Our Lady of Reality

One of our dear friends asked a devout and elderly priest why we Catholics beg for the intercession of Mary under various of her titles. “What does it mean to have a devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, or Our Lady of Guadalupe,” she said, “when it’s the same woman, because there’s only one Mary?”

He replied by reminding her of the circumstances surrounding the appearance of Mary to Juan Diego at Guadalupe, and to the children at Fatima. She came to crush the head of the Aztec paganism of Mexico, with its sun worship and human sacrifice. She came to warn western man of a massive apostasy, and to urge them to pray for the conversion of Russia before the revolution had occurred that raised godlessness to a principle of government.

It is not Mary but our attention that is divided. When we sit at the bedside of a dying child, to whom can we turn? Not to the pagan Stoic, Epictetus. “Your son has died,” he imagined his disciples saying. “And when did I ever say he was immortal?” was his reply. Of course Catholics turn to God, but God has also given us the inestimable gift of the pure and sinless woman, Mary, the second Eve, the exemplar of what we would be if we were innocent. We then beg Our Lady of Sorrows, who held the dead Christ to her bosom as they took Him down from the cross, to pray for us in our dark night.

When we are at a crossroads, when each path before us is uncertain, when whatever we do will mean suffering, we may turn to Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, who bore under her heart the second Person of the Trinity, Christ the Wisdom of God, and beg her to pray for us, so that we may quietly and patiently wait for the right decision to be revealed. Or we turn to Our Lady of Good Counsel, who said to the servants at Cana, “Do whatever my Son tells you to do.”

The conversation made me ask myself, “Under what title would Mary most appropriately appear to us now?” I can think of several:

  • For a people whose souls have been chloroformed by pornography, Our Lady of Purity.
  • For a people who cherish houses more than homes, and who farm their children out to be raised by strangers, Our Lady of Family Life.
  • For a people who exact from their own children the price of their heedlessness or hedonism or ambition, Our Lady of the Holy Innocents.
  • For a people whose attention is blasted to bits by the inanities of mass politics and mass entertainment, Our Lady of the Quiet Hours.
  • For a people who try to fill the vacuity of their lives with things, Our Lady of Poverty.
"The Immaculate Conception by Giovanni" by Battista Tiepolo, 1767
“The Immaculate Conception” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c. 1767

But maybe there is one title that touches upon a common madness underlying all our troubles. We think that a thing changes because we assign it one name rather than another. A man is a woman if he says he is. Or we refuse to acknowledge that a thing has a nature at all. A man is not a man, because there is no such thing, really. Or we label a thing according to its superficial features, so that it is a democracy so long as there are elections, even if the actual influence of a man upon his government is less than that of a flea on an elephant.

Or we scoff at the notion that one thing may be better than another, more beautiful, or more true, so that museums of modern art are filled with things that healthy people from any other culture would find hideous, absurd, inept, or trivial; and libraries, after they have sold off their real books at three for a dollar and dumped the rest in the trash, fill their shelves with emptiness.

The title I have in mind: Our Lady of Reality. I’m not being facetious.

Think of Mary in the quiet home in Nazareth. She did not suffer the disadvantages of our world. We are bombarded by unrealities, and our relations to God’s mysterious and solid creation are tenuous. Mary suffered the salutary disadvantages of a world in which a simple woman married to a carpenter had to immerse herself in reality. She had to take the grain to be milled. She had to thrust her arms into the dough, to work the leaven in. She had to spin wool into thread. A thatched roof was her only screen from the heat of the summer sun. A stone wall chinked with mud was her only barrier from the winter chill.

When she heard that her kinswoman Elizabeth was with child, she went in haste to the hill country, possibly on a mule, probably on foot. She was there when the Baptist was born. Her hands may have been the first to touch his infant body. When our Lord was born, she held Him to her breast, while the beasts in the stable shuffled and stamped. There is always in Mary that firmness, that being grounded in creation.

“How can this be,” she asks the angel, “since I know not man?” That is the question of a realist. When the angel replies that it will be the work of the Holy Spirit – more real than the transient things we hold in our hands, more real than we ourselves are – she submits to that ultimate reality. “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”

Someday the mists will clear and the shadows flee, and all the unreal will vanish as a dream. And then we may see the Son she bore. I imagine Him appearing as a boy, beckoning to us with a boy’s delight in His eyes. “I’m going up into the mountains,” He says. “You come too.”

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Beth

    Thank you so much for this beautiful essay. Gave me goosebumps. Such beauty, Our Lady. Thank you !

  • When my wife of 12 years filed for divorce (thank you “no-fault” divorce laws!) last month, because she has fallen away from the Faith and into the darkened world of New Age narcissism, a good and holy priest/canon lawyer advised me (among other things) to start a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. His advice was based on the “reality” of the fact that there is no way for me to stop this terrible thing from happening, and his words were just what I needed. I would be crushed under the weight of this overwhelmingly heavy cross, if not for her intercession and the grace that she obtains for me through her prayers. I am going to have to figure out how to teach our young children (10 and 8, one of whom is Autistic), the importance of this devotion as well. As I watch this utterly diabolical process destroy my family, I will be standing next to Our Lady at the foot of the Cross, where she watched the sins of the world destroy her beloved Son.

    • Thomist

      God is with you!

    • Tony

      I will pray for you the prayers of the old votive Mass for people suffering special tribulations.

      Yes, the no-fault divorce laws are unjust, inhumane, perfectly detestable. God bless you and your children.

      • Thank you very much. It is incredible that the law will break up a marriage because one of the spouses is having a mid-life crisis. There is no stability in any marriage in the United States, so long as no-fault is the law of the land.

        • Jim L

          I am sorry to hear of your divorce. I practice in this field, and I can assure you that no fault divorce laws will never go away. And even if they did, it would still take only one party in a marriage to get a divorce under the fault legal regimes. Mental cruelty would be alleged, and that would be the grounds for divorce. The sad reality is that a marriage takes two committed people,and when one party opts out, the civil law will not force the civil marriage to remain on the books. A civil divorce is actually required then to proceed to attempt to have the marriage annulled through the canon law process; which is something you may want to look into. The unfortunate reality is that many people enter into marriage without any capacity to stay the course, for a variety of reasons—many of them stemming from mental health disabilities. Please know that you are not alone, and the annulment process may bring some measure of healing and understanding. Peace be with you.

          • Thank you for your advice and kind words. Once the civil divorce is finalized, I plan on pursuing the annulment process. I will put the entire process in God’s hands. “Fiat voluntas tua”.

    • Veritas

      I’ve been through the same. The good news for you is that you have been given the best spiritual advice and it will work wonders for you and for your children.

      • Thank you very much for sharing your experience, and for your encouragement.

    • Romulus

      Our Lady knows all about devastation and abandonment. The Hispanic devotion to La Soledad contemplates this mystery shared with her son, of keeping faith while enduring what’s unendurable. It is the sword that pierced her heart.

  • Mater contra Relativism…ora pro nobis!

  • Stanley Anderson

    “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Of course “all these things” were the things of her son, Jesus, something we are to do too, and of which the Rosary is perhaps the prime vehicle for that pondering. I suppose we might call the Rosary’s sets of contemplations the Mysteries of Our Lady of Reality.

    Some time ago, I saw a facebook picture of a merry-go-round with a quote, “You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around — and why his parents will always wave back.” I had replied, “The perfect imagery for what it is like to pray the rosary — the wave being the “Hail Mary”. It could be called a Hail-Mary-go-round. Reality indeed.

  • Xabi Kiano

    Powerful piece, Anthony. Very much appreciated.

  • Jill

    This is so good and so true and so perfectly said that I have nothing to add. My heart is in perfect resonance with these words.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    Thank you. A beautiful testimony of faith, of love…indeed, of reality, amidst the un-real world in which we “live.”

  • Thomist

    OMG. How often that acronym is misused. Not here, Oh My God, how profound was this article? Thank you Anthony. Courses could be taught on these 12 paragraphs. Perhaps you do so at Providence College. They are truly blessed to have you as a professor. Now I am compelled to read your books. Thank you again!

  • Elizabeth

    Years ago I returned from the Holy Land with a carved statue of Mary. It was carved from olive wood. I bought it for half price and thought it would be a lovely gift for someone. As I had no particular person in mind at the time, I put the statue on a little table at which I work, read and write. Soon Mary seemed to belong exactly where I had put her. She stood straight and tall in the midst of everything: meals, books, paper, clutter. So not only did I decide to keep her but I gave her a new title: Maria in Medias Res or Mary in the Middle of Things. When I share her title with friends, they love it and adopt it because anyone who comes to know Mary in her fullness finds her in everywhere.

    • Thomist

      Beautiful, I too shall adopt, “Mary in the Middle of Things”!

    • Sheila

      Yes, Mary in the Middle of Things. How appropriate for today’s lifestyle. I love it.

  • M. Beach

    This article blew me away with its beauty and truth. I forwarded it to all my dear friends.

  • DL

    For this sceptic who thought that what should belong to Christ rather than to his mother, your ‘ Our Lady of Reality’ strikes the right chord. Thank you.

  • Veritas

    Another masterpiece by Mr. Esolen. One concern, however: why do we compare Mary to Eve? The New Eve, a Second Eve….?

    To me, Eve brought misery upon the human race by allowing the devil to deceive her; and she in turn lured Adam into the pit. Yes, I’ve heard these comparisons with Eve before, but they don’t make any sense. Mary, being perfect and being the mother of our Lord, is far better than Eve.

    • grzybowskib

      Mary is called the New Eve because she brought redemption into the world by giving birth to Jesus. She corrected Eve’s mistake.

    • “Mary, being perfect and being the mother of our Lord, is far better than Eve.”

      Yes. That is why Mary is the new Eve. She is the new woman, i.e., the woman that Eve should have been. And Christ is the new Adam. Sin and death came through Adam and Eve; redemption and life come through Jesus Christ–who came from the spotless womb of his immaculate mother Mary.

    • Romulus

      She is the new Eve because she and the first Eve are the only women ever to come into the world entirely free of sin and its disorienting effect. Both were presented with a radical choice, to be conformed to God’s will, or to refuse. The first Eve refused, and is our mother according to the flesh, the original source (with Adam) of the Fall and its consequences which pursue us to this day. The new Eve submitted to God’s will (as her son did later). She is our mother in Christ, who brought redemption into the world. The Redemption is a recapitulation, which is why we speak of Sunday, the day of Resurrection, as the eighth day — the first day of the new week, a new cycle in time. Baptistries and baptismal fonts are traditionally designed in an octagon shape. This is why.

  • Sheila

    In God’s “divine” timeline and plan, Mary, the new Eve, comes along, and she just gets it. Every thought, every word, every single choice… and at every turn. She freely gets it all right….all of the time. We on the otherhand, struggle every day of our lives to make those good and honorable choices. Choices that could affect our own lives or the lives of others. “Shall I think this, shall I say that, or maybe I should do this”.

    This article that I’m reading today is from yesterday’s posting. How timely, appropriate and welcoming it is for me. It is more necessary for me to read this today for it speaks to my soul directly and calls me to pray “Our Lady of Right Choices” please guide me today to choose the most appropropriate words that will bring healing.
    I appreciate and thank you Mr Elosen for your timely and thoughtful article.

  • Drake Steed

    I just finished a beautiful little book, The Reed of God, by Caryl Houselander, which is a meditation on the “real” aspects of Mary’s life. Mystical, poetic, philosophical, the book draws the reader closer to Mary in an intimate way. Dr. Esolen’s essay reminded me of this book, especially in the evocative images of a simple peasant woman–thrusting her hands in the dough, milling grain, etc. Houselander also offers evocative images, and connects them to deep, yet accessible theological and Christological insights, in a style reminiscent of other mystics like John of the Cross.

  • Frank Attanucci

    Kudos, Dr. Esolen for a beautiful post! It provides me with an opportunity for sharing an excellent essay about Mary written in 1943 by philosopher Charles De Koninck: “Ego Sapientia.” As De Koninck writes in the Forward:

    “How can all that Wisdom says of itself in the Book of Wisdom really apply to the Virgin Mary; What relationship can be established between this created wisdom and the Nigra sum sed formosa—I am black but beautiful of the Song of Songs? These are questions we have proposed to answer. Of course we do not intend to innovate: you will see this by the constant usage we make of the doctors of the Church and of the commentators. The texts that the liturgy especially dedicates in their mystical sense to the Mother of God will only be used to illustrate conclusions arrived at from looking solely at the literal sense of other passages in the Holy Scriptures.”

    De Koninck’s highly-recommended essay can be found on-line.

  • GrahamUSA

    My consistent response to the “trans” phenomenon is to say that men dressing as women expresses contempt for the feminine, for the very idea of a woman. The idea that there is no fixed gender identity makes an incoherent mess of the civil right of “same-sex marriage” and yet in this new unreality no one has the imagination or courage to ask the question what could anyone possibly mean by a same-sex marriage. Our Lady of Reality pray for us indeed! I have often admitted that Mary made instant sense to me as an adult convert as well as a life-long bachelor. I meet so many divorced men and women that I sometimes despair about marriage as well as so much that Catholics must now confront and with literally no allies in the American culture.

  • Tamsin

    At a time when the elites teach us that everything is “narrative”, and Justice is the advantage of the stronger (narrative), we certainly do need Our Lady of Reality. Robert Conquest’s recent death occasioned the remembrance of his work telling the story of the death by communism of millions of people in the Soviet Union. His story was true. Real people died, while other people around the world denied the possibility of so many deaths in order to preserve a competing narrative that communism could work there as elsewhere. Today, people are asking if communism could now work with greater computing power that Stalin did not have.

    Our Lady of Reality, pray for us.

  • I have always admired Mary’s sacrificial life, her obedience and devotion and of course the example she set for all of us. But Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, the healer and forgives my sins. I can’t imagine directing my prayers to anyone else. Nor do I read anywhere in Scriptures where Jesus asks us to pray to anybody but Him and His Father.

    • kathleen

      What about the miracle at Cana?

    • BrotherSun

      We do not pray “to” Mary, but properly, we ask her to pray for us. As you know from James 5:16, we are told to pray for one another. And as we know from 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul asks others to “imitate me,” it is clearly Biblical to imitate holy people, by way of following Jesus.

    • C.Caruana

      Who interceded with Christ for the couple in Cana? And did Jesus not respond to her plea immediately , performing his first public miracle at her request? Enough said.

  • Does anyone see a danger in placing in Mary the perfection, and many of the same powers, as Jesus Himself? She is honored by a thin thread of separation: she is the agent of redemption, but not the redemption itself. It seems to me task enough to grasp the profound mystery of God made man, and to experience that same God in the person of Jesus, God among us, even now. We risk multiplying our deities with a perfect woman who immaculately conceived, and ascended into heaven. Not only that, but her person seems multiplied by function and geography across the world, not even something we do by name or homage to the Christ. I pose this argument: matters have gotten out of hand.

    • C.Caruana

      Not at all. Real Catholic devotion to Mary leads straight to Jesus Christ and to our Trinitarian God. You have to live it to prove it.

    • Michael

      Out of hand….?! Hardly. As the temple and the ark of the covenant were made holy by the presence of what they contained, so is Mary. Even in the absence of the ark itself the temple still had a place that was the “Holy of Holies”, permanently sanctified and sacred ground simply because the ark might be found therein. In Roman times the ark itself was lost yet the High Priest alone, and on one day per year, was permitted entry behind the curtain to gain access to this place. This does not equate the power of the place with the power of its contents: only the contents could sanctify the place, and not vice versa. So, in fact, it is that the very presence of Christ sanctifies the body of the Virgin – and pre-sanctifies it as a place made ready to provide the flesh which would become Him. So Mary truly magnifies Christ by the very nature of her being: she is one of us, made truly and forever set apart by the fact of her intimacy with His body. The fact of her place of honour in the Catholic tradition is thereby a testimony to the nature of Him who dwelt therein, and has nothing to do with any grace or “power” that she has in virtue of herself. She is our mother, as we are His adopted brothers and sisters, but all of us are only and always elevated by Him alone. She is simply first among the fallen children of Adam, and made greatest by her proximity to Him.
      One of her apt titles is, in fact “Ark of the Covenant” for the very reason that Catholics see the old testament liturgy and worship as a prefigure of our own, and recognize that the vessel of the most High is itself a permanently sanctified and holy object.