Spaced evenly in front of the floor-to-ceiling shelves lining three sides of the large room, the four shop clerks were watching . . . three shirts, in one pile on a waist-high shelf on the right-hand wall. This was a store in Moscow, in the then Soviet Union about 30 years ago, and it was a typical store of the time.
In a movie called Moscow on the Hudson, released a few years later, a Soviet musician defects to New York City. His host takes him to an American grocery store. Standing in the cereal aisle, overwhelmed with all the choices he can make, he shakes wildly for a few seconds, and then passes out.
Those new to the Church — who had lived, in relation to the Mother of God, in the religious equivalent of 1979 Moscow — may feel similarly overwhelmed by the exuberance and the apparent chaos of the way Catholics speak to and of Mary. It disconcerts them, often upsets them, and sometimes even repels them, as if someone who loved newly mowed lawns with well-trimmed shrubs and carefully arranged flower beds was suddenly thrown into the Amazon jungle with its wild, astonishing abundance of plants and the blindingly bright flowers. It’s all too much.
They had known her only as “Mary,” and in more formal traditions as “the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and just maybe as “Our Lady,” but that would be about it. Now they enter a world in which she is called Our Lady of this and that, with hundreds of variations, and Mother of this and that, with dozens of variations, and Immaculate and Morning Star and Seat of Wisdom and true Ark of the Covenant and Tower of Ivory and Gate of Heaven and Daughter of Zion — and many, many more titles for which they were not prepared.
This is one of the parts of Catholic life for which no amount of reading and instruction can prepare you. Of the dozens of converts I know well, every one felt at least disconcerted at the number of ways Catholics spoke of Mary. You can learn the theology behind all the titles, but understanding them in books, where you find them nicely arranged, and experiencing them in life, where they come at you fast and hard, are very different.
Imagine if the man thrown into the jungle had been raised in the deserts of the American Southwest and gone to school there to study tropical plants. He may know everything there is to know about the plants of the jungle, but the world he knows has only rocks and sand and cacti and scrub plants. The desert gives him his image of what the normal world looks like. The jungle is going to overwhelm him.
I bring this up because the new Catholics’ reaction tells us something about the Catholic faith itself that isn’t always seen or remembered: the enormous creativity and invention, the extraordinary fertility, of the Catholic faith. “It’s a jungle out there,” but that’s a good thing.
Because the growth is not wild and destructive like cancer, but is the fruitful growth of a well-developed and wildly fruitful ecosystem. The multiplication of titles follows from the Catholic knowledge of who Mary is and what God has done and is doing in and through her. In the life of the Church, this knowledge does not remain simply theoretical. It gets made practical, is incarnated, and not just once, but over and over again.
For example, Catholics everywhere feel that they know Mary, that through their brother and Savior Jesus she is their mother as well as his. Because Catholics everywhere love her as their mother, she becomes local, a mother of particular people and a woman of particular places, while remaining universal.
And so all over the world we find churches and shrines called “Our Lady of This” and “Our Lady of That,” but the Lady each claims is the same Lady. She is no less Our Lady of Guadalupe because she is Our Lady of Knock. She is no less Our Lady of Kibeho because she is Our Lady of Lourdes.
How you respond to this depends on how you think about it. You could see it as all chaos and confusion, but you could also see it as a great sign of God’s love for all mankind and the reconciliation of peoples in which they remain themselves. The people devoted to Our Lady of Kibeho may look very different, eat different foods, speak different languages, dress differently, say different prayers than the people devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the countries might even have been enemies, but if they meet, they will know each other as children of the same Mother.
Uniformity and simplicity would be bad signs, signs of a limited and constrictive salvation, of a Mother who wants all of her children to fit a mold and does not love them for their different gifts and personalities. Abundance is a sign of life and a sign of the life that gives life.
The Church has so many names for Mary because she has so many loving children. The Church is Marian in its imaginative fertility, not least in the ways she speaks of Mary herself.
David Mills’ Discovering Mary:
Questions and Answers About the Mother of God
will be published by Servant in late summer.