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Blessed among women: The Book of Mary

30 November, 1999

Peter de Rosa’s dips into our favourite Marian prayers, poems and hymns, both ancient and modern. There are chapters on Mary’s many titles, the Rosary, and on Ireland’s faithfulness to it. We also get a glimpse of how great Protestants like Martin Luther, and Muslims like the Prophet Mohammed thought of her. 208pp, Columba Press […]

Peter de Rosa’s dips into our favourite Marian prayers, poems and hymns, both ancient and modern. There are chapters on Mary’s many titles, the Rosary, and on Ireland’s faithfulness to it. We also get a glimpse of how great Protestants like Martin Luther, and Muslims like the Prophet Mohammed thought of her.

208pp, Columba Press 1995. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie

Contents

Introduction

PART ONE: DEVOTION

1. In Praise Of Mary
2. Favourite Prayers To Mary
3. Favourite Hymns To Mary
4. Christmas: The World’s Favourite Festival
5. Favourite Christmas Carols
6. Mary In Modern Catholic Poetry
7. Ancient Poems About Mary
8. The Rosary: The World’s Favourite Prayer
9. The Rosary In Ireland
10. Mary’s Many Titles
11. Our Lady Of The Flowers
12. Black Virgins

PART TWO: REFLECTION

13. Mary Is Not A Goddess
14. Sources Of Devotion To Mary
15. Mother Of The Church And The World
16. Cardinal Newman’s Teaching On Mary
17. Mary in Non-Catholic Writings
18. Mary and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
19. Mary and the Great Cathedrals
20. Mary and Martin Luther

Postscript: Blessed Among Women
Appendix: The Hail Mary In Many Languages

Review

In part one Peter de Rossa invites the reader to dip in and out looking for a favourite Marian prayers, poems or hymns, Mary’s many titles, on the Rosary and Ireland’s response and on some of the world’s many Black Madonnas. In part two the author illustrates how Mary is honoured not on1y among Catholics like St Francis of Assisi and Cardinal Newman, but among Orthodox Christians of the East. He looks also at how great Protestants like Martin Luther, as well as by Muslims, beginning with the Prophet Mohammed saw Mary. It is written in a very approachable style.

Chapter One Devotion  In Praise of Mary
Frank Cappa’s movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), the selfless hero of Bedford Falls. George, a married man with two children, reaches the point of thinking the world would be better off without him.

While he is contemplating suicide, his guardian angel appears. Clarence is no angel by Fra Angelico. As a beginner, he has no wings and he’s disguised as a bumbling white-haired old man.

George is about to jump off a bridge when Clarence jumps in, forcing the good-hearted George to jump in after him and save him.

Clarence sets about showing George how valuable he is. To do this, he grants him one wish: to see what life would be like if he had never been born. In this alternate world, his wife Mary (played by Donna Reed) is a lonely old maid. His brother is dead because George was not there to save him from drowning. His inebriate uncle Billy is in a mental home. The local greedy villain, without George to oppose him, owns the whole town.

Finally realising how much good he has done, how rich he is in love and friendship, George asks to be allowed to live again, and God grants his wish.

Mary’s Angel, Gabriel, far more polished than Clarence, does not say to her, ‘You have conceived in your womb.’ No, everything is in the future tense: ‘You will conceive and bear a son. .. the Holy Spirit will come upon you, the child to be born of you will be called holy, the Son of God.’

The future was still open. Mary was free. She could have said No, or there would have been no merit in her response. But grasping what the world would be like if she did say No – no overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, no Son of God, no Kingdom come – she says, ‘Be it done unto me according to thy Word.’ Immediately the impossible becomes possible; a new world has begun.

Since this book is a hymn of praise to Mary the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, first try to imagine an alternate world without her. So many beautiful things would not exist – apart from Jesus of Nazareth!

We would lose the paintings of the Madonna by Leonardo and Raphael, Murillo, and Fra Angelico.

No Bach’s Magnificat, no Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, none of the music dedicated to her by Bruchner and Rachmaninov, no Ave Maria by Schubert which, he instantly noted, ‘grips every soul and turns it to devotion’.

We would have no Marian poetry by Rilke, Chesterton, or Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The great anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin would not have been written had not Harriet Beecher Stowe been inspired by Mary’s Magnificat.

Without Mary, there would be none of the inspiring prayers to her, no hymns or carols in her honour, no festivals of Christmas or Easter, no statues such as Epstein’s Madonna and Child or Michelangelo’s Pietà, no great cathedrals of Chartres, Milan and Notre Dame in Paris, which are poetry in stone.

Without her compassion many parents would be comfortless when their sons and daughters are taken from them in the flower of their youth. A poem by an unknown Greek called ‘A Prayer’ delicately expresses Mary’s silent compassion.

He was a sailor lad whom the deep sea took.
His mother, unsuspecting, moves to light
A tall candle before the Blessed Virgin
For blue skies and his swift return,
As always hearkening to the wind.
And while she prays and prays,
The Icon watches her, sad and solemn, knowing
That the boy she waits for
Will never come home.

Without the example of her chaste goodness, many women would probably still be chattels of men.

Without her by their side, many mothers would find it harder to endure the pains of childbirth, many men, women and children would die friendless and afraid. Hilaire Belloc’s poem ‘In a Boat’ expresses their dependence on her:

Mother of God
And Mother of me.
Save me alive
From the howl of the sea.

Mary is like a great river running through the church like the Mississippi in America or the Danube in Europe that fashioned communities, trade and culture along their banks. Remove Mary and there would be a huge gap in Western civilisation that nothing could fill.

When Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman anointed his head with costly ointment as he sat at table. When his disciples muttered about the waste, Jesus said, ‘She has done a beautiful thing to me … Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her’ (Mt 26:10,13). If such a simple act was worth remembering for ever, how much more worth remembering is the mothering Jesus received from Mary?

In her own person, she fulfilled all St Paul’s tests of charity. She embodied all the beatitudes. She was meek and lowly, she was perfectly pure, she suffered as no other has done for justice’s sake as she watched her Son die in shame on the cross.

An amusing old story tells of Jesus saying to the crowd intent on stoning to death the woman taken in adultery, ‘Let whoever is without sin throw the first stone.’ When a stone is flung from the back of the crowd, Jesus looks up and sighs, ‘Not you, Mother.’ However, the point of the gospel story is, sinners shouldn’t throw stones; the sinless, like Jesus and Mary, cannot. Mary always stands on the side of the sinner and the lost.

To French writer Georges Bernanos, while Mary is a queen, she is still a little girl. Since she knew nothing of sin, her eyes are the only real’ child-eyes’ since the beginning of the race. In that sense, she is ‘younger than the race from which she sprang’ and, though a mother by grace, she is our youngest sister. Maybe this is why when St Teresa of Avila had a vision of Mary she looked’ almost like a child’ and why in all her major apparitions at, say, Lourdes and Fatima, Mary is eternally young.

Matthew and Luke imply she was not merely a virgin but dedicated to virginity. This meant that she was the only Jewish woman who was essentially unable to give birth to the Messiah. Yet, in God’s providence, she did so. Even then, she risked being stoned to death for adultery, since the child was not her husband’s. No wonder Christians praise her for her courage and child-like innocence.

Bells of all sizes in town and country ring out her praises. (‘And every note of every bell/ Sang Gabriel! Rang Gabriel!’) Millions of Aves praise her each day, fulfilling her own prophecy that all generations would call her blessed. And, of course, countless legends grew up around her.

In a homily on Corpus Christi 1964, St Josemaría recalled one of the songs collected by Spanish King Alfonso X. ‘It’s a legend about a simple monk who begged Our Lady to let him see heaven, even if only for a moment. Our Lady granted him his wish and the good monk found himself in paradise. When he returned, he could not recognise the monastery – his prayer, which he had thought very short, lasted three centuries. Three centuries are nothing to a person in love.’

Mary is deeply embedded in our culture. Medieval cathedrals were the spas and hospitals of the day at a time when faith and prayer were the only therapies. The sick flocked to them, seeking Mary’s help as they once brought their needs to Jesus in the Holy Land. ‘Mother of Mercy’ was the ceaseless cry of the old, the blind, the lame, and their loyal helpers. ‘Mother of Mercy’ echoed day and night in the cathedrals and their precincts. Whenever there was a rumour of a cure numbers multiplied, swelling ‘Mother of Mercy’ to a giant chorus of love and longing.

At Christmas, thousands of people used to walk for weeks to the nearest cathedral to celebrate midnight Mass. There they stayed through that night and the next morning, soaking up music, light and beauty into lives otherwise full of back-breaking labour and misery.

Today those cathedrals continue to provide sanctuary for those with modern ills – loneliness, frustration, the sense of alienation.

French writer Léon Bloy pictured heaven as a Garden of Paradise, its dew the faithful’s tears. ‘Then the sun will rise like a pale Byzantine Virgin in the golden mosaic, and the earth will waken and scatter her scents.’

When, in his Divine Comedy, Dante reached heaven, the first hymn he heard was the Ave Maria, a song that brought serenity to the faces of the angelic host.

For 15 centuries, not one Mass has been said by Roman or Greek Christians without her being praised as our intercessor with her Son. This is why we honour her as advocate and co-redeemer.

Without her, we would not have salvation because we would not have Jesus. Christianity is a religion of incarnation which means a religion of Mother and Child. Jesus did not appear fully grown out of thin air, out of nowhere, like Adam in the Genesis story. He was ‘born of a woman’ (Gal 4:4). He was the fruit of a woman’s body (Lk 1:42). If he were not, he would not be a member of the human race at all, not a child of Adam but a completely new species.
As soon as God’s Son was born, like any child, he was put in the arms of his mother and bonded with her. That bonding was instantaneous and life-long. Without her, we dare to say, Jesus would have little appeal, for he would be an outsider, a stranger.

The Prophet Isaiah said:
All flesh is as grass,
It’s beauty will pass,
As in a field the flowers do.
The grasses grow pale
And the flowers fail,
Frail as the flowers are you.

Mary provided Jesus with the frail flesh he needed to save the world. According to Luke, he began his work in his mother’s womb through the sound of her voice. Elizabeth says, ‘Behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy’ (1:45).

In art, Jesus was originally depicted not as the Risen One, nor as the Crucified, nor even as a new-born babe, but as a child on his mother’s lap. This is why she was called Sedes Sapientiae, the Seat of Wisdom. In the first representation of Jesus, dating from the 2nd century, he is in his mother’s arms as he is greeted by the Magi, Easterners, Gentiles, as if to say Mary’s child is the Saviour of all.

The humblest things reminded them of her. For instance, the strawberry. ‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry,’ wrote William Butler, ‘but doubtless God never did.’

Medieval artists portrayed the Virgin Mary with strawberries, the perfect fruit. In her honour, craftsmen carved them on church altars and around the capitals of cathedral pillars. Mary was often painted as ‘The Madonna of the Strawberries’. Some artists put in the entire plant with its red fruit and white blossom.

Monks adorned their tapestries and illuminated manuscripts with them. In a French miniature (c. 1400), Joseph stretches out his hand with a strawberry in it to the child Jesus, coaxing him to take his first step. Another shows Mary with her child on her knee while angels gather strawberries to feed him. In a delightful 15th century drawing by Diűhrer, entitled ‘Mary and the Many Animals’, Mary is sitting in a garden surrounded by animals. On her knee, Jesus is reaching out to grasp a strawberry leaf.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they found reminders of Mary in summer meadows so full of small, crimson strawberries their horses’ hooves seemed to be covered with blood. One Dutch colonist wrote, ‘The flatland near the river is covered with strawberries, which grow so plentifully in the fields that one can lie down and eat them.’

So central was Mary to Christianity, from 1170-1752, Europe and Britain – with her American colonies – celebrated new year on 25 March, known as Lady Day. The spring solstice was the day of Mary’s Christing. On this day when spring begins to chase winter away, the Yes of the Annunciation marked the moment when the Word was made flesh in her womb and our redemption began. Writing his diaries in the 1660s, Samuel Pepys always switched from the old year to the new on Lady Day.

Tribute was paid to Mary by the devout Catholic J. R. H. Tolkien in his epic Lord of the Rings, voted the best book of the 20th century. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Since he saw Jesus and Mary as the essence of goodness and innocence, the abiding love of his life was the Eucharist and Our Lady ‘upon which,’ he said, ‘all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded’. Few readers may have noticed that the final attempt to destroy the Ring, the symbol of evil, and the Dark Lord (Satan) who had forged it, took place on 25 March, that is, Our Lady’s Day.

Persecution cannot sever the faithful’s devotion to Mary. The oldest lived-in house in England is Saltford Manor in Somerset. It still has paintings on the wall of Mary and her Son, dating from 1200. But the best proof of all is Mary’s Shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk, known as England’s Nazareth. After Mary appeared there in 1061, every English King for five centuries made a pilgrimage to honour her.

There the sick were cured by Our Lady’s might,
The lame made whole, the blind restored to sight.

In 1538, the House and Priory were destroyed at the order of Henry VIII who had previously been there three times as a barefoot pilgrim. The Virgin’s famous statue was taken to London and burned.

A 16th century poet penned this moving ‘Lament for Walsingham’ :

Level, level with the ground
The Towers do lie
Which, with their golden glittering tops,
Once pierced the sky.

Owls now screech where sweetest hymns
Were lately sung,
Toads and serpents have their dens
Where palmers once did throng.

Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are night:
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deed to spite.

Sin is where Our Lady lately sat,
And heaven is turned to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord held sway,
Walsingham, O Walsingham – farewell.

In a twist of fortune that would have amazed Henry VIII, in 2003 Walsingham was voted England’s National Favourite Spiritual Place.

Mary’s presence has influenced our culture more than all the philosophers who ever lived. Why this enthusiastic devotion to Mary?

Because she provided Jesus with the flesh that made him one of us. Within her, like any mother, the umbilical cord carried blood between the embryo and the placenta. She was the original source of the blood he shed for our salvation. She was to him what the city of Florence was to Michelangelo, ‘the nest wherein I was born’.

If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, Mary is the way to the Way, the first Yes of recognition to the Truth, the life that gave birth to the Life. In medieval statues, Mary is shown with a book (or scroll) in her hand, possibly of the Jewish Bible. In many paintings of the time, Jesus is sitting on Mary’s lap while she holds a book, suggesting that she helped him grasp his destiny inscribed in the Old Testament. Roger van Weyden’s picture, ‘Virgin and Child’ (1450), in which Jesus is tearing a page out of a book, probably symbolises the same thing.

While it’s unlikely that in those days a Jewish woman was able to read, the truth behind the imagery is valid: as a mother, Mary instructed the great Teacher. She taught the Word of God to speak, the Son of God to pray, the Messiah to sacrifice himself for love.

An anonymous 15th century Welsh poem says:

Good was the maid, hope’s dwelling,
Her flesh bore heaven for you.

Some non-Catholic Christians say that devotion to Mary has no basis in the Bible. With genuine respect, it has to be said they could not be more wrong. In Luke’s gospel, Mary was Jesus’ first disciple, the first to believe in him, the first Christian. She was first in the most important sense that without her there would have been no second Christian, let alone the millions who throughout history have believed in him.

Mary’s belief is far more the church’s foundation than St Peter’s. When Peter confessed, ‘Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God,’ Jesus replied, ‘Flesh and blood hath not revealed this to thee but my Father who is in heaven.’ But without Mary’s act of faith, there would have been no Christ for Peter to believe in and, therefore, no kingdom of God and no church.

At the Annunciation, Mary, unlike Peter, had not heard Jesus preach or seen his miracles and yet, already saved, she instantly believed. It was not flesh and blood that revealed the incarnation to her but the living God himself.

In his poem, ‘Ave Maria Gratia Plena’, Oscar Wilde is puzzled by the coming of Christ. He would have expected to have seen some great God arrive in a rain of gold or God’s clear body blazing with fire to slay a beautiful brown. limbed goddess utterly. It was to be nothing like that.

With such glad dreams I sought his holy place
and now with wandering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand
And over both the white wings of a dove.

Mary’s sinless womb was Jesus’ Eden, his Paradise Garden, which, when her time came, he was forced to leave for a world of sin and death in order to save it.

To show how necessary Mary was, G.K. Chesterton told a symbolic story of a group of Christians who possessed a statue of Mary with the child in her arms. They wanted to get rid of Mary but, if they did, Jesus would have been left up in the air. They, therefore, felt they had no choice but to get rid of both.

Think of the praise of Mary in this book as did Thomas Merton, author and Trappist monk, when he wrote to a fellow poet: ‘The great tragedy is that we feel so keenly that love has been twisted out of shape in us and beaten down and crippled. But Christ loves in us, and the compassion of Our Lady keeps her prayer burning like a lamp in the depths of our being. That lamp does not waver. It is the light of the Holy Spirit, invisible, kept alight by her love for us.’

Before Merton, Newman wrote: ‘Mary is the most beautiful flower that ever was seen in the spiritual world. It is the power of God’s grace that from this barren and desolate earth there have ever sprung up at all flowers of holiness and glory. And Mary is the Queen of them. She is the Queen of spiritual flowers; and therefore she is called the ‘Rose’, for the rose is fitly called of all flowers the most beautiful.’

The medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), was one of the most remarkable women in the history of the church, abbess, philosopher, teacher, theologian, botanist, medical scientist, painter, poet, composer, visionary, adviser of popes and kings.

She often saw visions of Mary. Sometimes she was the womanly Wisdom, shaped and shining like a sapphire, which was with God before the world was made. Sometimes she appeared as Ecclesia, the church, the Bride of Christ more dazzling than the Bride of the Song of Songs, a giant icon dwarfing the world.

Perhaps because Midnight Mass is called Missa Prima Galli Cantu, The First Mass of Cock Crow, Hildegard loved to be first up in the morning to hear cockcrow. In the ensuing Magnum Silentium, the Great Silence of the new-born world, Mary helped her compose the antiphons of the Mass by singing in her inner ear.

O Ecclesia, your eyes are like sapphires,
Your ears are like the mount of Bethel.
You have opened for us
The barred Gate of eternity.
Mary the Virgin’s flower
Spreads everywhere, lit by the pinky dawn,
Your nose is a column of incense and myrrh
Your mouth is the sound of many waters.

Hildegard spoke of God green-fingered like a gardener, and she heard him say to her:

I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.

I am the rain coming from the dew
that causes the grasses to laugh
with the joy of life.

Hildegard saw Mary as the ‘One Who Has Greened The World’. She has moistened the world’s dryness, making it fruitful again. Mary is herself a green tree in which all the birds of the air find a nest.

Your womb held the world’s joy
When heaven’s harmony
Chimed out of you like a bell,
Because, holy Virgin, within you
You bore the Christ who made
Your chasteness glow in God.
Like thick dew that livens
And greens the grass.
You, too, are an ever alive-green,
O Mother of all delight.

In her poem, O Viridissima Virga, Hildegard greets Mary as ‘The Greenest Stem’:

Hail, greenest stem
which in the gusting wind of the prayers
of the saints was brought forth.
Since the time has come
when you flourished amongst your friends,
hail, hail to you,
because the warmth of the sun keeps you moist
like the scent of balsam.
For the fairest flower has blossomed in you
and perfumed all scents
which had been parched.
And these all appeared in fullest greenness.

Long before Merton or Newman or Dante, four centuries before even Hildegard, St Lomman, a 7th century Irish abbot from Trim in County Meath, spoke ‘The Praises of Mary’, with their chorus, ‘Mary, Loving Mary, Our joy and our delight.’

These praises, passed on orally, were only written down in the 20th century. Down the ages, these praises were developed like folk songs.

Joy of the Father, Love of the Son,
Delight of the Holy Spirit,
Delight of the Most High God.
Thou who knew not man,
Mother of the Holy One,
Mother of him who was never made.
He drank life from thy breasts.
Before Adam he knew thee,

To Adam he told of thee.
Angels and saints feast on thy beauty.
Delight of God,
Peerless Mary,
Thy face is heavenly beauty.
Straight Way without spot,
Beautiful flower of every perfume,
Heavenly rose, whose beauty draws all.
Choicest and rarest flower of the Father’s garden;
Tended by his angels.
Gentle Mary, loving Mary.

Heavenly wind,
Spring rain,
Blinding Light that overcasts the sun.
Mightier than the mountains.
Greater than the seas.
The sun is thy chariot,
The moon and stars thy playthings
The clouds skip like lambs around thy feet. Beauty that captivates all hearts.
Light that dispels all darkness,
Mary, whiter than the snows.

At thy consent angels sang hymns of great joy.
The Father Eternal smiled on thee.
The Son became thine own.
The Divine Spirit took thee unto himself
Silent Mary, the Holy Spirit spoke through thee.

All men claim thee.
All peoples bless thy name.
Broken-hearted Mary at the cross.
You saw the rabble mock thy Son.
You saw the lance open his side.
You saw them cast dice for his garments.
You who care for all,
could not give him to drink, when he cried, I thirst.
He gave thee to us as our mother.
You saw him die.

Crimson rose of heavenly fragrance.
From thy pure flesh was made food for us
who know thy Son.
Beautiful Mary, you raised women to a new dignity.
Thy body did not know corruption.
Peaceful sleep fell upon thee.
Thy feet rested on the wings of angels.
In their hands they carried thee.
The heavens opened to thee.
You reign with thy Son.

You come, not as the triumphant warrior
in terrible array,
But as the gentle mother calling,
calling thy children to thee.

Dove of God, thy voice is sweeter
than the thrush and the lark.
Angels stay their journey to hear thee.
Your words are sweeter than honey.
Your eyes are beautiful and gentle,
We have no fear of thee.

You hear the cry of your children;
You, their mother, will hasten to help.
You gladden the hearts that mourn.
You dry the eyes that weep.
Mother of the widow and orphan.
Safe home to the outcast.
Thy smile is peace.
O Mary, our Mother, lead us home.
O Mary, when our eyes close in our last sleep,
and open to behold thy Son, the just judge,
and the angel opens the book,
and the enemy accuses us,
in that terrible hour, come to our aid,
be with us.

When death came to Joseph,
you and your Son were with him,
Thy Son to judge, thou to console.
O happy Joseph!
When death comes for us, be near us.

O Mary, we are thy children,
Thou art our mother.
As little children we come to thee,
knowing no fear.
O Mary, he changed water into wine for thee,
even as he said: My hour has not yet come.

Now he would not refuse thee,
when you plead for us thy children.
There shall be neither night nor day to thy praises.
Adoration to the Father who created thee!
Adoration to the Son who took flesh from thee!
Adoration to the Holy Spirit, thy Divine Spouse!
Three in One, One in Three.
Equal in all things.
To him be glory for ever and for ever. Amen.
The Irish looked on Jesus as:
The Virgin’s nurseling,
Child of the white-footed,
Deathless, inviolate,
Bright-bodied Maiden.

Together with the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the Italians and the French, the Irish spread their love for this Maiden across the Old World and the New so that now not only Europe but North and South America, Australia and New Zealand are full of Catholics repeating daily:

Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

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