Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of Nudging Conversions: A Practical Guide to Bringing Those You Love Back to the Church, and Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com.
In his 1981 book, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre pessimistically declared that the Enlightenment project has failed and the West is already lost, hopelessly corrupted down to the intellectual roots. His response? “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” (p. 263)
Journalist and author Rod Dreher, responding to MacIntyre’s call, has proposed the “Benedict Option” as the way to deal with the crisis in our civilization and the growing Christian persecution. Dreher is looking back to St. Benedict of old, but for all of St. Benedict’s many merits, perhaps MacIntyre was on to something when he proposed a “very different” St. Benedict. In fact, there is a “very different” alternative who has an even better track record at restoring culture and vanquishing enemies than the Father of Monasticism. Hidden in plain sight, she is, of course, Our Lady, and she offers us the Marian Option.
There are many reasons why we overlook Mary’s power and efficacy. For some perhaps devotion to the rosary seems too simple—for the soft-headed or those looking for Mary’s image in toast or tortillas. Or perhaps it is that the gentle handmaiden doesn’t resonate with our contemporary image of what powerful women do? Or perhaps it is the challenge to see that praying a rosary leads to real change. Regardless, what we forget at our peril is that there is a long and illustrious history of Mary intervening as a protector in the face of danger and a victor against the Church’s enemies.
If you are in Italy and ask the name of a relatively unknown church, you are likely to hear “Santa Maria della Qualcosa,” or St. Mary of Something, testifying to the number of churches in Italy named after Our Lady. It seems that every little town from Sevilla to St. Petersburg and every pocket of Catholicism in between has at least one if not several churches devoted to Our Lady. And many are filled with votive offerings—testimonies to prayers answered by Mary, including crutches, glasses, photos, and paintings.
In 1900, Henry Adams (1838-1918), grandson of President John Quincy Adams, and great-grandson of President John Adams, had a keen insight. While contemplating the new technology of modernity—the dynamos, he called them— at the World’s Fair, the protestant Adams declared that the power of these new inventions pales in comparison to one of the most powerful forces in the world: the Virgin Mary. What Henry Adams recognized over a century ago as he walked through the cities, churches, cathedrals and cemeteries was that the height of European culture was centered on devotion to Our Lady. Mary isn’t just another saint among many, but the saint par excellence. Conceived without sin and the Mother of God, every other human, no matter how saintly, simply cannot hold a candle to her.
The Marian Option, unlike the Benedict Option, doesn’t generally require anything drastic, like significant changes in one’s community, occupation, or location (although she may inspire you to do these later). What it does require is simply the full and active recognition that she is our mother and, therefore, a tremendous advocate of grace, protection, conversions, and victories through the rosary. Devotion to her, however, has the added benefit, like the Benedict Option, of renewing culture. Art, architecture, sculpture, music, poetry, liturgy, and learning have all been greatly inspired by her over the centuries.
It is, however, the simplicity of the Rosary that makes the Marian Option great. The night before the battle at Lepanto (1571) the Holy League soldiers and Pope Pius V, knowing they were outnumbered, prayed the rosary diligently. In their victory, Pope Pius V, recognizing the Virgin’s intercession, marked the day in the Church calendar as the feast of Our Lady of Victory (now known as Our Lady of the Rosary). A century later, in 1683, as soldiers from around Europe marched to Vienna to fight off the fierce Muslim Ottomans, they too prayed the Rosary. Although the underdogs, they won the great Battle of Vienna, thus saving Europe from the Muslim threat for centuries.
Another element of the Marian Option is the Marian Consecration, given to the world through St. Louis de Montfort. Its best-known adherent was Pope Saint John Paul II, who as a young man consecrated himself to Our Lady. His devotion to her and the consecration appeared both in his papal coat of arms symbolized by the large M on the lower right-hand corner, and in his papal motto, Totus Tuus, or totally yours—shorthand for de Montfort’s consecration.
Wojtyla’s life offers us something of a field guide for living under religious persecution. He faced it first under the Nazi’s deadly form of social engineering, which involved erasing certainly the Jews but also Poles from the Third Reich. Through a combination of determination, humor, prudence, and faith, he not only survived the war but also aided others, including many Jews. Then, under Soviet Communism, Wojtyla rose through the episcopal ranks, eventually becoming the second most powerful prelate in Poland. Cunning, patience, adapting to adversity, and again (as always) faith, helped him as the Bishop of Krakow and, later, as Pope John Paul II, the Bishop of Rome, to chip away at Communism and remind those behind the Iron Curtain the truth about themselves: that they were made to love and serve God, not the Soviet machine.
Throughout all of the trials, Wojtyla didn’t retreat (although he did attempt a type of retreat in a failed effort to join the Carmelites), but served the Church dramatically through Our Lady’s guidance. John Paul II is a prime example of one living the Marian Option and evidence that Mary will help us to live out our unique mission. Some may be called to live the Benedict Option and others, other options, but the easiest way to negotiate these and every struggle we face is simply through the Marian Option. As John Paul II explained, “For, ‘with maternal love she cooperates in the birth and development’ of the sons and daughters of Mother Church.” (Redemptoris Mater, 44).