Devotional prayer to Mary, the mother of Jesus, has always been the center-piece within Catholic piety. Among other things, those devotions have focused upon various Marian shrines, places where Mary allegedly appeared, Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, Medjugarie, among other places.
Karl Rahner, studying the phenomenon of Marian apparitions, points out that all these apparitions have one thing in common: In every case, Mary appears to a poor person. In every alleged apparition that has become accepted in popular devotion, the person Mary appears to is someone insignificant in the world’s eyes. Mary has never, it seems, appeared to a Wall Street Banker, a major civic or church leader, nor even to a theologian in his or her study. She seems to pick her audience with a special purpose in mind. What purpose? To provide for them, the poor, something that the elite find elsewhere, namely, a romantic vision of the faith by which to sustain themselves emotionally. That shouldn’t surprise us. Mary, after all, gave us the Magnificat. She has always had a special relationship to the poor.
More recently, as we know, Marian devotion and devotional prayer in general have fallen on hard times, intellectually and theologically. More and more, Marian devotion is written off as non-essential to the faith or worse as a harmful distraction to it. Christ, the Word, and the Eucharist, it is argued, are what’s essential and the object of our intimacy is Jesus, not Mary. Moreover, what brings us together as Christians are the Word and Eucharist, not devotional prayer. Simply put, you shouldn’t be substituting devotions for scripture or the Eucharist, nor saying the rosary in their place.
In essence, this critique is correct and was a needed corrective both at the time of the reformation and again at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Devotional life, and indeed all spiritual enthusiasm, too easily lose balance and, almost without exception, tend to lose their grip on the essentials. That’s the danger inherent in all romance. It’s very power to inflame the heart makes it a powerful narcotic that easily becomes an end in itself. Romance easily becomes unbridled, unglued, disorienting. We know that. But we also know its power to transform lives. It can change everything in fifteen seconds.
Christ, the Word, and the Eucharist are the essentials within our faith, but, just as the main course in a meal doesn’t necessarily make a complete meal, so too the essentials of our faith don’t necessarily satisfy all our faith needs, particularly in terms of the heart. What the devotional life adds to the essentials is precisely the romantic, emotional fire.
And that’s more necessary than we think. Eric Mascall, a Protestant theologian, commenting on the place of the devotional within the more strictly liturgical and theological, suggests that the danger in opting for essentials alone is that “we end up on a diet of antiseptics, safe from food-poisoning, but in danger of suffering from malnutrition.” He’s right. To give an example:
Today liturgists and theologians are almost universally opposed to having eulogies at funerals. The funeral liturgy, they contend, is complete of itself and the eulogy is an unneeded, inept distraction. They’re right, in a way. The funeral liturgy is complete of itself, theologically. But that doesn’t mean it’s complete humanly. It’s not. The normal congregation at a funeral isn’t composed of people whose faith and emotional lives are so mature and integrated that the latter is fed and satisfied through the former. They want and need more than the essentials of faith and liturgy, particularly on that day. They want and need another kind of ritual, a devotional one that speaks more directly to them (however lengthy and in bad taste those eulogies sometimes are). The heart is part of the soul and too needs its due. We don’t live on essentials alone.
Classically, in terms of our prayer lives, this has been handled largely by devotions and, among devotions, the ones to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, have had the privileged place, especially among the poor. In Marian devotions, the faith takes on a special relationship to the poor. In a manner of speaking, Marian devotions are the mysticism of the poor. In relating to her, countless people, without the benefit of professional training in theology or liturgy have wonderfully appropriated to themselves deep, essential truths about God’s person, presence, compassion, and providence. They know and taste God’s love, through their relationship to Mary.
Many years ago, when I was an 18 year-old novice, a very pious old priest gave us a talk. He shared how a young man had come to him complaining that he’d lost his faith. The old priest had simply told him: “You’ve lost your faith because you’ve lost your mother, Mary.” Funny how among the hundreds of hours of talks and conferences that I heard during my novitiate year, that pious, overly-simplistic, near-saccharine, theologically-impoverished comment is about the only thing I still remember.