When I was a child, I knew nothing of the glorious cathedrals dedicated to Our Blessed Mother. I never heard of Notre Dame de Chartres or the more famous Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité de in Paris. I never knew of the towering music of Mozart and Schubert and Gregorian chant which incarnated the love of the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) into sensible, exalted forms. I never heard of the Alma Redemptoris Mater or the Salve Regina or the Tota Pulchra Est, Maria.
I never heard of Wordsworth’s famous line, “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast,” which he, a Protestant, applied to Mary, this Mother of the Lord. I never saw the magnificent statuary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art concretizing the Catholic love of Mary. I never heard of the Pietà of Michelangelo depicting the beauty of the Mother of God.
Whatever I learned about devotion to Mary, I received from my Irish Grandmother whose formal education ended with the third grade. She taught me, for example, that when I die, should they not allow me to enter by the front gates of Heaven, I should go around to the back and Our Lady, the Blessed Mother will let me in. This is because she has great love for me and will help me always.
Grandmother told me that Jesus set this up when he was dying a terribly painful death on a great Cross. That just before He died, He made me and everyone else Mary’s children, and that she would always be there for me. She would always love me – no matter what! And I should love her back!
Such childlike devotion has been of enormous help to me in my life – particularly in times of overwhelming life difficulties. I did not develop this view from the many formal obstacles I have encountered, such as ponderous professors who took themselves very seriously and who insisted that I plow through boring and sterile tomes written by academics who lived in metaphorical and real ivory towers.
I was amazed how quickly I was able to jettison the cumbersome balderdash of academe. How quickly and gratefully I reverted to the joy of my youth as I continuously recited and applied the first prayer I ever learned: “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”
For example, I recall being on a slow-moving, coal-burning night train, trudging across the Great Karoo of South Africa. The windows wouldn’t close. The lights wouldn’t work. The soot poured in through the open windows. I felt lonely and dirty and afraid.
So, I did my beads, i.e., my Rosary, and prayed as I envisioned the mysteries of Christ’s life, which were the main events of His death and redemptive sacrifice. I saw her there, He and my Mother, sharing His pain and His meaning. As the beads passed through my fingers I felt release, both emotional and physical and found, even with tears streaming down my cheeks, a calm and peace entering my being.
This is not the security blanket of the Peanuts comic strip. This is the presence of my heavenly Mother who has always been there for me at critical times. No amount of modern mockery or secular demolition can outweigh that.
How many millions of Catholics over the years have had the same experience? Yet there have been all kinds of clever or cute attempts, by parties of various stripes, to make nice with devotion to the BVM. In order to counter uncomfortable feelings that devotion to her is somehow detracting from devotion to Him, who is all and above all, some skittish Catholics have come up with fanciful stories and devices.
But I recall the story about the schoolboy rebutting a scoffing college professor who claimed that there is no difference between His (Jesus’) mother and my mother. The kid jauntily replies: “Yeah, but there is a big difference between the sons.” Touché.
Or then there’s the little kid, with his prayer for a bicycle unanswered, yelling at the statue of Jesus, “I’m gonna tell your mother!” The implication is clearly that the Mother of the Lord has great influence with the Divine One and will properly castigate the unresponsive Jesus. Okay.
And there are astronomical metaphors like He, being the sun, and she, being the moon, who shines only by reflection from Him – very true and very intellectual.
But none of this is sufficiently affective for me.
Like David fighting Goliath with a mere slingshot and some stones rather than with the fancy armor of Saul, each of us must choose our own weapons in this struggle called life. I choose the notion of a celestial mother loving me with profound and pervasive love.
And I find that love in my prayer: “Now and at the hour of my death.”
The “now” of this prayer is enormously important to me. I personally focus my spiritual life on the great now. Spirituality to me must be pragmatic and helpful.
For me, the academic tends more to irritate than to inspire. All my life I have been able to intuit or (without articulating the “why” of it) depend on the Blessed Mother for her immediate and ever-present assistance.
Since, similarly, I am deep into the existential indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the Lord, this approach – devotion to the loving Blessed Mother – is exceedingly meaningful to me.
Certainly, yesterday and tomorrow have some effect on my life, but the dominant dimension is now.
Which I find each time I say to her: “Pray for us (me) now.”
*Image: Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, 1603 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna].