If familiarity indeed breeds contempt, as the ages-old proverb says, then I’m bewildered in trying to explain why I have been increasingly drawn to the Blessed Virgin Mary the last few years.
The better I know her, the more I love her. And I want to encourage others to give it a genuine effort.
I regularly receive an email called “Daily Heartlight.” It features reflections by a rotating group of people, all of them Protestant and primarily preachers. Most of my spiritual reading is Catholic, but I find these often have interesting insight about faith and Scripture.
Other than a few written during the Christmas season, when several reflections involved Mary’s role in bringing our Savior into our world, I don’t remember any other writings throughout the year even mentioning Mary. Protestants don’t know what to do with Mary. For many of them, she’s just a character in small parts of the Gospel story.
As Catholics, we know better. Don’t we? Well, here’s my confession to my fellow Catholics: Until recently, I didn’t get the whole “Mary thing.”
Today, July 16, is the Solemn Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in honor of the patroness of the Carmelite Order. The first Carmelites were 12th-century Christian hermits living on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. According to Carmelite tradition, the Blessed Virgin gave the Brown Scapular to St. Simon Stock on July 16, 1251; the Scapular soon came to be associated with promises of Mary’s special assistance to its devoted wearers.
I received a small scapular on the day of my First Holy Communion about 48 years ago but promptly lost it. I’m now a devoted wearer for an entirely more powerful reason: I am in formation with the Secular Carmelites. After completing a year of aspiration, I was accepted into formation with the St. Louis community earlier this year and was officially “clothed” with a large Brown Scapular on April 19.
My community’s website succinctly explains the charism of Carmel and devotion to Mary:
“As Carmelites, we seek to hear God in the quiet of our hearts through contemplation and prayer. We seek an interior union with our Lord while actively living out the ordinary events of our everyday lives. We take our example of living from Our Lady as a model for living our life focused on one thing, serving her Son. She is a woman of faith and obedience to whom we look as a companion and guide on our journey of faith.”
Frankly, for most of my life I have had trouble getting a handle on the many devotions to Mary–I thought it bordered on fanaticism for some people. I believed the Church teachings about Mary. I also thought some in the Church might have taken things too far, that they might have elevated Mary into a “divine goddess.”
I have a better understanding now because of experiences in study and prayer the last two years.
It really began on a retreat I attended in 2013 at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. One of the Brother Christian’s two talks focused on Mary and her role in salvation. He highlighted a title for Mary that I never had heard before: Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Coincidentally, at the same time I was reading the book Consoling the Heart of Jesus, written by Father Michael Gaitley, and he also used that title. I found myself more curious about Mary and how she might enhance my spirituality, help bring me closer to Christ.
Later that year, I made a 33-day “retreat” with members of my Saturday morning prayer group. We all read Father Gaitley’s book “33 Days to Morning Glory,” with a different selection each day. The ultimate goal: total consecration to Jesus through Mary. From that, two events now hold greater significance for me than the others do.
First is the wedding feast at Cana, at which Mary informs Jesus the hosts are about to run out of wine. She proceeds to instruct the waiters: “Do whatever He tells you.” This is what Mary tells us as well and what all our attention on Mary should involve. “The whole goal of true devotion to Mary,” Father Gaitley writes, “is our ongoing, post-baptismal transformation in Christ.”
Second, at the cross, when Jesus looked down at Mary and the apostle John and said, “Woman, behold your son. (Son,) behold your mother.” Noting that Jesus actually was talking to all of us, Father Gaitley says, “Mary is uniquely, particularly, personally your mother and my mother, and she doesn’t lose us in the crowd.”
St. John Eudes said: “A man is no true Christian if he has no devotion to the Mother of Jesus Christ.”
As part of my Carmelite formation study, I recently read from Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council. More specifically, I studied the chapter called “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, In The Blessed Mystery of Christ and the Church.”
I was born in the Sixties and grew up in the growing influence of Vatican II. But devotion to Mary already was firmly established in the Church by then and only re-emphasized by the Council.
My lack of devotion to her might strike some Catholics as blasphemous; honestly, it makes me feel a little guilty. All those statues in every church I’ve ever visited. All the times I have recited the rosary. In my Catholic grade school, we prayed the weekly Perpetual Help devotions — I still can recite the Memorare from memory. And I recall a nun advising us that whenever our minds wandered an impure direction, to softly whisper, “Mary, make me pure.”
Mary always has been more than a character in a story to me, more than a pregnant teenaged girl who rode a donkey to Bethlehem and gave birth in a stable. She struck me as the first genuine disciple, the best example of a Christian that we have, a truly selfless woman whose “yes” should be my goal as well.
I could see her as the greatest of all saints. I recognized her vital importance in salvation history.
I know now she is much more than that. I have come to understand that she not only is the first disciple of Jesus but His most perfect disciple as well. Her reaction to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation is exactly what I would expect a “perfect disciple” to say: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)
That has become a constant prayer of mine as well. My eyes and heart have opened to what role she can play in my own faith journey of discipleship. I have come to regard her as my true spiritual mother and, indeed, to love her.
I have come to understand, with a new clarity, what this document declared:
“The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother.” (LG 53)
- Honor: regard with great respect; esteem, admire, look up to.
- Affection: a gentle feeling of fondness; tenderness, endearment, attachment.
- Filial: due from a son or daughter; dutiful, devoted, respectful, affectionate.
- Piety: the quality of being religious or reverent; holiness, saintliness.
Indeed, as Spouse of the Holy Spirit, Mary is a most beloved mother. When considered from that perspective, a perspective that is intimate and intensely personal, it can feel so easy to honor her, to look up to her. But why did it take me so long – more than 50 years of life – to embrace so much affection and spiritual duty toward Mary?
Perhaps I was intimidated by “Marian theology.” I could accept the dogmas of her Divine motherhood, perpetual virginity, immaculate conception and assumption into heaven. Accept, but not explore. I could read all of the titles the Church has given her, the New Eve and others, including those mentioned in this Vatican II document called the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:” Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix and Mediatrix. Read, but not explore.
If only I had explored the document sooner, I would have found this following the mention of those titles:
“This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator.” (LG 62)
Not only did I fail to truly understand the theology of Mary’s place in our faith, I didn’t understand the Church’s devotion to her, either. I think a part of my spiritual mind feared that by honoring Mary, especially in the way I have seen other Catholics honor her, I was taking away from my worship of Jesus.
I have come to comprehend that devotion much better. I am more comfortable than ever with praying the rosary. In fact, I look forward to that daily activity. I am pleased to proclaim her as my spiritual mother.
I do have concerns that among some of the Catholic faithful, devotion to the Mother of Jesus Christ has been lifted to an unwise level. At least, that is an impression one can have when observing without true understanding.
Many Christians of other denominations have that impression. I have encountered them, or at least read their words and misconceptions.
As Lumen Gentium points out, Mary’s purpose in the New Testament narrative is vital to developing a deeper faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Mary conceives by the Holy Spirit and gives birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. Every noted appearance of Mary in the four Gospels and even the brief mention of her in the Acts of the Apostles (present in the upper room on Pentecost) involve pivotal moments and reveal her as not just Jesus’ mother but a believer and follower as a disciple, too.
I like to meditate on those appearances: the wedding at Cana, the encounter with Simeon, her witness at the foot of the cross. As Mary “kept these things to be pondered over in her heart,” she teaches me contemplation.
In all of that, those words of the “Hail Mary” echo profoundly: “… and blessed is the fruit of thy womb: Jesus.”
“We never give more honor to Jesus than when we honor his Mother, and we honor her simply and solely to honor him all the more perfectly,” St. Louis Marie de Montfort said. “We go to her only as a way of leading to the goal we seek: Jesus, her Son.”
All things about any devotion to Mary clearly must point to even deeper faith in Jesus as Lord. So as I pray to her as my spiritual mother now, I have developed the attitude that no human being understood the divinity of her Son better than she did, no human being walked alongside the Lord more closely than she did, no human being loved Jesus more than she did.
Each morning, I use the words of Mother Teresa as I ask Mary to lend me her heart so that I may believe in Jesus with her conviction and love Jesus with her unconditional surrender. The more I turn to her, the more I talk with her, the more I ponder her life, the deeper my appreciation and devotion.
And in doing so, I join the communion of saints in honoring the Queen of Heaven.