For many years I struggled to understand the “vessel” images applied to the Virgin Mary in the Litany of Loreto. In the Litany she is described variously as a “spiritual vessel,” a “vessel of honor,” and a “singular vessel of devotion.” These are gracious but mysterious descriptions, to be sure.
Pope St. John Paul II finally solved the problem I was having in his 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia De Eucharistia. He referred to Our Lady as the “tabernacle” of Jesus’ Eucharistic Presence. His words ought to fill the hearts of all lovers of the Blessed Virgin with a respectful awe for her unique place and role in salvation history:
Mary also anticipated, in the mystery of the incarnation, the Church’s Eucharistic faith. When, at the Visitation, She bore in Her womb the Word made flesh, She became … the first “tabernacle” in history in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed Himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating His light as it were through the eyes and the voice of Mary. (55)
Our Lady became the tabernacle of the Eternal Word Himself. In that very same moment, she became a “vessel” for all prayers, intentions, sufferings, desires, longings, hopes, and joys of God’s faithful throughout the ages.
Our Spiritual Mother
Clearly the physical presence of a baby enlarges the womb of the mother who carries him. Similarly, we can say that the physical Presence of Jesus in Our Lady’s womb, and in her life for thirty-three more years, enlarged Mary and created an openness within our Mother’s soul that was destined to belong to every other child of God after the Resurrection. She became like a spacious room which any needy child can enter with confidence. She became an open book for forlorn souls to read and an immeasurable abyss of love for those who are desperate.
It is not too bold to say that as Mother of the infinite God, Mary’s spiritual availability to her children has no limit in receiving whatever we wish to place within her heart for her safekeeping. In the Annunciation story Our Lady signals her total receptivity and abandonment to the divine Will when she declares, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” [Lk 1:38].
Our natural mothers have understandable human and personal limitations which diminish their ability to help us. But Mary, our spiritual Mother, has no such limits. Well, technically, she has one: Mary cannot do – or ask for us – anything contrary to the Will of God. She does, however, teach us to bring our prayers, our requests, and our desires into greater conformity with God’s Will. We would expect that from the handmaid of the Lord.
Mary as Vessel
Another image of Mary as “vessel” that speaks to my heart comes from St. John Chrysostom, the fifth century Father of the Church. St. John said Mary is like a beautiful crystal goblet into which the Lord poured the finest wine of His divine life. When held up to the light, the rays of the sun pass straight through the transparent receptacle and at the same time light up its precious contents with divine radiance. What a beautiful image! It describes Mary’s role as a vessel that both contains Christ and radiates His essence to others. To give and proclaim the greatness of Christ to others is the particular vocation of Mary, who acknowledged as much in her canticle, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” [Lk 1:46].
In our devotion to Christ, we may be afraid of taking something away from Him by turning to the intercessory power of Our Lady. On the other hand, we could downplay her role in the Christian life to the point of presuming that she is either uninterested in our concerns or unable to do anything about them. How untrue! Mary’s intercessory role has been given to Her by God in virtue of her Divine Motherhood, and she never detracts from Him in the least. In fact, she only augments our love of Him. As St. Louis Marie de Montfort explained so perfectly, “Whenever we say ‘Mary’, she says, ‘Jesus’.”
Mary’s Love for Us
Whatever is lacking to us in the spiritual life is not the fault of Mary or Jesus – the fault is in us. We lack the faith to go with all of our concerns, needs, and desires to deposit them in the “spiritual vessel” of Mary’s Immaculate Heart. In all things, we reap what we sow. But too often perhaps, we underestimate her willingness to assist us and plead for our intentions before the Throne of Grace. When we do this we reap little benefit from Mary’s immense love for each of us.
In the famous apparitions of the Miraculous Medal in Paris, in 1830, Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Labouré with open arms and rays of light issuing from jeweled rings on her hands. The curious thing was that there were a number of the jewels that were not sending forth any light. St. Catherine asked our Blessed Mother why that was so. Our Lady simply responded that those were the graces that her children had not asked for.
We Need but Ask
This striking image teaches us that the spiritual vessel of Mary’s heart is open for both giving and receiving. A treasure of grace awaits us in the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and all we have to do is to ask for what we need. Mary will help us. She will purify our prayers if they are not in accord with God’s Will. She will raise them up to the Throne of Grace and then dispense the treasures of Heaven to us.
Have you devotedly placed all your concerns in the spiritual vessel of Mary’s heart? If not, do it today! Mary has no lack of room for any concern of yours. In fact, resolve to go to her constantly with the innocent confidence of a child. If you do, our Mother will look out for your needs as if you were the only child in the world who needed anything.
Litany of Loreto – http://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/maryd6f.htm