I admire the work of the late Irish-Canadian-American novelist, Brian [bree-Ahn] Moore. Three of his books in particular: Catholics (1972); Cold Heaven (1983); and Black Robe (1985 – and made into a film worth watching). His novels are concise: Catholics, the story of an American Jesuit sent to an Irish island monastery with the aim of shutting down the monks’ practice of the Latin Mass, is only 108 pages, whereas Black Robe, about Jesuits in 17th-century Canada, is more than twice as long, yet still short compared to most contemporary fiction. And I have a story to tell about Cold Heaven.
One day in 1983, a colleague came into my office to ask if I knew Moore’s work. I did. She asked if I would read the manuscript of Cold Heaven. I said yes.
A few days later in our weekly editorial meeting, I was asked for my opinion of Moore’s story, which is the tale of a lapsed-Catholic woman who receives a visitation from Our Lady – and rejects it.
“I like it,” I said, “so far. But I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve read the rest of it.”
Two others who’d read it laughed, and the woman who’d given me the manuscript, said: “I’m afraid that’s all there is, Brad.”
Moore could be concise to the point of abrupt.
Anyway, the point of this column isn’t Moore’s taut art, but what I take to be his conviction in Cold Heaven that the world no longer honors the Blessed Virgin – and, not just his conviction, but the fact itself.
When our “sophistication” leads us to assume apparitions (to Catherine Labouré, Bernadette Soubirous, and the children of La Salette and Fátima, just to note a few of the approved appearances) are nothing more than the fantasies of disturbed teenagers or psychotic nuns or avaricious scammers – in other words, not genuine visitations – then it’s a short step to believing that Mary was just another of those disturbed teenagers. And Jesus just another charismatic attention seeker: Mary as Sharon Falconer; Jesus as Elmer Gantry.
Of all the poisonous aspects of the Reformation, none is more tragic, saving the disunity it caused, than the elimination of Mary from the heart of Christianity.
Of course, I know too many superb, moral, and loving Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and non-denominational Protestants to believe that those who live on in the echo of the big bang of circa 1500 A.D. are per se anti-Catholic.
What I don’t understand is how one can believe in the Trinity and, therefore, the Incarnation and not venerate the one through whom God became man – the one who stood at the foot of the Cross. She is the very model of holiness and fidelity and courage. And this is true whether or not you believe in her Immaculate Conception or her Assumption.
As evidence of what’s been lost, one may simply cite the persistent objection that Catholics worship Mary; that every time we recite a Hail Mary or ask for her intercession, we are making her part of a Quadrinity. But all you need do is to think about it for a second to know that’s not true.
High Church Anglicans and Episcopalians may venerate Mary and, thus, acknowledge their connection to the Catholicism that’s the genesis of their faith, but other Protestants, in their passion for simplicity in belief and practice endorse the majesty of the Theotokos (“God-bearer”) mostly in their purchases of Christmas cards.
But, friends, she is the God-bearer! No doubt Jesus resembled her, as, surely, he must, sharing her DNA. And he also resembled her in being without taint of original sin.
This from G.K. Chesterton (in The Well and the Shallows) could stand for anyone growing up Protestant in a Protestant town (as I did):
I was brought up in a part of the Protestant world which can best be described by saying that it referred to the Blessed Virgin as the Madonna. Sometimes it referred to her as a Madonna; from a general memory of Italian pictures. . . .It amounted to saying that a Protestant must not call Mary “Our Lady,” but he may call her “My Lady.”
The early Protestant reformers were pleased to honor “the mother of God.” Yet Luther worried that “we give her all too high an honor for she is accorded much more esteem than she should be given or than she accounted to herself.”
Of Our Lady’s modesty, none will doubt, although why Luther should assume anything about Mary’s view of herself seems little more than reinforcement of his view that she receives too much esteem from Catholics. It’s as though to defeat Catholicism he had to denigrate the greatest woman who ever lived. The one full of grace.
It is true, of course, that salvation does not come from Mary, but only from her Son. But salvation itself is an entirely human thing, which is why Mary, wholly human, is given an intercessional role. How can one overlook the angel Gabriel’s salutation: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. . . .The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Lk. 1:28 and 35) Were such words ever said, before or since, to any other person?
I’m willing to concede Protestant reluctance, since, after all, both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bernard of Clairvaux never accepted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. But they did not deny she is mediatrix, and that is the heart of the problem for Protestants who believe that profession of Christ’s lordship is sufficient for salvation. No mediation is required.
Still, there’s hope, As the editors (Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby) of Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary write:
The absence of Mary not only cuts Protestants off from Catholic and Orthodox Christians; it cuts us off from the fullness of our own tradition. We have neither blessed Mary nor allowed her to bless us.
*Image: The Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503-19 [The MET, New York]. This sfumato drawing (not on display at The MET!) is possibly a study for Leonardo’s (unfinished) painting, Virgin, Infant Jesus, and Saint Anne, now at the Louvre, Paris:
You may also enjoy:
Taynia-Renee Laframboise’ Our Lady Goes to War
Anthony Esolen’s Our Lady of Reality