Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Feast of the Assumption

Hail, Holy Queen... Yes, a humble Queen.

The Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross...
Detail from The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John
by Hendrick der Brugghen (c. 1620)

Isn't that something, the way ter Brugghen painted a "Mother Teresa" kind of face some 300 years before Mother Teresa?

I finally caved in a couple of months ago and put a Sitemeter icon on the blog. I had always told myself that the day I put a hit-counter or a traffic-meter on, it would be a sign to me that I was doing this for the wrong reason. Namely, for the sake of my own ego and self-aggrandizement. Eventually, however, after putting in quite a few hours of work here, I did succumb to the curiosity to see if anyone was actually reading this thing, and if so, what they were reading.

Rather than feeding my own sense of hubris, it did in a certain way provide me with a sense of renewed humility. I was fascinated and gratified to see that there were quite a few international hits, but was also humbled at the same time to see that many, if not most of the foreign ones, were due to an offhand and obscure reference with a link I had made once to an image from the film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. The love and devotion for the Blessed Mother is very powerful throughout the world. She is still a mother to many. Never discount it or underestimate it.

I've always had much more of a Christocentric than Marian sense of piety and spirituality. Anne loves to pray the Rosary, she grew up with it in her family, but it has never been my preferred method of prayer. On the other hand, every time I see an ambulance in transit, I always say a Hail Mary for the person in need. I pray for Mary's prayers and intercession on behalf of that person. Without fail, every time. Now my kids do it too.

So, speaking from a Christocentric sense of piety, but with a deep love and reverence for Our Lady nonetheless, I'd like to post up a few quotes from Fr. Rolheiser OMI on St. Mary, from his articles Mary, As Model of Faith, and The Mary of Piety...

We have to be careful to understand what Jesus is really telling us about his mother. We see places in the gospels where he seemingly does not speak highly of her when in fact the reverse is true. For example, the instance when he is approached and told: "You're mother is here, trying to see you," and he answers, "Who is my mother?" Then, pointing to the people sitting around him, he says, "Those who hear the word of God and keep it are mother and brother and sister to me."

Is Jesus distancing himself from his mother here? No. He's pointing out the real link between them, namely, among all the people in the gospels, Mary is the pre-eminent example of the one who hears the word of God and keeps it. For this reason, more than because of biological motherhood, Jesus claims her as his mother. Giving birth to Christ is something more than biological.

All of this is what Mary went through to give Christ to the world: Pregnancy by the Holy Spirit; gestation of that into a child inside of her; excruciating pain in birthing that to the outside; nurturing that new life into adulthood; and pondering, painfully letting go so that this new life can be its own, not hers. When the woman in the crowd told Jesus, "You must of had a wonderful mother!", his answer had precisely this in mind. Mary was a wonderful mother, but in ways that went far beyond the simple fact of motherhood. She heard the word of God and kept it. That obedience, more than biological motherhood, gave both an infant Jesus and an adult Christ to the world.

And in this, Mary wants imitation, not admiration: Our task too is to give birth to Christ. Mary is the paradigm for doing that. From her we get the pattern: Let the word of God take root and make you pregnant; gestate that by giving it the nourishing sustenance of your own life; submit to the pain that is demanded for it to be born to the outside; then spend years coaxing it from infancy to adulthood; and finally, during and after all of this, do some pondering, accept the pain of not understanding and of letting go...

Karl Rahner, studying the phenomenon of Marian apparitions, points out that all these apparitions have one thing in common: In every case, Mary appears to a poor person. In every alleged apparition that has become accepted in popular devotion, the person Mary appears to is someone insignificant in the world's eyes. Mary has never, it seems, appeared to a Wall Street Banker, a major civic or church leader, nor even to a theologian in his or her study. She seems to pick her audience with a special purpose in mind. What purpose? To provide for them, the poor, something that the elite find elsewhere, namely, a romantic vision of the faith by which to sustain themselves emotionally. That shouldn't surprise us. Mary, after all, gave us the Magnificat. She has always had a special relationship to the poor.

More recently, as we know, Marian devotion and devotional prayer in general have fallen on hard times, intellectually and theologically. More and more, Marian devotion is written off as non-essential to the faith or worse as a harmful distraction to it. Christ, the Word, and the Eucharist, it is argued, are what's essential and the object of our intimacy is Jesus, not Mary. Moreover, what brings us together as Christians are the Word and Eucharist, not devotional prayer. Simply put, you shouldn't be substituting devotions for scripture or the Eucharist, nor saying the rosary in their place.

In essence, this critique is correct and was a needed corrective both at the time of the reformation and again at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Devotional life, and indeed all spiritual enthusiasm, too easily lose balance and, almost without exception, tend to lose their grip on the essentials. That's the danger inherent in all romance. It's very power to inflame the heart makes it a powerful narcotic that easily becomes an end in itself. Romance easily becomes unbridled, unglued, disorienting. We know that. But we also know its power to transform lives. It can change everything in fifteen seconds.

Christ, the Word, and the Eucharist are the essentials within our faith, but, just as the main course in a meal doesn't necessarily make a complete meal, so too the essentials of our faith don't necessarily satisfy all our faith needs, particularly in terms of the heart. What the devotional life adds to the essentials is precisely the romantic, emotional fire...

Classically, in terms of our prayer lives, this has been handled largely by devotions and, among devotions, the ones to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, have had the privileged place, especially among the poor. In Marian devotions, the faith takes on a special relationship to the poor. In a manner of speaking, Marian devotions are the mysticism of the poor. In relating to her, countless people, without the benefit of professional training in theology or liturgy have wonderfully appropriated to themselves deep, essential truths about God's person, presence, compassion, and providence. They know and taste God's love, through their relationship to Mary.

Many years ago, when I was an 18 year-old novice, a very pious old priest gave us a talk. He shared how a young man had come to him complaining that he'd lost his faith. The old priest had simply told him: "You've lost your faith because you've lost your mother, Mary." Funny how among the hundreds of hours of talks and conferences that I heard during my novitiate year, that pious, overly-simplistic, near-saccharine, theologically-impoverished comment is about the only thing I still remember.

" ...O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Pray for us O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. "


crystal said...

Maybe because I wasn't raised a catholic, I've never really understood the devotion to Mary. I've only said the Rosary once when a spiritual director told me to do it - he gave me a rosary because I didn't have one and I had to look up how to say it online :-)

Romance ... we also know its power to transform lives. It can change everything in fifteen seconds.

That's how I see prayers to Jesus, not Mary, maybe because of the gender difference?

Thanks for this post - can you see me on your sitemeter? My favorite part is all the little flags :-)

Jeff said...


As far as Mary goes, I'm percolating a possible Nathaniel Hawthorne post that might address some of that.

Thanks for this post - can you see me on your sitemeter? My favorite part is all the little flags :-)

Yeah, isn't that you calling in from Sacramento, CA? :-)

I'll give you a pass 'cuz you weren't raised Catholic. Holy Day of Obligation. Go to Mass tonight.

Now, the rest of you... What? Don't you love my sweet Virgin Mary? Why, youse Godless pagan heathen bastids...

Mike McG... said...

Jeff: I often imagined my youthful estrangement from the church as involving Mary...but not for the reason of the pious old priest of your novitiate. I thought that freedom from the iron grip of the tradition required cutting ties to the Mary of the Memorare ("Remember, O most gracious virgin Mary that *never* was it known than anyone who sought thy intercession was left unaided..." But your old priest invites me to consider that letting go of Mary was, instead, set me off on the route to estrangement, to loss of faith. I need to think on this.

Jeff, I wonder if you have thought on the 'feminine face of God' take on Mary. I believe your fellow Bostonian Elizabeth Johnson has written on this.

Jeff said...

Hi Mike,

I know what you mean about the Memorare... It reminds me of certain aspects of the Hail Holy Queen... "Our life, our sweetness, and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send
up our sighs, mourning and weeping
in this vale of tears..." Christ, our hope, has reconciled us to himself. Must we see ourselves forever as banished children of Eve?

I think that back in hard old days when men were stern, distant and full of wrath and discipline, Mary filled in as the feminine face of God. More maternal, affectionate and approachable than the Father. Hence much of the traditional Catholic emphasis on "To Christ through Mary".

I'm not very familiar with Elizabeth Johnson. From what little I've read about her since you mentioned her, I've gathered that she sees Mary as a strong feminine role model, who was active in her faith by her own free choice, rather than just passively obedient. Now that contemporary theology highlights both the feminine and masculine aspects of God, that older notion of approaching maternal and gentle Mary rather than God directly is more rightly replaced by a recognintion of Mary as the first Christian disciple, and the most perfect saint to imitate.

Garpu the Fork said...

Oddly enough, I have a hard time praying the rosary, unless I'm having problems with insomnia. I much prefer making them to praying them. ;)

I've always been turned off to Mary as mother, because I think the stereotype has been used to objectify women. The priest at my parish made a similar comment about us all giving birth to Christ. It was refreshing to hear him talk about it as metaphor, not as a way to keep women in their place.

I really like the discussion of Mary as contemplative in Merton's "New Seeds of Contemplation." Worth a read, if you're looking for something.

crystal said...

I wonder if that's part of why I feel uncomfortable with Mary - the idea of her as a sort of submissive feminine role model. If I had to look for a feminine role model I'd probably choose Mary M instead.

Jeff said...

Hi Garpu,

That Merton refection sounds intriguing. I'd never heard Mary described as a model of contemplation beyond the descriptions of her watching Jesus grow up in wisdom and grace, yet with certain things happening that were hard to understand, causing her to "ponder these things in her heart."

Garpu and Crystal,

Interesting thoughts. I don't think I would describe any of the women in the Bible as submissive. To me, they seem unanimously frank and plain-talking. To me, Mary is a tower of quiet strength. Perhaps the image that I chose for the post doesn't convey that. When I read the Magnificat, I don't feel like I'm reading the prayer of a mousy, submissive woman. A humble woman, but not a weak one.

I suppose I don't subscribe to the notion that Mary was a merely a tool used as a means to on end... a predeterimined incubator who had no say in what was going to happen to her. Rather, I see her having enough faith and strength to make the free choice to say "yes" to God, putting complete trust in Him even though it was a choice that was going to involve huge risks and personal losses for her.

In a Church that lays claim to being universal, a broad spectrum of spiritualities needs to be tolerated. I know some people who love the Rosary and make it an essential part of their daily lives. For others, it doesn't really work that way. One size does not fit all. If there wasn't room in the Church for all these different temperaments and charisms, we wouldn't have all these different religious orders, and we wouldn't have so many saints to choose from to admire and emulate.