I cannot remember exactly why I knelt before a statue of the Virgin Mary for the first time. It was about a year ago. I suspect my priest told me to pray a few Hail Marys after confession. I’d seen parishioners pray on the kneeler before her at the front of the sanctuary. As a new Catholic, I’d been testing out various “features” of my new faith home. Why not say my prayers there?
Usually, the first time I experiment with a new spiritual practice my analytical mind takes over and ponders what I’m doing and whether it “makes sense.” This is a perfectly good way to undermine any spiritual benefit that might accrue to me (but, alas, most of the time, that’s the way it works for me at first). For example, when I took the Rosary for a spin a couple of times, my mind was fixated on following precisely the order of the prayers, while I mentally wondered how this ancient practice could shape a soul. In other words, I did anything but enter into the praying the Rosary as such. I assume I’ll eventually learn to appreciate the practice.
But when I knelt before the statue of Mary at my home parish that afternoon, I was startled. I moved my eyes from her delicate toes (that suggested the feet beneath her gown that crushed the serpent), to her gently outstretch arms, to her fixed gaze. Her focus was distant and yet caring, as if she was looking upon the millions who beseeched her. Her lips betrayed just a hint of a smile and her fondness for those millions. I knew instantly that included me, this sorry excuse for a man kneeling before her.
My ever-vigilant mind tried to kick in to dismiss what was happening: This is an idealized Mary; the artist crafted the statue in a traditional way to emphasize her youthful beauty and innocence, and to suggest her virtue. Normally when I observe art with the artist’s intention in view, it’s my mind that converses with the art. As much as my mind whirled with such thoughts before Mary, they were drowned out by the murmuring of my heart. I knew at that moment that Mary loved me and was praying for me.
The statue was acting like an icon, a “window into heaven.” For a moment, I knew a reality that both transcends this world and pervades its every nook and cranny. I did not expect or even hope that something like this would happen. But it did. And, as I said, it startled me. And pleased me.
This is one of many things that have surprised and pleased me as I’ve begun my journey into the country called “Catholic.” Though I was baptized as a baby and took First Communion as a boy, the bulk of my religious life—over fifty years—has been spent traversing the evangelical world. After attending a Protestant seminary, I served as a Presbyterian pastor for ten years, and for the last two decades, I was managing editor and then editor-in-chief of the leading evangelical magazine in the nation, Christianity Today. This blog post begins an occasional series of my first impressions of this strange (to many of my Protestant sensibilities, anyway) and wonderful country. I want to note them before they become such a part of my routine that I hardly recognize their wonder.
My new affection for Mary is as good a place to start as any—especially this month. The tradition of dedicating May to Mary dates from the Middle Ages. The reasons are not hard to fathom. As St. John Henry Newman put it in his Meditations and Devotions:
The first reason is because it is the time when the earth bursts forth into its fresh foliage and its green grass after the stern frost and snow of winter and the raw atmosphere and the wild wind and rain of the early spring. It is because the blossoms are upon the trees and the flowers are in the gardens. It is because the days have got long, and the sun rises early and sets late. For such gladness and joyousness of external Nature is a fit attendant on our devotion to her who is the Mystical Rose and the House of Gold.
But I especially like what Pope Paul VI said in his encyclical Mense Maio:
We are delighted and consoled by this pious custom associated with the month of May, which pays honor to the Blessed Virgin and brings such rich benefits to the Christian people. Since Mary is rightly to be regarded as the way by which we are led to Christ, the person who encounters Mary cannot help but encounter Christ likewise.
Most Protestants fail to grasp that Mary’s role is to lead us to “the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” The compassion of Mary is nothing less than the compassion of Jesus on the cross infused into her soul. And the grace we experience in and through Mary is nothing but the grace of God. So fearful are Protestants of trafficking in idolatry—worshiping the creation rather than the Creator—that they are hesitant to give any person, even Mary, her due. It may be the case that some Catholics have wandered into the spiritual swamp of idolatry, but understandable errors of a very few should not take away from the extraordinary nature and role of Mary.
In talking about my conversion to Catholicism with some women friends, I’ve heard more than once, “I could become Catholic except for its view of women.” I know some balk at the fact that women cannot become priests—perhaps a subject for another day. Otherwise, I suspect that Catholic men, lay and clerical, have been no more sexist than Protestants or unbelievers over the centuries. But my friends fail to recognize that it is one woman in particular through whom God became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And that this woman, by God’s grace, is “full of grace” and the means by which we grasp the mercy of Jesus. It may be true that certain of the Church’s men can disparage women, but that doesn’t seem to be God’s problem, who uses women, and one woman extraordinarily, to do the most important task he’s given his Church: to make Christ’s mercy real to those troubled by sin and afflicted with suffering as they traverse the hard roads of this present life.