Tuesday, May 19, 2009

And After This Our Exile (Part 1)

My dear blog visitors, permit me to post this 'intensely spiritual' article about Mary. If you are not Catholic, you may not agree with everything that is written here and it's okay, but I do hope it will somehow challenge your thinking and preconceived notions or better yet inspire you to do some readings on Mary. If you are a 'practicing Catholic', this should serve to deepen your devotion to Her, for whom the Church dedicates this Mary month of May.

Have you ever asked yourself why do we often invoke the Holy Virgin in the prayer Hail Mary to "pray for us now and at the hour of our death"? Is it possible that Her intercession at that grave hour could mean the difference between our salvation or damnation? Can we afford to neglect devotion to Her and just go about living our faith as if She doesn't exist? In the 13th chapter of his book The Afterlife [Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell] (sounds scary?), Federico Suarez delves on Mary's role in our personal salvation from an eschatological point of view as he attempts to answer these very important questions in our faith. Indeed, there is something about Mary that we should come to realize after we read this two-part series entitled And After This Our Exile.

There is an ancient prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary that was probably written towards the end of the tenth century or the beginning of the eleventh. It is known as the “Salve Regina” because it begins with the words: “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy…” The prayer nowadays ends with a concluding invocation added by St. Bernard in the twelfth century: “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.” Before St. Bernard’s addition it had ended with the petition which, when it is closely looked at, may strike one as extraordinary. It says: “And after this our exile, show unto us the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!”

Now what power could the Blessed Virgin actually possess that would enable her to show Jesus to us when we die, “after this our exile?” The petition is staggering, because in effect we are asking her to take us to heaven. And we ask her this favor with such simplicity and with so much confidence that we are presuming, obviously, that she has the power to grant us our request. It would seem, too, that what we are requesting from her is something that happens so frequently that there is not the slightest need to give any further explanation. We are not dealing simply with a case of perhaps understandable hyperbole that would not claim to be absolutely in conformity with orthodox theology, and whose original author, whoever he may have been, felt constrained to use because of his overwhelming love for Our Lady. And yet we have a theologian who is also a saint, (which is even more important) like St. Bonaventure, who happens to be a doctor of the Church as well, (which is no less important) openly daring to include in his “Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary” such sweeping statement as “Qui digne coluerit eam, salvabitur, qui autem neglexerit eam, morietur in peccatis” (Anyone who honors her properly shall be saved, while anyone who slights her with neglect shall die in his sins).

The Church has never prohibited such affirmations concerning Our Lady. Nor has the Church ever taken scandal at the immense number of beautiful praises directed to the Mother of God throughout the ages by the piety of Christian peoples. In fact, she herself has signified her approval of such praises and has not discouraged them. It is but proper that we have such devotion because, considering her role in the economy of salvation, nothing said to honor and praise Our Lady can really ever be considered excessive: she is always greater than all the praises rendered to her.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is fully involved in the tremendous event of salvation and its unfolding. This has been eternally arranged by God. She has a very specific role to play as far as sinners are concerned: it is that of interceding for them and of helping them along the road that leads to her Son, who redeemed them. Someone once said, I remember, that Mary is like a gentle and tempered light that lends its help to man’s feeble eye, empowering it to contemplate the full splendor of the sun, which normally it is not capable of doing. And it is without doubt her motherly role, together with all those gifts and graces that God endowed her with to enable her to carry out her task as Mother of the Church – the Mystical Body of Christ of which we are members – that draws her near to us. And such proximity to Our Lady leads us to see in her the one who can effectively show Jesus to us sinners post hoc exsilium. Many who have experienced it themselves can confirm the truth of that point to be found in St. Escriva’s The Way: “all the sins of your life seem to be rising up against you. Don’t give up hope! On the contrary, call on your Holy Mother Mary, with the faith and abandonment of a child. She will bring peace to your soul.” (no. 498)

Obviously, she never experienced personal sin, not even the slightest and most insignificant fault. Neither did original sin cast the faintest shadow on her soul, since she was conceived immaculate. But it is true that she did personally experience the suffering that sin brings with it. And in this way she became personally aware of the radical evil of sin as an offense against the Creator outraged by his own creatures. In fact, she remained at the foot of the cross, actually participating in the agony of her Son. She contemplated the humiliation of Jesus and heard with her own ears the insults of the Jews. She, more than just beholding it, even lived the infamous death of her innocent Son, a death transformed into a degrading public spectacle, like some vulgar celebration of brutal ignorant men. Yes, she was only too well acquainted, better than anyone else, with the terrible consequences of sin and with the utterly wretched condition of the sinner, of both the man who sins because of weakness or frailty and the one who sins because of pride, of hatred, or of defiant contempt for God.

Since all this actually happened, isn’t it truly unthinkable that she be expected to plead on behalf of sinners, to be their advocate, and that we who crucified her Son dare ask her to show him to us “after this our exile?” And yet I think it is precisely because of this that she has so much compassion for us. It does not cease to be significant (and also marvelous!) that Jesus, while undergoing the agony of the Cross, gave her to us as our Mother, precisely to us men who are sinners. And perhaps if we never knew that she had suffered, precisely because of our sins, we would never have presumed to lift our eyes towards her. No, we would not have dared to raise them to her face if she had been a stranger not only to sin, but also to the suffering and the harm it causes, to its depravity, because then we would have feared that she would be incapable of understanding the anguish of the sinner who longs to be rescued from his desolation yet does not dare present himself before him whom he has crucified.

The Virgin Mary was not given the power either to judge or to punish. She was given only the power to intercede, to plead on our behalf. God made her our Mother. In any family, it is the mother who should distribute among her children, according to each one’s needs, what the father gains through his work. Similarly, in this great family that is the Church, the role of the Virgin Mary is the maternal one. She is the Mediatrix of all graces. It could be said that this is a logical consequence of her maternity. Through Mary, we receive the treasures of grace gained for us by her Son in the Redemption. Her Son redeemed us not only through his sufferings, his passion and death, but also through the whole of his life on earth, since each one of his actions, like each one of his words, had redemptive power.

Our Lady was chosen from all eternity to be the natural vessel that would contain the Word of God and provide him with a human body capable of suffering. But there is even more to it than that: Christ’s mission was supernatural. And the Virgin Mary’s mission, in direct relation to and in direct dependence on that of Christ, could not be reduced to a task involving a purely biological activity. Someone once observed that constructing a granary to store wheat is a useful activity, and that it may even be a necessary activity if people are in dire need. And yet it is still not a fruitful activity. Giving food to the hungry is much more fruitful than building a granary. To construct a hospital is a meritorious task, yet to give blood to one who is wounded is still a more direct and vital service. The Virgin Mary was not only the temple that sheltered the Word of God made man during his gestation; she did not simply help and protect the Child Jesus while he was growing up and was not yet able to take care of himself. She did more than these things. Much more. She gave the Bread of Life to the world, to all of us, so that we would not dwindle away to death for lack of nourishment. And the blood that Jesus shed on the Cross to give us life and to save us from eternal death belongs to Mary.

Hers, then, are titles of power. So no one should be aghast, or be scandalized if we ask her to show us Jesus after our sojourn here on earth: he happens to be her son. And neither should anyone legitimately doubt that she has been enabled to do this. Because of these titles she deserves not only our limitless trust and confidence, but also our respect and our sincere and filial love. This idea was expressed with great propriety by Sigrid Undset, who was converted to Catholicism two or three years before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. In a short narrative concerning her conversion she wrote: “If we believe that God has saved us by assuming a body and blood like ours, then towards the Vessel from which he took his human body we must have feelings that should not be similar to any feelings we could possibly have towards our fellowman: respect and tenderness towards her we must have; a heart filled with compassion for the unspeakable sufferings of her earthly life, and a great rejoicing for the incomparable place she occupies in the kingdom of God. If it is true that the son of Mary is at the same time true God and true man, then the son is the Son and the mother is the Mother for all eternity, since he is the Creator and she is his creature.”

Yet this is not all. When we are borne down by the weight of our sins and do not know where to turn, we still have other motives that lead us to consider the Virgin Mary not only as our hope (spes nostra; this is how the Church presents her to us) but also as our support for the entire duration of our journey through this world, day by day and year after year, until the moment in which our dying breath marks our journey’s end – a journey that will have been far from peaceful, since we, all of us, are constantly threatened in the course of it by dangers from within and dangers from without. The Blessed Virgin helps us not only by means of the graces she distributes, but also by her example. Her support is something that no one who is not totally consumed by self-sufficient vanity can ever despise or put aside. Isn’t it one of the most important and noble tasks of a mother to educate her children, to teach them what they should do and what they should avoid doing, to help them distinguish between good and evil? And isn’t example what the children see and isn’t it this that leaves the most profound impression on their young minds? The Blessed Virgin did not say many things: she taught us above all through her example.

to be continued...

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