LONDON, ONTARIO – In the fall of 1996, our family was travelling up to Midland, Ontario to visit the reconstructed Jesuit mission of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons where for ten years (1639–49) sixty Jesuits and lay French with 12,000 Huron Indians, created and operated the first in-land European settlement in all of North America. (See more on that visit in this May 3, 2021 Hermaneutics: Wilf Jury and the Saga of Sainte-Marie). Zigzagging our way along secondary highways northeast from London to Midland, we passed along the main drags of many smaller Ontario towns, stopping in every third or fourth burg for washroom breaks and to load up on essential provisions like gas and local newspapers and sticky buns.
In one of the towns midway along our trek, my wife and kids checked out the local bakery while I ducked into a not terribly promising looking Christian bookshop. I suppose I ought to know better by now but once in a blue moon, real treasures do show up in the unlikeliest dumps. It was one of those tacky emporiums where you instantly regret your impulsivity the moment you’ve stepped inside. Sappy pan pipe music was noodling away on the shop’s ghetto blaster. ‘Inspirational’ posters liberally decorated the walls – pictures of puppies, ponies, kittens and sunsets – overlaid with kitschy quotes from such towering spiritual thinkers as Scott M. Peck and Leo F. Buscaglia. The book selection was not extensive and except for the obligatory C.S. Lewis rack, was of the very lowest grade.
I could and perhaps should have spun around on my heels and left five seconds after entering but not wanting to appear rude or suspicious to the middle-aged woman behind the counter, I put in three or four minutes of pretend-browsing and then headed for the door.
“Not from around here, are you?” asked the proprietress as my hand reached out for the doorknob.
“That’s right. Just passing through on our way up to Midland.”
“Midland? You got relatives up there?”
She was feeling chatty, was she? Well, why not spare her a few minutes of simple cordiality? I was probably the first person to set foot in her sad little shop all week. I knew if I’d been in her shoes, I’d be going loopy with that rancid pan pipe music and the sickly aroma emanating from that dusty shelf of scented candles. “No, we’re going up to see Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and the Martyrs’ Shrine.”
“Oh, you’re Catholic then,” she said, with an unmistakable suggestion of contempt in her voice that made me regret my willingness to give her the time of day.
“That’s right,” I said and I turned again to get out the door.
“Well, then, there won’t be anything here that will interest you,” she said. “I can see that now. We don’t have a line of saints’ cards or little plastic statues.”
‘Oh yeh?’ I thought. ‘Then what about that cutesy-wootsy cluster of overweight cherubs on the shelf beside the religiously-themed paperweights?’
“But if you don’t mind my asking, could you just tell me what is it about you people and Mary?”
“I beg your pardon?” I asked, feeling a little light-headed at the sheer bare-facedness of her bigotry.
She pointed to a small display of ornamental crucifixes, most of them unoccupied. “That’s not Mary up there on that cross, you know? So why do you all pray to her as if she’s the one who saved you?”
“Well, we don’t pray to her, exactly,” I said.
“Oh yes, you do.”
“’Prayers of intercession’ you call them.”
Gosh, that rang a bell. Could this belligerent numbskull know more about my faith than I did? It had been twelve years since I’d joined the Catholic Church and I was feeling caught out and embarrassed because I wasn’t equipped to smartly rebut this awful woman. How could that be? Never baptised as an infant, I had come from a background of half-hearted and very occasional United Church attendance that fell away with the first stirrings of adolescence. I’d taken the catechumen course before joining the Church but there hadn’t been that much said about Mary and her place in the Church and no real mention of the Rosary. Like a lot of Catholic converts, I didn’t really ‘get’ the whole Mary thing but assumed that all that would become clearer as time went on.
The proprietoress had been unpardonably rude and a bigot of the first water. There probably wouldn’t have been much point in trying to set her straight even if I could. But it bugged me nonetheless that I wasn’t equipped to do so. One of the greatest obstacles for my generation of converts was how to reconcile the veneration (no, not worship) Mary receives in various Catholic prayers and hymns and art with what so often seems like Christ’s casual and even dismissive attitude toward His mother as related in some of the Gospel accounts. So far as I could make out, well-grounded cradle Catholics seemed to do a more attentive job of honouring Mary as our Mother than Christ sometimes did. Within a few years of my run-in with the bookseller from Hell, one particular film and one particular book helped me a lot in coming to terms with this apparent discrepancy.
I know he underwent a ton of bad press when his life went flying off the rails about twelve years ago (though I think he’s pulled things back together a bit recently) but I found Mel Gibson’s presentation of Mary in his film Passion of the Christ (2004) very helpful in beginning to understand this apparent paradox. For the most part relegated to the boundary of the main action as Christ is scourged and crucified, there is one scene where she protectively runs to Him after He takes His third fall while carrying His cross and He simultaneously consoles her and makes her step back from any motherly interference by saying His words from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.”
On Gibson’s part, this is an interpolation or transplanting of text but, I think, an inspired one. This appalling suffering is precisely what Christ came to Earth to endure and as agonizing as it is for Mary to stand by as this blasphemy is enacted against her Son, she knows that it is her essential duty to do just that.
The name “Emmanuel” literally means “God with us.” And Mary is the great operative “with” in that divine equation. Without her consent, He doesn’t come to us at all and our desperately needful redemption will not be won. If Mary did not understand the sorrowful implications of what mothering Christ would entail at the time of the annunciation, she certainly did by the time of Christ’s presentation at the Temple when Simeon tells her that, “A sword shall pierce through your own soul also.” She will never have her Son to herself as other mothers do but in giving birth to the One who pays the penalty that gives us eternal life, she does become a mother to all of us in a supernatural way.
The book that I found most helpful in getting a handle on Mary was Caryll Houselander’s 1945 study, The Reed of God. In this passage we find an echo of the distance we may seem to detect in the relations between Christ and Mary, at a ceremony where Houselander watched a newly ordained priest who had just celebrated his first Mass. In the reception that followed, his family may similarly seem to be pushed out of the way by a crowd of well-wishers. Houselander insists that this impression is illusory:
“A young priest was celebrating his first Mass. In the front of the church his mother and young brothers knelt. It was easy to know them by their likeness to him – a family of dark, golden-skinned boys, and the mother like them. When the Mass was ended, and the new priest came back into the sanctuary for the blessing and the kissing of the consecrated hands, the family hesitated shyly, almost paralyzed by wonder and love; and before they could go first (as they should have done) to the altar rails, the crowd has pushed past them; strangers had taken their place. The faithful were flocking around their new shepherd, and his mother and his brothers had become part of the crowd, waiting their turn until the end.
“For one moment the young priest looked over the bowed heads into his mother’s eyes, and his face shone. ‘My mother and my brethren are they who hear the word of God and do it.’ Because the priesthood had made him the Christ of the people, he belonged to them. He was their kith and kin, their son and brother, their Christ, the priest at the altar. People often seem to think of Our Lady as aggrieved, slighted, when this happened to her. I think she and her Son looked across the heads of the crowds to one another with just that understanding and gratitude that shone on the faces of the young priest and his mother, and Christ’s words on that occasion were spoken to Mary and in thanksgiving.”
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