Exalted: How the Power of the Magnificat Can Transform Us (Book Review)

Sometime last fall I was on a short trip to French Lick, IN, where we have a small house that is due to be renovated as an Air B&B for summer use and winter escape. Most people would not think of southern Indiana as a location for winter escape, but when you live in northern Indiana, right in the middle of the lake effect snow band from Lake Michigan, the four hour drive south is enough to get you out of persistent snow and to average temps that are in the low 40s instead of the low 30s. Doesn’t sound like a big difference but its enough to leave behind snow on the ground and get outside to walk in relative comfort. This project was supposed to be completed by now, but the pandemic put a wrench in those plans and we are just now getting reorganized to get the work underway.

I took a drive a little further south to St. Meinrad’s Archabbey. It’s a place I have been aware of for a long time because of the retreats they offer, but I had not been there previously. While there, I went into both the gift store and the separate bookstore, which is associated with the seminary.

In the gift store, a book entitled Exalted: How the Power of the Magnificat Can Transform Us caught my eye. The subtitle is Mary’s Song Verse by Verse. The author’s name is Sonja Corbett. She is a convert to the Catholic faith who leads bible studies in several different formats all based at her website, Bible Study Evangelista. I bought this book for my wife as a Christmas present since she has a predilection for following Mary in her own faith life.

As I was praying over the Magnificat for the last post, I noticed this book on her nightstand. When I asked my wife about it, she said she enjoyed it so I started reading in support of my own reflection. When I got to the chapter on the verse (Luke 1:48) I had selected as my concentration point, I found much of what I was thinking about the poverty of Mary confirmed by Sonja.

So, I thought I would share the meat of what she wrote with you. If this passage resonates with you, you will probably enjoy the full book.

Sonja talks about her own humble beginnings as a lead in to her discussion on Mary and the verse:

“I just had to laugh. I was a nobody from nowhere who had fallen in love with God. Yet I could not deny that he was at work, and all I could do was sit back and watch with amazement as God brought about the crazy thing he had once given me.

I think one of the most precious realities about life with God is that throughout the Bible and salvation history when he desires to do “a new thing” (see Isaiah 43:19) he always uses some insignificant, startled human creatures, terrifying them with the exhilarating invitation to do their hearts’ secret longing.

He scours them from inside out: gouges glorious holes in their souls with his unpredictability; impossible demands, and burgeoning presence; and one day long, long after, they all find themselves blinking with stupefied wonder at what he has finally wrought: “He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen” (Dt 10:21).

So it was with Abraham, Moses, and David and with poor, plain Joachim’s daughter from Nazareth whom the world calls Our Lady. Surely in Jerusalem there were daughters of scribes and chief priests who were rich, lovely, unvowed, young, cultured and held in high esteem. Is it not the same today with the highborn, the daughters of kings, princes, presidents and persons of wealth? Even in her own town of Nazareth, Mary was not the daughter of one of the chief rulers but a peasant girl, whom no one important knew or esteemed. And yet she was regarded by the One who made her powerless and poor for eternally important reasons. Her poverty was the anonymity that provided the protected space in which the Incarnation was to happen.

The biblical definition for regard is “to look upon, have respect for.” To be regarded is to be noticed. “Low estate” is a rank, or inferior position or place. We might say Mary was a nobody.

Perfect for a new creation, though, “for the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show his might in behalf of those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chr 16:9). Caryll Houselander says that God “noticed” or regarded Mary because she let God have his will with her: “She was not asked to do anything herself, but to let something be done to her.”

Isn’t this the most difficult part, not doing anything to make something happen? Most of us decide what we want to do or be or what we want to happen, and then we set and work toward goals that will get us there: educational goals, financial goals, career-ladder goals, health goals, and retirement goals. This is all reasonable and rational and even necessary. Yet Mary’s Magnificat, here, seems to present a challenge: Who among us asks God, first, before all necessary planning and doing, what he wants for us? Which of us simply serves in place with no expectation, ever, of anything else?

And even if we receive a specific word or vocation from God, who simply says “May it be done to me” without planning or setting out to make it happen or at least trying to help God make it happen? What simplicity is required for this degree of trust?

Mary’s attitude is not one of laziness or passivity but intense, active faith. And yet she exhibits a discipline against action that can only be a work of grace. The only action she undertook was rushing to serve Elizabeth. Mary served God from her lack of position or resource as a “handmaiden,” without ever knowing her service was so highly esteemed by him. She claimed nothing, pursued nothing, but left all God’s gifts freely in his hands, no more than a willing servant or slave.

Here’s the point: there, serving everyone around her, Mary finds herself the Mother of God, exalted above men and angels, and remains so simple and calm that she points only to her “low estate.” Mary teaches us that being exalted can be, and often is, as simple as serving in place until and unless we are called to step out into more complicated waters. Maybe I should stop the planning, stop the grasping, stop the hustling, and pray to know what God wants for me, first. This is what it means to magnify God, to count only him great, with all one’s being, and lay claim to absolutely nothing else.”

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