Dec 11 | The Second Star: Within the sanctuary (Way of Mary Reading Journal #2)

“Stay close,

under the mantle of Your veil;


is not meant

for everyone,

but Mary drew herself


into Your Sanctuary

beyond the intimations of family,

that she might know

Your Heart.”

The story of Mary continues with her being brought to the Temple for dedication. Helminski writes,

“The story is told of her slipping away from her mother and immediately striding up the stairs of the Temple; she did not look back, so readily eager and ineluctably drawn was she to the Holy Sanctuary.”

Both early Christianity and Islam make special note of Mary’s relationship with Zechariah, as mentioned last week, who mentored her in the faith.

My friend Seemi Ghazi, an interfaith scholar and professor of classical Arabic at UBC, writes,

“Zakariyya offered Maryam a sanctuary and trusted her cultivation of her inner world. The physical sanctuary…was Maryam’s prayer-niche (mihrab in Arabic) located within the Jerusalem Temple, but the literal signification of the Arabic term mihrab is ‘a place of struggle or battle.’ Though we revere Maryam for her serenity, she engaged in a profound inward struggle without which her mihrab, as a site of inward battle, could not have become her mihrab as a site of sanctity and retreat. Through struggle Maryam became her own mihrab, ‘Maryam Full of Grace.’”

In Islam, the mihrab is a niche in the inner wall of the mosque which points toward Mecca. A passage from the Surah al’Imran is often inscribed over this niche:

“Whenever Zechariah visited [Mary] in the sanctuary,

he found her provided with food. He would ask,

‘O Mary, from where did this come to you?’

She would answer: ‘It is from God;

See how God grants sustenance to whom [They] will,

Beyond all reckoning.’”

(Qur’an: Surah al-‘Imran 3.37)

In the Temple, the inner sanctum or Holy of Holies was only accessible by the priest. This was a “thin place,” with a veil drawn across it to evoke the separation between the outer and inner worlds. Helminski, echoing Seemi’s wisdom, writes,

“Beloved Mary, immersed in her devotions…joined both within herself.”

In the mystical branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this image of contained and enclosed sanctity is often represented by a rose:

“What which God said to the rose,

And caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty,

[God] said to my heart,

And made it a hundred times more beautiful.”

[Masnavi III: 4129].

In the season of Advent, all of us are called to our own mihrab. The season of winter is a gift because it encourages us to draw inward and contemplate how light is born fragile, like a seed held quietly in the dark earth until ready to blossom in secrecy. Life needs the warm arms of darkness to nurture it before it can burst forth into light. Mary knew that, if her call was to be dedicated to God in every way, she needed deep roots. Only trees with deep roots grow strong enough to embrace the sky.

“And remember [zhikr] in the book, Maryam –

see how she withdrew from her family to a place in the east

and placed a veil [hijab] to seclude herself from them.”

[Qur’an, Surah Maryam 19.16-17]

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