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 is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.