stay focused and serene. I was neither focused nor serene. I was exhausted, and I almost always fell asleep while trying to pray. I was years away from discovering the Liturgy of the Hours, and if I had known about it then, I would have had neither the time nor the mental space required to pray it. I was a mess.

Then I discovered the Angelus.

This prayer evolved during the Middle Ages as a simplified prayer exercise for the faithful, those too simple or too far away to join in the Liturgy of the Hours at a nearby church. When they heard the church bells ring at morning, noon, and evening, they would stop in the midst of their work and take a few moments to recite the prayer that recalls the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and her acceptance of her role as Jesus’ mother: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to Thy word.

            And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

I was, like those long-ago faithful, too simple, too far away, and most of all, too frazzled. I needed a moment in my day to shift my attention away from the chaotic mess in front of me. I needed to lift my eyes to heaven. I needed a brief respite.

I started playing a video of the Daughters of Mary chanting the Angelus in Latin. I’d set up our iPad on the kitchen table in front of the babies’ chairs, dump a handful of Cheerios or frozen peas on their trays, and my three-year-old would crowd between them to watch it. The chant began with bells tolling, and then the strains of “Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae…” would float through the kitchen. Images of Mary and Jesus showed on the screen, fascinating the children and distracting them long enough for me to smash up avocados and cut up hot dogs and apple slices. I’d chant along, my hands working as fast as ever, my heart lifting a little with the refrain each time it came back.

“Ave, Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum…benedicta tu in mulieribus…”

The Angelus celebrates the Incarnation, the mystery at the core of our faith as Christians. In recalling Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and her response, we recite God’s outreach to humanity (“I’d like to come be with you”) and our response, given through Mary (“Yes, I am your servant.”) We acknowledge the moment when the Word became Emmanuel, God-with-us, and dwelt among us. We celebrate the choice that God made to walk with human feet on earth, to share our pains, our hungers, our sufferings, to become one who needed something, who was dependent on another. We remember that God is with us and that He will never leave us alone.

The Angelus-as-lunchtime-coping-mechanism slowly planted itself in my heart and took root there. I had accidentally chosen the perfect prayer for preparing lunch. God-with-skin-on needed to eat, too, and His mother must have spent years preparing lunch for Him, just the way I was doing for my children.

Popular devotions like the Angelus are sometimes too easily dismissed, as if they should have evaporated with a former time and have no place in our contemporary church. Popular devotions, though, are meant to be footholds on the climb up the mountain of faith. The breadth and depth of church tradition has given us so many ways to pray. Each one of those devotions gives us a place to hold on, to tighten our grip, to gather our strength for the climb ahead. Not everyone will need every one of them, and some of us might be agile and strong and fortunate enough to scale the mountain without grasping at any of these helps. In a moment of desperation, though, in my kitchen surrounded by crying children, I will always be glad that I found this one. The best prayer, after all, is the one that you can pray. God can do the rest, and grace always covers what we cannot, stretching what we have to offer and making it enough.

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Thanks be to God.

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