These are days of Marian wonder. We celebrated her birth on Sept. 8, the Holy Name of Mary on Sept. 12 and her designation as Our Lady of Sorrows on Sept. 15. And now, on the doorstep of October, we prepare for a month-long observation of that most Marian of all devotions: the Rosary.
Of course, we celebrate Mary because we love her. After all, she’s our Mother. But there’s another aspect of her prominence that calls for a little deeper consideration. She was conceived without original sin, making her the most perfect mortal the world has ever seen — “as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature” (Lumen Gentium, The Church).
It’s easy to see that perfection portrayed in images and statues of Our Lady in churches and pilgrimage sites throughout the world. It’s particularly noticeable in the art of the Middle Ages, when beauty represented holiness and purity. There are hundreds of Medieval representations of Mary in all her grace and loveliness.
Here’s the thing: While we cannot help but admire Our Lady’s perfection, some of us may find it a bit intimidating. For the Church teaches that Mary is not only our Mother. She’s also a role model of Christian discipleship par excellence: What she is, we should strive to be.
The Catechism instructs: “From the Church [the Christian] learns the example of holiness and recognizes its model and source in the all-holy Virgin Mary” (No. 2030).
Imitating someone who’s perfect can be daunting — but that’s exactly what the Church calls us to do.
A good place to start might be simply reminding ourselves that Mary was a real-life human being. She faced many of the same daily struggles that we all have to deal with.
“Some have simply walked away from Mary,” says Elizabeth Johnson, of the Sisters of St. Joseph and professor of theology at Fordham University. She’s the author of Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. “It’s shortsighted and foolish to throw out this woman with such an important role in the life of Jesus and the Church. Instead, we have to throw off the dust and let the real image of Mary emerge.”
That real image includes Mary’s identity as a true Daughter of Zion — a Jewess who lived under Roman oppression, explains Johnson. The Blessed Mother knew poverty and faced an uncertain future. She labored for the bare necessities. She had to make time in her busy day for her devotions. She may have had disagreements with members of her extended family.
In other words, she may have been perfect, but her life was far from it.
Mary suffered greatly in dramatic ways that many of us can relate to, even if only indirectly, in our troubled world.
As a young girl, she probably witnessed the ransacking of her village by Roman military forces and helped scrape together resources to pay the high government taxes. She lost her child in a crowd for three days. She was forced at a moment’s notice to flee to a foreign country and live there as a refugee. And she saw her son hunted down, tortured and brutally executed.
Mary’s faithfulness in spite of adversity is demonstrated in the Magnificat, the prayer attributed to Mary when she visited her cousin, Elizabeth. The prayer, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, glorifies God for all he’s done in her life and testifies to his power in overcoming oppression.
“You could read the Magnificat on some Marxist banner somewhere,” says Mark Shea, the Register columnist who’s also senior content editor of CatholicExchange.com and author of a forthcoming book, titled Behold Your Mother: An Evangelical Discovers The Blessed Virgin Mary. “That’s some pretty revolutionary stuff. This idea that Mary was some kind of docile weenie is rubbish.”
It’s Mary’s courage and insight that we should admire, Shea insists. “She does things and sees things instantly that the Apostles still didn’t get after years and years of training. She assents to things that it takes real guts to assent to.”
Striking a balance between realizing Mary’s greatness and appreciating her human experience requires a better knowledge of who she is as a person, says Marians of the Immaculate Conception Father Donald Calloway.
“In fact, we should be pitying her for what she underwent, rather than asking her to pity us for what we’re undergoing,” adds the priest, who holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. “The sword that pierced her heart was a scimitar — a sword that, once thrust in, cannot be taken out again.”
The best way to get to know Mary is through prayer, says Father Calloway. We should simply talk to her, he adds, asking her to show herself to us, and allowing ourselves to come into communion with her.
If even that seems a stretch, begin with Jesus. “We should think of the Fourth Commandment,” he advises. “Honor your father and your mother. Mary is Jesus’ mother, and he wants us to honor her as he does. We should ask him to introduce us to his mother and to teach us what he wants us to know about her.”
That’s exactly how Texas wife and mother of five Mercedes Vivoni got to know Mary. Her acquaintance began at age 4, when she learned to say the Hail Mary. The prayer gradually unfolded throughout her life as she came more and more to realize that there was a real, live person behind those words.
As she grew older and learned other prayers and songs about the Blessed Mother, she began to more fully visualize the person behind the image. She created such a real picture of Mary in her mind, she says, that she could visualize Mary accompanying her through every life situation as guide and companion.
“This has influenced my devotion to our Blessed Mother, and it’s the way I see her still today,” says Vivoni. “As I grew up, my image of her hasn’t changed. My unlimited devotion to her, respect and childlikeness have grown. She is the Mother of Jesus and my Mother, too.”
Stated another way: There’s really no reason to be intimidated by the Blessed Mother’s perfect example — and every reason to follow it.
Marge Fenelon writes from