I’ve never once felt a kinship with Mary. All the heroes of my fundamentalist upbringing were men. We loved and exalted the apostle Paul or John the Revelator. We quoted Romans or pondered the Epistles, but I never heard a sermon devoted exclusively to Mary. We studied our Bibles backward and forward but somehow had entirely neglected to meditate on Mary’s hymn of praise to God as recorded in Luke 1:46-55. I begin to wonder if I’ve never felt close to Mary because I’ve been trained to look elsewhere. I blindly adopted the male-dominated narrative I learned in fundamentalism. Now it seems this neglect of Mary in both doctrine and devotion has cut me off from the maternal comfort I need…I need a woman’s touch, a woman’s understanding, a woman’s empathy to comfort me as I watch my babies suffer in the hospital…A crack of light appears in my consciousness. Mary understands. — from my book Girl at The End of the World, p. 177, 178
I would say my biggest “stumbling blocks” to becoming Catholic were three things: Mary, Mary and… Mary.
After one RCIA session (RCIA is like a year-long “membership class” which teaches curious seekers about our Catholic faith), I remember asking one of our catechists: “Well, could I still enter the Church even if I didn’t believe what the Church teaches about Mary?”
She chuckled, kindly. “Maybe the more appropriate question is: Why don’t you want to believe what the Church teaches about Mary?”
I already knew the answer to that. “I’m just concerned that accepting the Catholic teachings about Mary will make me guilty of idolatry. I don’t want to neglect Mary, but I’m worried that asking for her intercession or calling her the Mother of God somehow diminishes the worship that belongs to God alone.”
My catechist was very wise. She didn’t get all tangled up in a theological argument. She simply suggested I try to learn what the Church taught before I judged it. And then she suggested praying the Rosary to see if I experienced anything. GAH. What good would THAT do? I wanted chapter-and-verse answers, not experience! At the same time, I had to acknowledge I’d already experienced something while watching nuns pray The Rosary on TV. That something wasn’t something I could necessarily put into words. But it felt like relief.
And then there was that time in the hospital when the twins were born….I’d definitely felt comforted by Mary. So, why was I still so troubled?
The answer to my questions about Mary came about indirectly. It began when, a few months later, I broached a different topic with my priest. This one was about papal infallibility. I wasn’t sure I could say aloud—during the Easter Vigil—that I accepted what the Church taught because the idea of infallibility made me break out in hives. I mean, I just had this visceral reaction to any human being claiming to have that kind of 100% true, direct-from-God’s-mouth authority.
My priest engaged me in conversation—not in argument. First he explained that papal infallibility wasn’t what I thought it was. I was like: “Oh! So, not everything that pops out of the Pope’s mouth is infallible? Huh. Didn’t know that.”
SIDEBAR: The more I learned about Catholicism, the more I ended up saying “I didn’t know that” over and over and over. Cue humility check. END SIDEBAR.
Then he asked me to explain what my hesitations were about Catholic teaching in general and where they came from. He asked me explain the Bible verses I’d used to debunk “false Catholic teachings.” Eventually, I could see that I was approaching Catholic teachings through a very fundamentalist-y lens.
I was suspicious of any doctrine I couldn’t nail down with a literal interpretation of chapter-and-verse. I felt compelled to be a “good Berean” and figure everything out for myself. Furthermore, my Western individualism insisted every doctrine had to make sense to ME before I believed it.
Ultimately, most of my fears were sourced in fear of mystery. I was afraid to acknowledge I’d experienced Mary’s comfort while in the hospital with my twins because I was afraid it meant I didn’t believe Jesus Was Enough. I was afraid experience meant I was trusting in something “extra-Biblical” (read: faulty). If I couldn’t validate my experience with Mary through chapter-and-verse, maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe I’d just been hopped up on painkillers and adrenaline?
The thing was, I’d already become convinced of the Church’s teaching regarding the Eucharist. That was an “easier” bridge for me to cross because Jesus’ own words about it were pretty clear: “…anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For my flesh is true food, and blood is true drink. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (St. John 6:54-56, emphasis mine).
I mean, Jesus says it three times, not to mention the surrounding verses that speak of Him being the bread of life and bread from Heaven, etc. etc. Point is, taking Jesus at His word seemed more logical than trying to come up with explanations as to why the Eucharist wasn’t His true body and blood.
So it was in this indirect way—accepting the Church’s teaching regarding the Eucharist—that helped me accept its teachings about Mary. If the Church had gotten it right about the most important thing of ALL—the Eucharist—wasn’t it possible that it also got it right about Mary? I had to admit that was a possibility.
I could see the poetry in it, somehow. In the hospital, Mary was my true North Star, pointing me home to Jesus. And now, my growing love for the Eucharist was pointing me to love and accept her.
I remember the day it dawned on me. I was in my minivan, driving to pick up the kids from school and listening to a CD about Marian doctrine. Suddenly, it hit me. It was ridiculous NOT to love Mary! It was ludicrous NOT to honor her. I mean, was Jesus gonna say: “I’m not happy with you because you just loved my Mother too much”?
It was like Jesus was saying: Permission granted. You’re free to love my Mother.
Now, my unabashed love for Mary comes from a sincere understanding that honoring Mary doesn’t diminish Jesus, it brings more glory to God. When I seek to know and cherish her, the mother in whose womb God was made flesh, I am filled with wonder for what God has done, too. When I thank her for her “yes” to God, I am thanking God for my salvation. And when I seek to imitate her “yes” to God, I too am learning how to trust Him.
The more I get to know her, the more I come to know a good, kind and gentle Mother. Mary is such a good Mama. She understands. She just gets me. I want to spend the rest of my life getting to know her.
Sáncta MarÍa, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary, pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.