Have you ever had one of those moments when you thought you understood something, but then in an instant, you realized that maybe you never really got it all along? I had one such “light bulb” moment the other day, and it’s totally changed the way I think about an important aspect of my faith: my relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. I recently went to a retreat and was a little disappointed when the priest announced his chosen topic. Since it was the month of May, it was something about Mary. As Catholics, we hear about Mary all the time, so much so that perhaps we forget to listen. This time, I did listen and had a real change of heart. At first, I thought my revelation was because of something the priest said, or maybe just the way he said it. But I see now that it was a moment of grace, a revelation of the Holy Spirit who opened my heart and mind to something that I didn’t even realize I needed.
All this time, I thought Mary and I were on pretty good terms. While it’s true that I didn’t grow up with any particular devotion to her – most non-Catholic Christians don’t – I never realized that all these years, I probably didn’t really love her. For me, in my Protestant upbringing, she was simply Jesus’ mother. Since becoming Catholic over two decades ago, I had heard or read a fair bit about this lady who was supposedly also my mother. I’d learned to pray the Rosary, heard the litany of descriptions attributed to her (for that matter, prayed the Litany of descriptions in her honour), seen countless depictions of her in art – some of them hanging in my own home, and even felt I had a basic understanding of the teachings associated with her.
Over the last 10 years, when I really starting delving into my Catholic faith more deeply, my affection for Mary inevitably grew. I understood the idea of intercession and figured that if I were asking someone to pray for my family, who better than Mary? As Jesus’ mother, she has always carried a lot of clout. (Don’t forget that incident at the wedding in Cana!) Always a visual person, I began to use imagery to help me think of Mary in different ways when I said the Rosary. At times, as I prayed my intentions – mostly for my family and close friends – I would envision Mary wrapping them in her protective mantle. On other occasions, I would imagine her whispering the names of my loved ones – usually my children – into Jesus’ ear, as if she were saying to Him, “Don’t forget about them.” I was comforted by these motherly images and, at some point, even consecrated my children to her care.
However, this wasn’t the first time that I’d had a point of connection with Mary. Early in my marriage, when my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, I felt a strong sense of Mary’s suffering in losing her only Son. I didn’t understand the significance of these thoughts at the time or even realize that it may have been Mary trying to reach out to me, to console me in my time of loss. But then another baby came along and life got busy. It was all I could do to keep up with basic prayers, so I kept my focus on Jesus. Little did I know that Mary would have led me to Him as well. Things had been rolling along for quite some years and, besides my obligatory rosary, I hadn’t given much thought to my relationship with Mary until the other day…
And then I had what I guess you’d call a “breakthrough” – this sudden, deeper understanding that what I was doing was good, but it wasn’t enough. All of these insights, ideas, and practices were helpful, but fell short of what God really wanted for me. Everything I was doing demonstrated a very healthy respect for Mary, but that‘s not the same thing as love. And, more importantly, for the first time I was able to see what it was that was putting me off, what was standing in the way of really loving her. It was two things.
First, I realized, that I was put off by Mary’s perfection. Though I’d never verbalized it or even consciously thought about it, the fact that Mary was free from all sin – both original and personal – made me feel that she was inaccessible to me. It felt so daunting…how could I possibly relate to this woman who was utterly perfect? Jesus was God, so it made total sense to me that He would be perfect, but what about Mary? She was a mere mortal, a woman like me. And then, suddenly something new hit me, and I understood. Besides the obvious reason that God needed a perfect vessel to bring His Son into the world, He also allowed her to be perfect to demonstrate that perfection is indeed possible, that our fallen race – through the grace of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection – has a chance to be restored to that state that existed before the fall of mankind. We only reach perfection in the next life, but Mary lived it on earth. Without Mary, we wouldn’t even know what that looks like!
But Mary’s perfection had always confounded me for another reason. In my mind, it somehow diminished her “yes.” If she were perfect, how could she not say “yes” to God? Her perfection made everything sound so much easier – like she had a free pass to heaven or something. Under the same circumstances, I boldly reasoned, I’d probably say “yes,” too. But the priest said something that promptly shot down this idea and made me rethink all my perceptions of Mary. He said that if Mary had not said “yes,” the Incarnation would never have happened. If Mary had not agreed to bear God’s Son, Jesus would not have been born. To be sure, God would have saved us some other way, since He is not constrained by our lack of cooperation. But the truth is, Mary did cooperate. In fact, she did more than simply cooperate; she gave her unreserved “yes.” It wasn’t like God had this short list of names of which she was merely the first – that if she said “no,” He would just move down to the next one. No, Mary was the ONLY woman ever to be born on this earth who was worthy to bear God’s Son.
And, as if that were not enough, I had another revelation that equally surprised me. The other thing that had always thrown me off about Mary went back to that imagery idea. Over the years, I had seen her depicted in many ways, most of them young and beautiful, to be sure. But it confused me somehow. There were so many different images of Mary that I didn’t quite know how to picture her in my mind. There was Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes, and so on. So, who was she? Will the real Mary please stand up! The moment of clarity came when I was reflecting on the Holy Trinity and how we like to make such strong distinctions between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. He is Three Persons but only one God.
We may know her by many different names, but she is really just the Blessed Virgin Mary. These various images of Mary aren’t meant to divide her, but rather to multiply her. She wasn’t merely a young girl of Jewish decent, so that only the people of Israel could claim her. In actuality, she belongs to all of us – we can all claim her as Mother! The Mexican people know her as Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Polish know her as Our Lady of Czestochowa, and the Irish know her as Our Lady of Knock. The list goes on and on! Practically every culture of the world has some way to see Mary as their mother – how beautiful is that?
Moreover, through her Assumption, Mary isn’t bound to a particular time or place. There is a “tomb” (of sorts) in Jerusalem – the place where she fell asleep – but it’s empty! She continues to live in heaven with Jesus, interceding on our behalf…and even making appearances from time to time when we need her most. I’d have to say that there’s probably nothing we need more in the world today than a mother’s love. It’s a rare mother who doesn’t love her children – even when those children don’t live up to her expectations or when they truly mess up. We can’t fully understand or describe how Mother Mary continues to work in salvation, but considering her role so far, it must be significant!
There is something about Mary, and it’s pretty extraordinary. She wants to be our mother and friend, our confidant and refuge. Love for Mary does nothing to diminish our love for Jesus. Instead, it expands our love for Him. And they both have something to teach us, especially about each other. Now, my prayer is not only “Mary, teach me to love your Son, Jesus.” It’s also “ Jesus, teach me to love your mother, Mary.”
– Kelley Holy