In Defense of Exaggerated Marian Devotion
Protestants aren’t the only ones who find Catholic devotion to Mary a bit over-the-top sometimes. A lot of Catholics find other Catholics, including great Saints like Alphonsus Liguori and Louis de Montfort, to be a little “much” when talking about the Virgin Mary. I get it. Take the Salve Regina, for example: it calls Mary “Our Life, Our Sweetness, and Our Hope.” How is that kind of effusive flattery theologically defensible? After all, Our Life and our Hope is Jesus Christ.
Part of the answer is cultural and rhetorical. It’s not a coincidence that the most schmaltzy or exaggerated-seeming statements about Mary tend to come from Romantic Romance-language speakers (the Italians, French, and Spanish, especially).
But even more than that, these kind of lines come from devotional writings, meaning that they’re more like love letters to the Virgin Mary than they are like carefully-worded theological treatises. Blessed John Henry Newman, a comparatively-stuffy Englishman, points this out brilliantly:
And of all passions love is the most unmanageable; nay more, I would not give much for that love which is never extravagant, which always observes the proprieties, and can move about in perfect good taste, under all emergencies. What mother, what husband or wife, what youth or maiden in love, but says a thousand foolish things, in the way of endearment, which the speaker would be sorry for strangers to hear; yet they are not on that account unwelcome to the parties to whom they are addressed. Sometimes by bad luck they are written down sometimes they get into the newspapers; and what might be even graceful when it was fresh from the heart, and interpreted by the voice and the countenance, presents but a melancholy exhibition when served up cold for the public eye.
So it is with devotional feelings. Burning thoughts and words are as open to criticism as they are beyond it. What is abstractedly extravagant, may in particular persons be becoming and beautiful, and only fall under blame when it is found in others who imitate them. When it is formalised into meditations and exercises, it is as repulsive as love-letters in a police report. Moreover, even holy minds adopt and become familiar with language which they would never have originated themselves, when it proceeds from a writer who has the same objects of devotion as they have; and, if they find a stranger ridicule or reprobate supplication or praise which has come to them so recommended, they feel it as keenly as if a direct insult were offered to those to whom that homage is addressed.
The parody band Flight of the Conchords has a (slightly-racy) song called “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room,” in which the singer compliments a girl by saying things like “I can tell that you are the most beautiful girl in the … room,” and “when you’re on the street, depending on the street, I bet you are definitely in the top three good looking girls on the street.” The joke is that these carefully-nuanced statements make for terrible compliments. A man in love ought to think and speak of his beloved as if she’s the most beautiful woman on earth. Newman’s point is true of all devotional language, but in a special way of the way Catholics speak and think about Mary. Criticizing Catholics for exuberantly praising their mother Mary is like criticizing a child for buying a “#1 Dad” mug for his father.
Some of you, in reading this, might object. Shouldn’t we be careful not to exaggerate or use over-the-top or flowery language? No. There are two reasons for this. First, it limits the fullness of human emotional expression. Exaggeration for effect is a great way to emphasize a point, and it’s arbitrary to demand that it not be used. Second, rejecting exaggeration thwarts our ability to understand the Bible… because the Bible employs exaggeration.
I’ve mentioned before that parts of the Bible are metaphoric, but it’s important to recognize that parts of the Bible are also exaggerated. Exaggeration is a part of Jewish culture just as much as it is part of Mediterranean cultures. There’s a nod to this fact in 1 Samuel 18:6-8, after David kills Goliath:
As they were coming home, when David returned from slaying the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with songs of joy, and with instruments of music. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him; he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; and what more can he have but the kingdom?”
David has killed one guy, and the women are accrediting him with killing “tens of thousands.” Saul is annoyed by this, not because it’s not literally true, but because they only credit him with killing “thousands.” Remember this when you read the incredible body counts at certain parts of the Old Testament. The Jews did things with numbers that we English-speakers just don’t usually do.
Jesus uses a similar kind of rhetorical exaggeration in Matthew 18:8-9, in a passage that on its face would literally advocate mutilation:
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
But of course, we don’t find the followers of Christ mutilating themselves, or (for example) gouging our their eyes when they struggle with pornography. And speaking of mutilation, St. Paul says in Galatians 5:12 that he wishes that those preaching mandatory circumcision would just castrate themselves. He’s obviously exaggerating for effect. He doesn’t literally hope that will happen.
Nevertheless, it’s uncomfortable even to write that parts of the Bible are exaggerated, because it’s so deeply ingrained within us that things are either literally true or else they’re false. There’s a scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie in which Peter tries to use a metaphor around the alien Drax, and Rocket explains “His people are completely literal. Metaphors go over his head.” Drax then replies “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.”
Drax only has two categories: literal or lies. And so he doesn’t understand a lot of what’s going on around him. Watching him struggle is how it feels to watch a lot of religious debates. If you said that it was “raining cats and dogs out there,” he would denounce you as a liar because there weren’t actual animals falling from the sky. But now imagine that before you can respond, one of your friends jumps to your defense by saying that yes, actual animals did fall from the sky. The whole debate would be so surreal and so far off the mark of what you actually meant, and yet that’s exactly how many atheist-Christian debates go, in which people get bogged down debating whether a particular number is literal or false, as if those are the only two categories. That’s Drax Christianity.
And Drax Christianity is accompanied by outspoken Drax atheism. So, for example, after Ross Douthat explained to Bill Maher (an atheist) that the Bible was never intended to be understood as a science textbook, and that even the earliest Christians recognized this, Maher responds bizarrely:
So, you’re giving yourself license to say that some of the Bible is bull****. […] But the Bible does say, it’s funny, it says, “this is 100% true.” And the Bible says “you have to take it like that.” Now, if it’s not 100% true, I would say the whole thing falls apart.
Maher’s only got two categories; either it’s literal in the way that a science book is, or it’s a lie. So Bill cites to some (imaginary) Bible verses about how the Bible is “100% true” and therefore “you have to take it like that,” and concludes that it therefore can’t have any non-literal language. He’s a Drax atheist. He just doesn’t understand how normal people talk.
Can exaggeration be dangerous? Yes. But as Blessed Cardinal Newman points out, exaggeration is dangerous when it’s not recognized as such, when we treat a love letter like a police report. But the solution to that isn’t to resort to Drax Christianity or to quash all exaggerations and flourishes. It’s to recognize that there are a billion good reasons to embrace the fullness of human expression, including exaggeration, and to claim even exaggeration for Christ.