Catholics love Mary. Every year approximately 5 million people visit Lourdes and Fatima, 1.5 million travel to Knock, and a staggering 15-20 million visit the Marian Shrine in Guadalupe. Veneration of the Mother of God is almost engrained in the Catholic DNA.
So why could I not bring myself to like Mary? I’ve travelled to Lourdes, said countless Rosaries, stared at statues until my eyes ached, just trying to feel something. But it never came. Many people in my parish have a great devotion to Mary, so I always felt guilty about being a bit huffy when the statue of Our Lady as she appeared in Lourdes was brought out on a Friday evening. I managed somewhat better on Saturday mornings with the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. But still, I would groan if the choir elected to sing “Lady of Knock” or “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” during Mass in May or at the Requiem Mass of a devoted parishioner. (I am still quite adamant that neither should be used in the Liturgy out of respect for good taste at least, but that is for another day…). When some Marian hymns crept into the Liturgy for no apparent reason, I was always very concerned about the intrusion of popular piety on the public prayer of the Church. And so, I was a terrible Catholic. (That’s certainly how I felt).
“The Devil hates Mary,” I read in countless blogs and articles. I continually felt I was fighting for the wrong side, but no matter how much I tried I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything resembling love for this Woman who appeared so alluring to seemingly everyone, but was too sickly-sweet for me – eyes fixed towards the heavens in a gentle gaze, hands folded softly, with perfect porcelain skin and delicate robes. This was not someone I recognised as the Mother of God. “What is wrong with me?” I hammered God repeatedly with that question.
Eventually, I accepted the answer. There was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t hate Mary. Catholics don’t have to be devoted to Our Lady of X, Y, or Z. I don’t have to believe that Mary appeared in Knock or in Lourdes or anywhere else for that matter. These are private devotions, and not central to the Catholic faith. (If they help you in your faith life, that’s brilliant – whatever genuinely brings people closer to God is always a good thing). So who was the Mary I sought? I decided to go back to the Mary I felt I could trust. The Mary who cradled her Son in birth and in death. The Mary of the Bible. The Ark of the Covenant, the Daughter of Zion, the New Eve.
Finally, I could see her. Not as a mass-produced statue or painting, not as the object of pious exercises, but as the Mother of God. Understanding how Scripture unfolded to reveal the immense majesty of Mary changed everything for me. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel” (Genesis 3:15). That’s more like it! I could never really imagine the Mary of Lourdes or Knock or anywhere else actually crushing the serpent’s head (any depictions of this seem ultra-gentle and too nice to me, almost as though she is caressing it with her foot rather than crushing it). Again, when we see depictions of her “clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1), or “crowned with twelve stars (Rev.12:1), these appear to be such pale imitations of the reality Scripture describes. This young woman, who speaks few words in Scripture but who is vital to God’s plan for salvation, has been placed at the centre of the battle between good and evil. Not as a mighty warrior, or an angry mother wishing to avenge the death of her Son, but a woman who stands silent and ready, poised, prepared at all times to follow God’s will.
It was this silent readiness that drew me to the next link in my journey to Mary. When in Drumalis for a training workshop some time ago, I found a few spare minutes to browse the bookshelves, and as I came to the end of what I thought had been a fruitless endeavour, the words caught my eye: “A Woman Wrapped in Silence.” Reading the blurb, I discovered that this book was a lengthy narrative poem written by John W. Lynch based on a Biblical understanding of Mary and her life. And as I began to read, I realised that this was the first time outside Scripture that I had found what I could describe as a truly human portrait of Mary. It is a beautiful and powerful read, one which I continually go back to in prayer. It has helped me tremendously with my relationship with Mary and with Christ.
Finally, I can say that I love Mary. I love Mary who said Yes to God, who gave birth in the feeding place of the animals to a Son who would give Himself up to death by the most violent and cruel means, so that he would become the Bread of Life and the Saviour of the world. At last, I know how to thank her and to love her.
I’d like to finish by sharing just one of many passages from “A Woman Wrapped in Silence” which has given me countless opportunities for contemplation and prayer.
She turned to leave. A woman in the dusk before a tomb. Her veils were on her and her step was slow, and looking, she could see upon a hill a cross stabbed upright in the earth, as if it were a sword that should not be withdrawn. She paused a moment. But there was no need or reason now for her to stay. She knew. This was an ended cross and was a past. She was a woman who had borne a Son. This was a cross. And on it He had died.