Mary, Our Mother

by Fr. Kilian McDonnell

          Sometimes those outside the Church accuse us of emotionalism and sentimentalism. They say that, judging from the externals of Catholicism, it seems very much as though our faith is merely a means of emotional release.

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        We feel the need, they say, to have some emotional experience, and yet we are afraid of our emotions. Because of that fear, we choose to clothe our emotional experience in the guise of religion. We give it an air of respectability; we dignify what is essentially sensual with the nobility of tradition. It is an attempt to pass off our insecurity as a virtue by calling it humility, to hide the baser deceits of egoism under the calm of contemplation or the zeal of the Apostolate.

Religion, they say, is an escape from the realities that are too brutal and uncompromising to be assuring, a pleasant self-induced stupor in which we enjoy the delights of forgetting. It is all a little stupid and confusing, they insist, to fear our emotions and therefore to stunt them in our everyday life by the imposition of morals from an ancient past. Then to give the emotions a field day in the name of the love of God as soon as we open the door of the Church.

Now if we ask them to be a little more specific in their accusation, they point to our devotion to the Blessed Virgin. They can instance the gaudy little shrines that glow in the dark, some prayers effusive in the extreme, the glamour-girl madonnas, some maudlin hymns to Mary.

We Catholics are liable to take this as an attack upon Our Lady. A second thought is sufficient to convince us that it is not Our Lady, nor even devotion to Our Lady, that is being called into question, but our lack of taste in expressing our love for Mary.


When it comes to answering the accusation, we first of all vindicate the tenderness we feel toward Mary. If we can feel and express tenderness for our earthly mother and not be accused of emotionalism, surely we should be able to feel and express the same with regard to our heavenly Mother. She is no less our Mother. Indeed, much more so in that she gives us Our Lord who is our eternal life.

Once we have vindicated our right to have toward Mary all the tenderness of a child in the presence of its mother, then we must stop. Beyond this point we have some reason to blush. We really have not been fair to Mary; certainly we have not been faithful to the truth. Since she is Christ’s mother and our own, it is natural that we think first of those virtues we think to be characteristically maternal. But we have emphasized the retiring virtues to the point where we have forgotten the aggressive virtues.

Are meekness, modesty, humility her only virtues? She possesses all of these in their perfection. But are there no others? Her title "Mystical Rose" suggests thoughts of fragrance and the morning dew; but her title "Tower of David" suggests that unyielding strength of a high, defiant fortress. Beautiful she must be; and sweet she must be. But in that beauty and sweetness is a strength that inspires awe and even inspires a little healthy terror. In the prayers of the Church’s worship the beauty of Mary is spoken of in these very terms. "Beautiful as the moon, chosen as the sun, terrible as an army in battle array."

Lovely she is indeed; lovely above all the sons and daughters of men. But why must that loveliness always be depicted as languid? There is the tragedy of great sorrow in the words of St. John, "the Mother of Jesus stood by the cross," but there is nothing about a woman languishing prostrate upon the ground. Though the sword Simeon had foretold had pierced her heart, still she stood erect beneath the cross. The beauty of her sorrow, as of her loveliness, is not that it is numb, but that it is strong, self-less, dedicated, while not ceasing to be maternal.

It is Mary whose delights are to be with the children of men. She it is to whom these words are addressed: "Never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided."

But she is not one to whom we can turn and say "Mary! Mary!" and expect forthwith to be admitted to the kingdom of her Son without amending our lives.

We are invited to share her sorrow. If we are true children of hers we will want to come and weep with her, for there is no sorrow like her sorrow; we will also want to rejoice with her, because "she brought forth the King who rules heaven and earth forever."

It is right that we love her because she is full of grace and graciousness. We should also have some reverential awe for this woman whose title "Mother of God" contains the seed of all religious truth; it is for this reason that the Church says of Mary, "thou hast destroyed all heresies" (error). Will not she who is called "Virgin most merciful" and "Refuge of sinners" also come in glory with Our Lord and all the angels and saints to judge the world?

The paradox is that the Church’s official devotion to Mary, as expressed in her feasts and in the prayers of the Missal, is the best possible remedy against emotionalism. It marks out the middle road between the gushing of sentimentalism and the chilly spirituality of a purely philosophical religion. It teaches us to bring our emotions to prayer and to church. They are not to be given full liberty, nor, on the other hand, destroyed. Rather they are to be disciplined and dedicated.

To refuse the emotions any expression is to build worship that is all mind and no heart. To release the emotions from any restraint is to build worship that is all heart and no mind. In Catholicism in general, and in our love for Mary in particular, we have both heart and mind.

Condensed from The Restless Christian by Kilian McDonnell, OSB. 1957, The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota

arrow.gif (140 bytes)Fr. Mc Donnell’s latest book,   The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation, is now available.  Click on the blue for further informaiton.

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