The role of Mary in mental prayer

The Role of Mary in Mental Prayer
opular devotion is very important for contemplative prayer. Holy images, beautiful churches, holy shrines, rosaries, and Eucharistic Adoration are given to us to dispose us to a deeper encounter with God. Mary is of special importance.
Different cultures have developed different expressions of Marian piety. These sources of contemplative prayer need to be rediscovered and promoted now more than ever. Her witness to maternal love and obedience to God keeps before us all that is good, noble, and true.
In Mary, the mystery of woman lives at the heart of the Church. Because of the wonder of her faith, she is the icon of what the whole ecclesial reality means. Different forms of popular devotion can deepen this relationship so that, together with His Mother, we might more deeply love the Lord. This is dedicated to promoting a more lively devotion to Mary as an aid for growth in Christian contemplation and mystical wisdom.
Marian Consecration
Accepting the gift of Mary disposes us instead to a relational mysticism. It proposes a pathway by which we let go of our own projects and self-serving enterprises and choose to live for Christ in service to others.
The Lord’s gift of His Mother to us is vital to this kind of participation in His work of redemption. By embracing her special relation to Him as Mother in our life of prayer, our own relation to God and to one another is rendered more vulnerable to sharing in the life of grace that Christ came to give us. We accept and embrace the spiritual gift of the Lord’s Mother in our lives when we consecrate ourselves to Jesus through Mary.
The Scriptures explain to us that Mary stood at the foot of the Cross with the Beloved Disciple. In this spiritual place, the threshold of saving access with God, in which the truth of our humanity and the truth of God’s love coincide, a new kind of maternity was revealed to the world.
This maternity is supernatural, a motherhood that is above the natural order. To reveal this, Jesus subordinates what is natural to the new supernatural reality that His saving work of redemption establishes. In the passage, Jesus seems to distance Himself from His Mother and to dispossess her when He says, “Woman, behold, your son!” (John 19:26).
Christ’s words and actions concerning His Mother bear unique relation to her obedience to the Father. On the Cross, Christ dispossesses Himself of everything. He gives all that is most personal and dear to Him away out of love for the Father and for the sake of our salvation. His freedom, His dignity, His Mother, and His last breath are all offered for us as His sacrifice of praise.
From her fiat at the moment that He was conceived, to her radical following of Him to the Cross, she perseveres in pondering the truth of God in her heart. Even as her Son
seems to reject her, she follows all the more closely. In fact, the true nature of her maternal relationship with the Lord emerges in this seeming rejection.
At the wedding feast at Cana, the Lord seems to reject her when He addresses her as “woman,” but her reaction is like a queen mother whose request the king cannot reject (see John 2:3–5). Later, when someone exclaims that the womb that bore Him and the breasts that fed Him were blessed, the Word of the Father counters by declaring, rather, that those who hear His word and keep it are blessed (Luke 11:27–28).
Again, when someone informs Him that His Mother and brothers are outside, the Son of God declares that only those who do the will of the Father are mother and brothers to Him. Then, he goes out to the mysterious woman (see Luke 8:19–21).
When He declares the blessedness of those who hear and believe Him, he subordinates natural bonds of human affection to the new supernatural bonds that faith in Him establishes. The new bonds we have by faith are greater than this life. This is why Christian faith gives us the freedom to renounce even our natural instinct for self-preservation. This means that by prayer we can subordinate our love for life to our love of God.
This Marian subordination of what is most naturally dear to us to what is supernatural and not familiar to us is a threshold into a deep truth about how we are to live. Cleaving to this life does not have to be our ultimate pursuit. Prayer rooted in devotion to our Lady opens us to that truth that even when we die, death is not the final word about our existence.
Mary, who stood beneath the Cross, is a sign to us that we have in us a love that is greater than death. A fire burns in our hearts that the deep waters of death cannot quench. Even as we are dispossessed of everything and everyone in death, Mary helps us follow Christ to the end. Mary, the Mother of Life Himself, helps to guide us and prays for us even at the solemn moment when we draw our last breath.
Mary is declared blessed not because of maternal instincts and biology, but because she believed, obeyed, and kept the Word spoken to her. She in fact conceived Him in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb. The Lord’s mysterious way of relating with Mary reveals that the work of His new creation involves believing in His love and concern even when it is expressed in unfamiliar ways. By His grace, Jesus shows His power to re-create woman, making Mary the New Eve.
Each apparent rejection is actually an affirmation: the woman Mary, the New Eve, is the one who hears and keeps His word, and she is His Mother precisely because of her radical obedience of the will of the Father. Such is the power of the grace of Christ that it can reconstitute our humanity to conform to the truth He reveals. The sign of God’s mysterious love that Mary provides throughout the ministry of Christ reaches its climax at the foot of the Cross. As at the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus, looking at His Mother, calls her “Woman.” And then, He gives her to the disciple whom He loved. This Beloved Disciple likewise takes her into his home.
Jesus’ entrusting His Mother to the disciple whom He loves speaks to a very special grace offered to those who strive to begin to pray. When Jesus offered His beloved disciple the gift of His Mother, the beloved disciple took her into his home. This means he made the Lord’s Mother part of his personal life, even his own life of prayer, his intimate devotion to Christ.
John Paul II was astounded at this gift. By dispossessing Himself of everything in this life, including His Mother, Jesus offers each of us His Mother and the gift of new life. If we choose to take Mary into our hearts, choose to welcome her into our lives, she offers us the same maternal affection she offered Jesus. It is a spiritual motherhood that Christ gives us through her. This spiritual maternity is as connected with our spiritual life as natural motherhood is with our natural life. Mary nurtures and protects us spiritually so that we can mature in our love for the Lord and in our devotion in prayer. By accepting the gift of Mary, we make ourselves, in a spiritual sense, her sons and daughters.
It is to this end that a tradition arose in the Catholic patrimony of prayer of consecrating oneself to Jesus through Mary. Sometimes called Marian Consecration, this spiritual act of wel­coming Mary into one’s life and entrusting her with everything allows her to entrust to that person everything in her maternal heart: the fruit of the most profound contemplation of her Son and the Work of redemption. Such an exchange of hearts between the Mother of the Lord and a disciple who welcomes her expands the life of prayer, so that our efforts to pray are infused with the prayers of the Virgin Mother.
Mary & Elizabeth of the Trinity
Redeemed by the sacrifice of her Son on the Cross, Mary’s natural motherhood has been transformed by His blood into a spiritual motherhood. She prays for every Christian that the gift of faith might be nurtured and come to maturity. She is able to lead those who welcome this maternal mediation of the grace of Christ into their hearts into the same obedient faith by which she followed her Son to the Cross to participate in His work of redemption.
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity understood this in a beautiful way. She reflects on the unique knowledge that Mary had of her Son, not only because she was His Mother, but more so because she accompanied her Son with faith from His conception all the way to His Crucifixion, pondering all these things in her heart. Mary contemplated Jesus’ obedience on the Cross more profoundly than any other human being.
This obedience, according to Blessed Elizabeth, was a great song of praise. Because Mary carries this song of praise in her heart, she can teach it to those who entrust themselves to her intercession.
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity describes this as His great canticle, a hymn of glory so beautiful and so hidden that no one knows it fully. Mary who was there, however, knows it deep enough to teach us this song of praise when we must pass through crucifying moments in our lives. Mary, who was with Christ and who was an intimate part of the Lord’s final dispossession of everything for our sake, is able to teach us how to make our death into a beautiful canticle of praise too.
Because of this, in those painful crucifying moments of our lives, if we ask Mary, she will help us offer the same song of praise that Jesus offered on the Cross. She who magnifies the Lord also helps us magnify His glory and extend the work of redemption to the world. Through prayer guided by the Lord’s gift of Mary’s spiritual maternity, death becomes the making up in our own bodies “what is lacking in the suffering of Christ” (see Col. 1:24). Because Christ has given her to us, we have hope that, even through our dying bodies, we will at last render true “spiritual worship” (see John 4:23).
Mary wants to teach the mystical wisdom that she learned at the foot of the Cross. Those who welcome Mary and allow her to teach them the heart of her Son come to know Mary as Elizabeth of the Trinity did. For Elizabeth and for all such disciples, Mary becomes for them Janua Coeli, the “Gate of Heaven.”
She who obediently followed the Lord, who allowed herself to be raised in the order of grace from a natural motherhood to a supernatural motherhood, accompanies all those who allow themselves to be raised by her Son into the new existence of grace that Christian prayer makes possible.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom . It is available from Sophia Institute Press .

A priest on descovering celibacy

A Priest On Discovering Celibacy
rowing up Protestant, I never thought I would become a Catholic priest, let alone one who wrote a book on celibacy.
Because we moved a lot, my family was involved in various churches over the years and I got to know several of our pastors. My recollection of these men is thoroughly positive; they were kind, engaging, thoughtful people who loved Christ and took my youthful questions and problems seriously.
About Catholic priests I knew much less. I knew they were celibate. I had even met a few of them because in some of the countries in which we lived, I attended Catholic schools. Their celibacy was intriguing, something of a curiosity – but it was the curiosity of a detached tourist, not that of an interested inquirer.
Like many conversion stories, my path to Rome began with the witness of faithful Catholics, the reading of good books, and the fits and starts of a life of prayer. I was in college at the time. At the end of one of our sessions, the priest who was giving me instructions said, almost in passing, that perhaps I would join him at the altar one day.
At this point, mind you, I was not even Catholic; I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be Catholic; and I was very certain that I would never be a celibate priest. I went away stewing on what he said; I was appalled at the very idea of becoming a priest, and frankly thought it rather brazen of him to suggest it.
So what happened? To put it in a nutshell, my understanding of celibacy changed when my understanding of the priesthood changed. And my understanding of the priesthood changed when my understanding of the Eucharist changed.
As a Protestant, Sunday services make sense only in the context of a community of believers. I was intrigued, then, to learn that it was not so for the Catholic Mass. It is not unusual to enter a cathedral in Europe, for instance, and find a Mass being offered at a side-altar by a priest alone or with a single server. The Holy Sacrifice is always offered for the good of all the faithful, of course, but the Mass occurs whether or not many are able to physically be there.
It is the priest who makes the Mass possible because he stands in the place of Jesus the High Priest offering Himself in loving oblation to the Father. That understanding of the Holy Eucharist opened up for me a new way to perceive ordained ministry. The Protestant pastors who served my family were good men but none made any pretensions of standing literally in the place of Christ during Sunday services, or at any other time. The priest, in contrast, is a man who represents Christ with staggering literalism as he feeds his people with the supernatural Bread of Life.
My new Eucharistic perspective on the priesthood soon broadened. The priest is a man who not only feeds his people but who gives new birth in the sacrament of Baptism; who heals sinful wounds in Confession; who preaches the Gospel and teaches with words of instruction, exhortation, encouragement, and correction; and who strives, as a good shepherd, to protect his people from the hungry wolves of sin and error.
Now – what do we call a man who gives life, who provides, who heals, who teaches, and who protects? We typically call priests “Father” in ordinary conversation. It turns out that’s exactly what they are!
When I really grasped the priest’s spiritual fatherhood, I finally understood celibacy. The married pastors whom I knew growing up always tried to make time for me, but I never had any doubt who came first in their lives. It was not me, but their wives and children – as well it should have been. When it comes to priests, it’s different. A priest is a spiritual father, a man who belongs unreservedly to his Lord and to His people. He belongs to you and to me. You and I come first in his life.
Where does celibacy fit in?
A father must provide for his family. A priest provides for his spiritual family through the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. Celibacy helps a priest provide these sources of supernatural life with generosity and a more radical availability. Spiritually, too, there is a strong link between the sacrifice of celibacy on the part of a priest and the sacrifice that he offers on the altar. His personal sacrifice echoes and draws strength from the sacrifice of Calvary, which the priest makes present each day in the Holy Mass. His celibacy is an oblation that is united to that of Christ himself, for the good of the Church and the whole world.
A father must teach and guide his family. A priest does so by imparting good doctrine and by his preaching. When celibacy is lived generously, there is a contemplative receptivity to the Lord that St. Paul described as an “undivided heart.” This interior availability can be, should be, highly conducive to the interior life, which overflows into the lives of his hearers. Many Catholics, I suspect, have had the experience of a saintly priest preaching with a certain hidden power.
On faculty at my seminary, years ago, there was an elderly priest whose homilies were invariably simple and rhetorically unexciting. Yet they were among the most memorable and powerful in all my years of formation, because they emerged from a life of profound union with Christ. His homilies were not always naturally inspiring, but they were supernaturally inspired – and that made them truly lifegiving. His celibacy offered him the opportunity and spiritual space to nourish that contemplative union in a way that overflowed into preaching and moved hearts.
Finally, a father must protect his family. A priest-father must protect his spiritual family from both physical and spiritual harm. Celibacy frees a man to defend his people from outside threats, even at the cost of his life, without hesitation. These threats may be physical, as in the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe who offered himself for execution in place of a fellow (married) prisoner.
More commonly, the threats are spiritual or moral, and here too celibacy comes to the aid of the priest. It can be hard to preach the whole Gospel, including the unpopular and difficult parts. And yet if a priest is to give his people the tools they need to protect themselves from error, that’s what he must do. Celibacy, when lived well, can free a man from any concern for status, affirmation, advancement, or financial growth, and so free him to protect his people from error even when it is difficult – even when they themselves do not see the danger.
As a young person, I never imagined for a moment that I would one day be a celibate priest. Once I began to understand the nature of the priesthood, however, that it is a vocation of genuine spiritual fatherhood, I realized that I did not need to abandon my natural desires to follow the Lord in this vocation. Now, I cannot see myself as anything but a celibate priest. As a young man I wanted to be a husband and a father. Now, I realize, that’s exactly what I am.

St Luke’s Gospel

What will life be like for us then? Well, we don’t know exactly. God has not revealed to us the details; he seems to be saving that for a surprise.
The Gospel of Luke, which we will hear continuously this year on Sundays in Ordinary Time and Lent, assures us that the Kingdom of God, in its fullness, will confound all our expectations and will overturn our experiences. In fact, in the Kingdom of God everything will be turned upside down.
This is especially true when it comes to power, privilege and wealth. Luke assures us time and again that in God’s Kingdom those who struggle in life now—those who are at the bottom or on the edges of human society—will suddenly find themselves at the top and in the center.
On the other hand, he warns those who now enjoy the greatest human security and social advantage that their experience may be very different. As Jesus tells his listeners on one occasion, “Behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last”(Luke 13:30, New American Bible, also used for other quotes). This notion that in the end God will turn everything we know upside down is often called the “Great Reversal.”It is a hallmark of Luke’s Gospel, where it appears frequently.
Mary’s Magnificat
The announcement of the Great Reversal appears early in the Gospel in the Magnificat (1:46-55), Mary’s great song of praise. Shortly after she consents to become the mother of Jesus, the young girl from the little town of Nazareth hurries to visit her cousin Elizabeth who, she has learned from the Angel Gabriel, has conceived a child in her old age. When the two meet, Elizabeth bursts into a joyous welcome for “the mother of my Lord”(1:43).
Mary responds by offering praise to God for what he has done for her:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness.” (1:46b-48a)
Mary represents the most powerless and insignificant people in her society: young, female, poor. Yet God has chosen her—of all people—to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. Mary’s lowliness, which in human eyes would surely disqualify her from even being considered for such an unimaginably important role in God’s plan of salvation, is exactly what makes her so perfect for it.
Mary is “lowly”not simply in social status, but also in her relationship to God. Her social vulnerability allows her to be spiritually vulnerable as well. She is humble, open to the call of God, however frightening it may be, however impossible it may seem. Because she knows she is so dependent on God’s mercy, she is radically free and open to put herself at the disposal of God’s glory.
Although she sings that “the Mighty One has done great things for me”(1:49), Mary also understands that what God has done for her as an individual is a sign of God’s concern for all the lowly:
“He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.” (1:51-53)
God’s action on Mary’s behalf signals an overturning of society as a whole. Not only are the lowly lifted up and the hungry fed well, but the rich and the powerful have actually lost their positions in society. What God intends is not just that those who are without will have, but that those who have will be without.
This is a declaration of God’s judgment on the arrogant and the proud, the exact opposite of the lowly and humble. Such people are not open to hearing the call of God and, as will become quite evident in the rest of the Gospel, are particularly resistant to hearing Jesus proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Their sense of security and well-being prevents them from seeing how dependent they are on God’s mercy. Thus, their social invulnerability has created in them a similar spiritual invulnerability.
The proud and arrogant effectively shut themselves out of the Kingdom, resisting the call to conversion and the acceptance of God’s mercy, the two keys to that Kingdom.
What are we to make of the fact that Mary declares that these things have already happened? Anyone could see 2,000 years ago that the rich and powerful were still quite rich and quite powerful, and that the lowly and hungry were no better off than before.
According to some scholars, the original Greek uses the past tense here to indicate habitual action, so that Mary is describing a God who routinely upsets the rich and powerful while raising up the lowly.
Other scholars argue that the past tense here means what it often does when used by biblical prophets, to indicate a future event that has been firmly declared by God. In that sense, it is as good as done.
While one does not have to choose either of these options, the Magnificat clearly refers to an eschatological reversal, that is, to one that will occur in the coming age. We recognize this as already inaugurated by God’s making Mary the mother of the Messiah.
Blessings and Woes
God’s Great Reversal will become a significant, and disturbing, feature of the teaching of Jesus. In his Sermon on the Plain (6:20-49), Jesus proclaims these four blessings (or beatitudes):
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.” (6:20b-23a)
Poor, hungry, mourning and hated people receive from Jesus a great consolation: One day things will be different. The poor and hungry of the world are not blessed because they are poor and hungry—poverty is not held up here as a good thing—but because what they do not have now, they will one day have in the Kingdom of God, which is already theirs!
Even those who experience rejection because of Jesus should consider themselves fortunate, not because being hated is a good thing but because their fidelity to the Son of Man in the face of opposition assures them a place in heaven.
Hatred, poverty, mourning and hunger are social evils that are not acceptable to God, and never have been, as the prophets relentlessly insisted. Blessing lies not in being poor or in being hated, but in the fact that in the world to come, the poor and the hated know that their fortunes will be reversed.
What is a consolation to the lowly in this world is disturbing news for the comfortable, whom Jesus informs what they can expect:
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.” (6:24-26)
Each of the earlier blessings has been matched by a corresponding woe. The rich will have no need of consolation in the coming age; they have it now.The well-fed, the carefree and even the socially admired of this world will not experience consolation in the coming age.
Like his mother before him, Jesus makes the disturbing announcement that the fullness of the Kingdom of God might be less than enjoyable for some people.
At this point, we might ask: What is wrong with being wealthy, well-fed or highly thought of? Doesn’t God want these things for all of us? It is easy to see why Jesus would assure the poor and hungry that one day their situation will be remedied, but why should the rich and well-fed be punished in the coming age for their current prosperity?
Is there something wrong with being prosperous or with enjoying the good things in life? The answer is no; there is not. But social and economic security can blind us to certain realities and make us deaf to others, making us unable to respond to the ethical and the spiritual demands of the Kingdom of God.
Later in the Gospel, Jesus tells a story demonstrating that social invulnerability can be spiritually dangerous.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
There once was a rich man, Jesus tells his disciples (16:19-31), who used to dress in expensive clothes and dine well every day. At his gate there was a very poor man named Lazarus, who instead of being covered with fine linen was covered with sores. Instead of dining sumptuously every day, Lazarus longed for even the smallest scrap from the rich man’s table. After both men die, the rich man finds himself in fiery torment in the netherworld, while Lazarus is comfortably beside Abraham and all the righteous.
On seeing this, the rich man orders Abraham to send Lazarus with water to quench his thirst. Abraham refuses, noting that the rich man had been very comfortable in life.
Then the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to the rich man’s brothers to warn them, so that they can avoid his fate. Still refusing, Abraham reminds the man that his brothers have all the warnings they need in the teachings of Moses and the prophets.
Once again, we have the Great Reversal, this time written in the lives of two individuals. Their situations in this life and the next can perhaps be understood to represent those of the poor and the rich in general. We can be quite happy for Lazarus, who surely deserved to receive great comfort with Abraham after such a miserable life.
But what of the rich man? What was his crime that he should deserve such torment? Jesus makes it clear that it was not his wealth that was the problem. He is not condemned simply for being rich and well-fed; he is condemned because his good fortune blinded him to the moral responsibility he had toward Lazarus. The rich man failed to take care of the poor, a religious obligation made abundantly clear in the teachings of Moses and the prophets (see, for example, Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Amos 6:1-14 and Isaiah 58:6-9).
Because the rich man addresses Lazarus by name and obviously knew him in life, he does not even have the excuse that he didn’t know there was a poor beggar suffering at his door. To make matters worse, the rich man seems to feel that even in death Lazarus should serve him, first, by bringing him some water and, then, by being a messenger to his brothers.
Insensitivity to the plight of the poor man is aggravated by arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Despite the insistence of his religious tradition that the well-off must have compassion for the poor, the rich man’s comfort and satisfaction with life made him deaf to God’s word. And so his fate is sealed and his fortunes reversed.
What about Us?
Such a message must have been particularly compelling, and probably not a little challenging, for the Christians who first received Luke’s Gospel. It seems clear that the evangelist himself came from a privileged level of society (his Greek is very sophisticated, indicating a good education), and he most likely was writing for other educated and affluent Christians.
The question of wealth and possessions comes up time and again both in the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke as a companion piece to the Gospel. Acts also emphasizes God’s enduring love for every person.
The relationship of material wellbeing to discipleship must have been a particularly critical issue for Luke’s audience. The question was: How should Christians who are socially secure relate to their own well-being and to the needs of others?
Contemporary Christians, particularly those of us who live in relatively prosperous societies, are certainly called to ask the same question. To those of us who are able to enjoy material and social prosperity, the Great Reversal may seem like very Bad News indeed. What are we to make of it? What does Jesus want us to know?
One thing that is very clear about the Great Reversal is that it is the work of God, the God who acts to set things right, to bring healing and liberation in this world and in the next. It is not something that humans can accomplish, and so the announcement of the Great Reversal is not a call for humanly orchestrated social upheaval.
At the same time, it is not a call for maintaining the status quo by assuring poor people that their poverty is a blessing. The call of Moses and the prophets—and Jesus and the saints—is not only to care for the disadvantaged but also to work actively to bring about economic justice for all people. This charge remains our religious obligation, just as it was for the rich man.
The Great Reversal assures us that the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized—all those who count for nothing in this world—count very much in the Kingdom of God. The future holds great promise for them because God cares deeply for them.
For those who find this life easy and satisfying, the Great Reversal serves as a warning. While they are not evil in themselves, wealth and power are spiritually dangerous, always threatening to lull us into complacency and insensitivity to the needs of others.
They can also make us proud, relying on our own resources and failing to recognize our ultimate dependency on God. Only when we recognize this dependency can we, like Mary, open ourselves to hear the call of God. Only when we recognize our dependence on God can we be humble enough to hear Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom of God, where the last in this world will be first and the first in this world—the proud, the arrogant, the satisfied—will be last.