The Gentle Presence of Mary
by Fr. Christopher O'Donnell, O.Carm
by Fr. Christopher O'Donnell, O.Carm
One hears it said occasionally that Mary is neglected in the Church today. There are certainly fewer manifestations of devotion: one thinks of May devotions in the past, as well as processions, popular novenas in churches, family Rosary and other indications of veneration and respect. Certainly there is a lesser quantity in devotional exercises than when I was a young Carmelite before Vatican II. The Council itself is often blamed, wrongly indeed, for this fall-off. But it left us rich n Marian teaching, later supplemented by two important papal documents on Mary: Paul VI “To Honor Mary” (Marialis Cultus, 1974) and John Paul II, “Mother of the Redeemer” (Redemptoris Mater, 1987). So we are not lacking Church teaching of high quality about the Mother of God.
Yet unease remains; shouldn’t we be doing more? But more what? Perhaps the word “more” is not helpful. In devotion and spirituality quality is nearly always more important than quantity. The worst way to start an evaluation of our Marian attitudes would be to indulge in big guilt feelings. If we have failed, then we can confidently rely on the Lord’s mercy and on Mary’s understanding of our frailty. I can recall the years after the Council when many people, myself included, somewhat lost an earlier contact with the Mother of God. The older devotions no longer seemed attractive and nothing replaced them. Then I was asked to lecture on Mary and to teach Mariology at the Miltown Institute. That meant some serious thought and study. But it was largely thinking at this stage: it was necessary to examine and grasp Church teaching and to impart it; I had to ensure that students could say the right things about Mary in examinations and essays.
There is an image that one encounters in the Charismatic Renewal: a drainpipe carrying water gets wet. One cannot teach Mary over a long period without being affected, without evaluating one’s own personal position.
Carmelites and Mary
At the same time I was investigating the Carmelite tradition about Mary. For centuries we had been secure in our devotion to Mary through the Brown Scapular. But the Carmelite heritage was much richer and many studies began to appear on Mary and Carmel. There are five truths about Mary in the Carmelite Order, not all equally emphasized in any particular century. They are not exclusive to the Order, but they show its preferences in reflecting on the Mother of God.
Mary is Mother. Carmelites took up this Church teaching with great enthusiasm. But they added another word, so that “Mother and Beauty of Carmel” became a preferred name for her.
Secondly, Mary is also seen as Patron of Carmelites. This is a medieval concept that implies a two-way relationship between lord and servant: the lord protected his servants; they in turn looked after his interests. Such a concept fitted admirably the Carmelite vision of Mary as one whom they loved and served, and who in turn protected them.
Again, Mary is also Sister of Carmelites. The idea of Mary as Sister is found also in the first millennium, and it was introduced in the papal teaching by Paul VI. When we speak of Mary as Sister, we are reminded that she too is one like us, is a daughter of Adam, and that she had to walk the same path of faith, hope and love as all others. The Carmelite idea of Mary as Sister can also have something of the idea of an elder, caring Sister who looks after the rest of the family. We can look up to our Sister and accept her guidance. At different times we may be drawn to the idea of Mary as Sister, rather than as Mother. Both are legitimate, but we should not deny the validity of a title that may not attract us at a particular time.
Fourthly, Mary is the Most Pure Virgin. This title, very common in Carmelite saints and writers looks especially to Mary’s purity of heart. She retained God’s word in her heart (see Luke 2:19.51) and she served him with an undivided and pure heart.
Mary is finally the Model for Carmelites. We can look at what she did. But we have to go deeper. It is not just a matter of doing what Mary did, but having her attitude in all our thoughts and actions.
A renewed devotion to Mary is not primarily a matter of saying more prayers to her. It implies a relationship with her, which will be established by prayer and reflected in imitation. There is a huge difference between knowing a person, and really knowing them. Renewal in our Marian life is not a matter of prayers and information, but a loving knowing. Such a knowing loving, or loving knowing, lies behind the idea of presence. In a letter to the two branches of the Carmelite Order (O.Carm. and OCD) Pope John Paul spoke of the “tender and maternal presence of Mary” which we seek by wearing the Brown Scapular (Letter, II provvidentialz evento, 25 March 2001). We know that we are always in the presence of God, who sustains us, keeps us in being. But we may not be alert to this presence as we go about our daily lives. It is good to stop occasionally and reflect that we are always in God’s presence.
The gentle presence of Mary is found in her caring for all the Church, in her continuous prayer for us, “now and at the hour of our death” (Hail Mary). We can become aware of her presence if we think of her now and again, speak to her, ask for her guidance, and consider how she would act in the circumstances in which we may find ourselves. we can go further and enjoy and relax in her presence. There is a saying “Never enough about Mary” which is often ascribed to St. Bernard (d. 1153), but in fact came centuries later. It is a principle that needs to be carefully understood. We do not need more dogmas about Mary, or necessarily more prayers, celebrations or titles. We can never, however, sufficiently praise God for the wonders of his grace and love in the Mother of his Son. We can never thank her enough for her motherly care for us. We can never love her enough. As we think of her gentle presence, we are only beginning our future life in which with her we will eternally praise the Trinity.