I’ve made no secret of my struggle with the Rosary. And while I’ve continued to struggle through fifteen years of dry Aves, clinging to my beads simply because sweet Mother Church said I should, I’d become fairly convinced that this pious practice would never be anything but a chore for me. “The Rosary just doesn’t suit my temperament,” I said, committed to praying it regardless.
And that might be true. But our God is a God of surprises, of generosity that knows no bounds, of foretastes of the Promised Land amid forty year treks through the desert. And last night he had something better for me.
I didn’t grow up with Mary. Getting to know her has been awfully hard for me. For years, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Marian devotion wasn’t paganism. Then I read Scott Hahn’s Hail, Holy Queen and determined that, as with everything else where I’d tested her, the Church knew what she was about. (And for proof, here’s everything I’ve written about the Blessed Mother.)
But accepting the Marian dogmas didn’t at all mean really loving the Blessed Mother. And I didn’t.
Or rather, I don’t.
Oh, I try to. I know I should. But there’s still that Protestant inside me screaming about my blasphemy, that 21st century Catholic wondering why I should even bother. I know all the answers on an intellectual level, but Mary’s never really been my mom. The best I’ve gotten is that she’s my best friend’s mom. Given how close I am to my best friend’s mom–I’ve gone on vacation with her while my friend stayed home–that’s pretty good. But it’s not the same.
Thirteen years ago, before I had any idea who Mary was, I got positive peer pressured into making the Total Consecration to Mary. I was pretty sure it wasn’t idolatry, so I went for it. And it changed absolutely nothing.
But Mary’s been stalking me a little. And I knew I needed to renew my consecration. Everyone raves about Fr. Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Last week, I opened the introduction while killing time at a shawarma place in Atlanta. I read through the usual Mariology and settled in for more of the same.
Mary’s task is to give spiritual birth to Christians, to feed and nurture them with grace, and to help them grow to full stature in Christ.
Now I’ve read John 19:26-27. I’ve taught those verses. I’ve made people memorize them. I get that Mary is my mother.
But I didn’t.
See, I was treating Mary as my stepmother. She’s the woman who came along when I was twenty-five standing at the foot of the Cross and now she comes to Thanksgiving at my house and maybe sometimes tells me about her Son until I get bored and tune her out.
But Mary isn’t my stepmother. She’s my mother. Adoptive, perhaps, but my true mother just the same.
The Lord speaks really strongly to me in allegory. Through images of princes taking the death penalty their adulterous brides deserve, little girls caught up out of poverty to become daughters of the king, husbands speaking words of forgiveness to their wives. Like analogies, allegories limp. So you’ll have to bear with me on this and be gentle. This is my heart.1
I am a poor orphaned infant adopted by the King and languishing for hunger. But the Mother of his Son has been nursing his other children so she takes me into her arms and puts me to her breast. No stepchild or foster child, I am her true child, the daughter of her heart become the daughter of her flesh. To be the daughter of my Father, I have to be nourished by the Mother of his Son.2 And so the food he gives to her becomes my food, the spiritual milk Paul tells us must be our food before we can eat meat.3 But where can we get this milk except our Mother? So she nurses me, as the King sits beside her and strokes my little head. My eldest Brother, the crown Prince, stands nearby. It was he whom the King sent out to rescue me, he who was scratched and beaten and bruised to bring me to the Father. In her arms, I become his. As I nurse, I toy with her necklace, a rope of beads with a crucified man hanging from it. And she tells me the story of my Brother’s love.4
When Jesus went to John to be baptized, he was joining in the struggle of all who sin, all who will die to sin. And your Father split open the heavens. “This is my beloved son,” he shouted. That’s the same thing he says about you, sweet girl. “This is my beloved daughter.” He loves you just that much. And all those people, they didn’t know what to think! Some thought it was thunder or maybe an earthquake. But a few, a very few, heard the Father’s words. And in that moment, they began to wonder if they couldn’t become beloved, too. Jesus had that effect on people, you know. When they looked at him, they knew just who they could be. And some people got angry and others felt hope and most everybody knew they needed mercy. But that brother of yours, he is mercy, sweet girl. Even to the ones who never ask.
And I’m looking up at her face and twisting her beads between my fingers and she’s stroking my hair and there’s nothing else but this—her, telling me about him.
Oh, that wedding feast was a marvelous one! They were some of my dearest friends, you know, and when the wine ran out I knew how desperately ashamed they would be. Jesus said he wasn’t planning on doing anything miraculous, but he couldn’t just stand by. I sometimes wonder if he didn’t hesitate at first just so I would know he was doing it as a gift for me. But no matter, he did it. He brought joy to that banquet just like he brings joy to anyone who turns to him. But the celebration was different afterwards. There was a solemnity to the joy, like the people knew something sacred had happened. Their laughter didn’t run to debauchery. They saw each other, really saw each other, and spoke the words of love they’d never had the courage to let out. It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? That freedom to love.
Still I can’t look away. Every time my eyes stray to the window, her gentle voice tugs me back, reminding me that I need this, I need her, to help me become his.
And you should have seen the way they followed him after that! People pushing to get to him like he was their last hope. Which, of course, he was. “Master, heal me!” “Rabbi, teach me!” “Lord, save me!” Most of them not knowing who he was, just seeing that he had something they wanted. But Jesus saw past their ailments to their true need. So he healed a leper here, raised a dead girl there. But others he left broken. That’s what they needed. And oh, how he preached. Stood on a hill and spoke for hours. About love and mercy, yes, but about sin and judgment, too. About peace and violence and prayer and action but always, always about your Father. That was the whole point, of course: to bring these dear ones to your Father. Every word he spoke, every limb he healed, every child he touched, every beggar he fed: always to speak the love of the Father, to draw their hearts to him.
The stories sound different in her voice. I’m hearing them for the first time but she’s telling them for the thousandth. They’re the stories that make her life, make my life, make every life worth living.
Poor Peter. He was so tired. Jesus had told his friends that was going to be killed and no sooner had they picked their jaws up off the floor than he made Peter, John, and James climb a mountain. They were fishermen, not shepherds, and mountain climbing didn’t come easy. So you can imagine, dear heart, how they slept when they reached the top. They might have slept right through the whole thing, but the Father knew they needed that moment to keep them going. And there Moses and Elijah were, finally seeing the Son, the one they’d been pointing to their whole lives without knowing it. And poor Peter, always a man of action, tried to build a tent. I’m sure James was trying to understand it all, figure out how they got there and what it meant. And John—sweet John—just standing there taking it all in, just being. Doing and thinking and being. They’re very important, all of them, but I hope you, my sweet one, will have the courage just to be. That is the truest path to the Father.
The Father stops by and kisses me on my forehead and I only know him because she’s telling me. Her voice pulls me in and shows me just who he is.
Sweet girl, I hope you will never know the pain of that last night. Or maybe I hope you will, if it will bring you closer to the Father by showing you what his love is worth. But your Father is such a mighty King that he made that ugly night a gift beyond compare. Jesus was about to be made a sacrifice to bring you home. You, dear one. Isn’t he marvelous? All that, just for you. And there were his friends, oblivious. Except for John. They all caught Jesus’ mood, but only John was beginning to see. “The Lamb of God. The one who takes away the sin of the world. The paschal lamb whose body is broken, whose bread becomes our food. And tomorrow the Passover.” That meal began his greatest gift, his journey to hell and back to save you, my love. He gave you his body. Do you understand what that means? No, no, of course you don’t. But you will.
And as I feed on his body given to me through her, as his flesh becomes her flesh to become mine, there’s a peace and a stillness I’ve never felt here, an intensity that isn’t from me. She pulls me off and sits me up and delights in me because I am his. Hail, holy Queen.
I don’t know how long this will last, but I get it. I finally get what the rosary is about. I don’t know if you can have this experience, or if you even want to, but it was so much more real than any other time I’ve told my beads before. It’s the storytelling—which I’m becoming more and more convinced is key to evangelization—and the way those old stories are new again and finally understanding that I need her. For an inveterate rosary-tolerator like me, it’s nothing short of a miracle. Praise the Lord.
- One hazard of studying theology is that you see heresy in every misplaced preposition in your prayer. I’m trying to stop obsessing over correctness—which isn’t quite the same thing as truth—and let love speak. So today I offered this prayer: Father, I want to love you completely but I know I don’t know how. So I ask you to redirect my misplaced love. If I love the Blessed Mother too much or ignore your Son for love of you, be merciful on a stumbling sinner giving you her heart. [↩]
- Obviously I’m not maligning adoptive mothers of older kids here or women who are unable to nurse for whatever reason. But back in the day if nobody was nursing you, you weren’t going to make it. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 3:2 [↩]
- Not a vision or a locution, just a meditation. [↩]