Hopefully devoted to Mary

By

27 Feb 2024

No matter our life experiences, expectations and sorrows, Mary is a wonderful companion.

When I joined the Jesuits, I cultivated a devotion to Mary as mother. Such devotions were not uncommon in novitiates where the regime focuses strongly on the religious aspects of your future life to the exclusion of normal parts of your previous life.

In retrospect I can see that devotion to Mary as mother was natural for a young man who had left his family for the first time to join an all-male world.

As I laid down roots in this new world, which after the noviceship was more richly textured, that devotion fell away a little. It did not disappear but became less central. I also avoided opportunities to deepen it.

AIR OF PERFECTION

Looking back, I imagined Mary as she is represented in so many statues: like an idealised Mother Superior of a Convent. She had the same presence, wisdom, benevolence and readiness to help in times of trouble. But she also had that air of perfection – not a hair or a fold in her dress out of place, nor I imagined, did she ever speak a word out of place. She naturally expected such self-control in return. My relationship with her was good: I appreciated her help and spent time with her on Retreats; the conversation, however, was always a little distant. The formal and fervent language of most Marian hymns did not help.

Later in life I became involved in ministry with young adults and enjoyed the company of many young women. The language they spoke was uninhibited and colloquial, well adapted to conversation about serious matters. I began to imagine Mary as a young woman whom I could address in earthy language as a friend who could laugh at my pretensions, comment drily on any dishonesty, engage in repartee, and speak simply about her relationship with Jesus. I engaged with Mary more as a friend or sister than as a mother.

As I begin to wrestle with the trials of ageing that younger image of Mary persists, telling me not to be a sook, and to remind me that the spirit need not grow weary. Perhaps in time I may imagine Mary as a nurse, but that change, too, will come as an invitation and not as a decision.

DIFFERENT INFLUENCES

The point of these reminiscences is not to suggest that any of these forms of devotion to Mary is the only or the best way. Each form speaks more powerfully about my limitations, about wisdom lacking more than about wisdom gained, than they do about its virtues. Taken together, however, they suggest that our devotion to Mary is shaped by our lives.

We can commend rich theological understandings, and sketch mature and rounded forms of the devotion, but in practice it must fit the messy reality of our lives. These are shaped by our circumstances, our experience, our temperament, the gifts we have and those we lack, and our relationships. Because these things grow layer by layer, and their texture changes in the process, so also will our devotion to Mary.

Devotion to Mary as mother grew from the earliest centuries of the Church out of the experience of so many Christians as mothers. She could listen with understanding to women’s experience of themselves as they became mothers, prepared for motherhood, or became grandmothers. She understood the pain of childbirth, the fierce love for the newborn child, the wonder at life growing, the desire to protect, the pain and pride as children grow to live their own lives, the solitude of the empty home, the joy in grandchildren and the sharing of wisdom.

WOMAN FOR ALL SEASONS

In different cultures, too, the particular experiences of women found expression in devotion to Mary. They could include the burden of drunken, violent husbands, the deprivation of agency, the need to carry on in sickness and despite the injuries caused by household tasks such as carrying water and searching for firewood, and scrimping so that children could eat. Devotions to the seven sorrows of Mary highlighted the hardship that went with mothering, culminating in accompanying a son in his path to public disgrace and a dehumanising death. In such devotions Mary was a woman for all seasons.

Perhaps that is why devotion to Mary as mother is perhaps the deepest form. It suggests that my transition from a child’s view of Mary, to an adult’s inattention and then to a good-time friend’s camaraderie is good as far as it goes. But it does not take us far along Mary’s adult path of distance from a much-loved son to his terrible death and the apparent collapse of his mission and of the purpose of her own life with it.

Mothers who lose children and those who are crippled by Covid are required to walk that path. It leads to silence, to shared tears, perhaps to unexpected consolation, and certainly to depth. There, as well as in less demanding times, Mary is a good companion.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2024 edition of Madonna magazine.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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