Editor’s note: Catholic devotions: why do they matter, what are they made of, what are they are not. In a strong and prescriptive phrase in his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote “we ought to praise not only the building and adornment of churches, but also the images and veneration of them according to what they represent.” He seemed to press the point even further, writing “we should show our esteem for the relics of the saints by venerating them and praying to the saints. We should praise visits to Station Churches, pilgrimages, indulgences, jubilees, crusade insults, and the lighting of candles in churches.” For some, these devotions are the spiritual life-blood of the believing Church; for others they may seem simplistic or quaint. But in the spirit of our founder, we, too, seek to explore and understand the powerful role of devotions in the Church today.
“I am slow when it comes to these holy ladies.”
I used to say this jokingly to describe my relationship with the Virgin Mary. I have never had that strong of a devotion towards Our Lady of anything. Yet my appreciation for her has grown over time, and I believe that she has something very valuable to offer to our Christian faith.
First, I think that our general understanding of Mary's importance can risk being slotted into two categories: too much, and too little. “Too much”, is when we make the mistake of worshipping Mary, which no one in their right mind should do. Some Protestants think that Catholics engage in such behaviours, but this is more of a misunderstanding than anything else. “Too little” is when we think that Mary really ain't that special; she is just like one of us. There is some truth to this, but only to a certain extent. All arguments for or against Marian devotions essentially circle around her identity, and it is the focus of this short blog entry.
The key to understanding the role of Mary is the Fiat: the Yes, the “that it be done” uttered by her during the Annunciation. It is the Yes that renders her completely available to the will of God, to the extent that the Son of God enters history through her womb. It is true that many of us can more or less relate to this sentiment. If God truly is who he claims to be, then we ought to make ourselves available to his will, so to discover our true vocation. As we allow ourselves to be transformed by Christ, and that others meet Christ through us, we become a kind of theotokos (God-bearer) as well.
But we would be mistaken to think that our lives and circumstance are just like Mary’s (see: too little). Like the rest of creation, Mary is also created by God; yet the Yes that she said on behalf of creation signifies so much more than any whole-hearted consents that have been offered to the Lord in history. In fact, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI boldly proclaims this in the book Mary, the Church at the Source:
The Church learns concretely what she is and meant to be by looking at Mary … the more purely a man receives God's grace, the more obvious is his readiness not to keep it for himself, his readiness to let everyone participate in it. Jesus' Mother, who for her Son's sake was granted the highest believing and loving readiness, is therefore at once the archetype that transcends us and the model we are to imitate and that helps us to do so.Not only does Mary set a good example for us in terms of being available to God; she is the example par excellence. This is not a case of us admiring our peer for her courage and humility. It is because Mary is the example of what the Church is to be. No matter how holy a person is, we would never say that she should be imitated by the entire Church vis-à-vis her relationship with God. The exception is Mary. Again, this is not a matter of “Mary is like the Church”; rather, it is “the Church should be like Mary”. To say that Mary is worthy of imitation by us Christians is one thing; that she is worthy of imitation by the Church is quite another. When I first learned this in a theology course, I did not quite comprehend its ground-breaking significance. I do not claim that I have now come to a full comprehension of it, but it does irreversibly change my perspective on Mary, and hence Marian devotions in general.
We need role models: mentors from whom we seek counsel, and that we imitate one way or another. Some are necessarily better than others. With Mary, we are not saying that she is merely a good example, but that she is the perfect example, even for the Church. We do not blindly seek our mentors for their own sake, lest it becomes idolatry. We seek their wisdom, and we try to follow their footsteps. They are not the destination; rather, they lead us and journey with us to the destination. The same can be said of Mary: her entire life and being is in relation to Christ in the most complete sense. How often do we turn to this perfect role model of ours, whom Jesus has given to us as our Mother? It is easy to say that “well, those people treat Mary as if she is a god”, but the focus here is wrongly cast. What about us? Are there any obstacles in our hearts that prevent us from turning to Mary, and allowing her to lead and journey with us to Christ?