Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mary - Offensive? Embarrassing?

"And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me." - (Mat. 11:6)
We were willing, we Episcopalians, to believe that Jesus was an alright guy, that he performed miracles, even that he rose from the dead and was in some sense God.  But we found some of the other things a tad bit embarrassing.  

The Second Coming?  Eternal life in new bodies?  Heaven and Hell?  It was all a little gauche.  

Our music was excellent, the service was elevated, the books we discussed were good; but there was this gaudy quality about certain elements in the Faith that might appeal to fanatics or to the sort of bumpkins who read tabloid newspapers, but it didn't appeal to us.

Then one day, while driving, it occurred to me that if all of the rest of it were true - and I knew by then, even a few years into my life as a Christian, that the cohesiveness alone made any real doubt impossible - if the rest of it were true, then even that wonderful thing we'd hardly have the courage to hope for was true as well - Heaven: eternal life.  And all that Second Coming stuff and the weirdness of the book of Revelation somehow was also true: some of it symbolic, some of it literal, but all of it something we had to prepare for.

The Book of Revelation: yes, the artwork is gaudy, but the truth is profound.

Eventually, I became Catholic.  As a Catholic there were many things to be embarrassed about - the dreadful music, the undermining of the Faith by the liberals, the sex scandal and the ineptness of the bishops - but I no longer held on to any of that sophisticated embarrassment about doctrine.  I plunged into the Faith and learned and lived as much as I could, doing my best to live out the beatitude, "Blessed is he who is not offended by Me."

But there is still, you know ... Mary.

Mary - the lingering embarrassment???

I mean, some of those apparition folks are bizarre, and some of the apparitions are phony, and even aside from all of that, what's the big deal?  Why all this emphasis on Mary?

Certainly, no Catholic is required to be "Marian".  The Trinity is enough to last a lifetime, if I may speak in a kind of crass way.  The Faith is very rich and complex, and nobody's forcing anybody in the Church to pay all that much attention to "the Mother of God".  Protestants may not believe this, but we are free as Catholics to approach prayer and life with Christ in whatever way works best for us.  In fact, after I became Catholic I discovered there was much less emphasis on Mary inside the Church (at Mass and in daily conversation) than I had expected there would be.

And I have been praying the Rosary daily for 12 years now, and Mary was not the obstacle for my conversion as she has been for others.  I have always known that the daily Rosary has brought me tremendous grace ... but there remained for me "Something about Mary".  Something a bit unsettling.

I suspect that's true for many of you.

I am going to suggest what that "something" is.


Mary serves as a kind of touchstone for Jesus.

It's very easy for Christians to give lip service to Christ - but full conversion of heart is a rare thing, and is indeed a lifelong process, even for the best of us.  And it's easy to live as a superficial Christian without appearing to take offense at Jesus Christ ("Blessed is he who is not offended by Me") while actually harboring a great deal of inner resistance and secret reservation.

But there are ways God has of drawing out of us the truth of our commitment to Him.  Mary is one way He does that.

Because here's what's really really hard for all of us to accept - He is Real.  He is the source of all that is Real.  Truth is stranger than fiction, says G. K. Chesterton, "because we have made fiction to suit ourselves."  We prefer Unreality to Reality, especially in matters of faith.

But He really is Real.  He really is God.  He really became man.  He really died on a cross.  He really rose from the dead.  He really will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

And He really had a mother.  And she really is in heaven, body and soul.  And she really does intercede for us - disconcerting and even embarrassing as that is.  But it is only adolescents who are embarrassed by their mothers.  And "Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me" must also mean, "or at anything associated with Me - including the flesh and the innocence from whom I emerged."


A few years ago I decided to pray a novena to Our Lady of Victory, a title that Mary goes by, due to her intervention in the battle of Lepanto, immortalized by Chesterton's great poem.  The novena (nine days of prayer) was to end on the Feast of Our Lady of Victory / Our Lady of the Rosary, October 7.

Our Lady of Victory church in Buffalo, New York
Now it is true (and embarrassing) that many Catholics devolve into a kind of superstitious mentality about some of their prayers and devotions; nonetheless, it is a good thing to pray, and especially good to ask the saints to pray for us, including the model of all saints, Mary.  And it is good to pray for things we want or need, for all we have comes from God - keeping in mind, of course, that God is not a giant gumball machine, who spits out rewards if we put in the right change and turn the handle hard enough.

So, keeping all of this in mind, I prayed for three things in particular during that novena ...

1. More of an association with Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas (I was at the time trying to talk them into letting Theater of the Word be their resident drama program).

2. The resources and the opportunity to do more movies and video projects.

3. The resources and the opportunity to do more audio books.

On the ninth day of the novena I was "caught up by the Spirit" and whisked away (see Ez. 37:1 and Acts 8:39 and elsewhere).

When the day began, I was planning to work from my basement in St. Louis, as is my wont, and do what needed to be done for the businesses (which is always a lot).  I was planning, in other words, for an ordinary day.

By the time the day ended, I had

1. made a promotional film

2. outside of Atchison, Kansas for Benedictine College, and

3. worked with a director who later was to partner with me on the most high profile audio book Ignatius Press was to publish that year.

All three petitions  (movies, audio books, and the college) had been answered dramatically and indeed precipitously on the ninth day of the novena, the Feast of Our Lady of Victory - all thanks to a phone call from Benedictine seeking an emergency replacement for the actor originally cast to play the role.  "Can you drive here and play this part?  We're in a bind if you can't.  And get here before sunset!" I was told, over the phone, in the early afternoon, prompting a speedy 300 mile one-way car ride.


My actress Maria Romine was with me on that trip as we had a show the following night we both had to be at elsewhere in Kansas - though she hadn't planned to leave Missouri as quickly as we did, and a full day early, at that.  "I think we've been caught up in the Spirit," I told Maria the next morning, after I had realized how all of the elements of my prayer had come together and whisked us both off in an instant.

Maria, one of our Theater of the Word converts, made a Consecration to Jesus through Mary at some point - either before or after this trip.  She experienced great graces during the 33 days of prayer that led up to the consecration, and great dryness and bitter aridity for several months afterward.  All in all, it was a very powerful experience and it helped her mature in the Faith.

Maria, hiking Kansas with me during one of our Upstage Productions tours.

So Mary is powerful if you go to her in prayer.  And her spouse, the Holy Spirit, will shake you up - for better or for worse (always for better, though it sometimes feels as if it's for the worse).

And I'm crazy about the Holy Spirit and fond enough of Mary that when I heard that Pope Francis was planning to consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on October 13 - and when I realized that this date was exactly fifty days after the feast day of the patron saint of actors, St. Genesius - and knowing that 50 is the number of Pentecost and is a number symbolic of the Incarnation - of the Spirit active in the world - I decided to lead 50 days of prayer here on this blog, for anyone wanting to consecrate themselves, to renew their consecrations, or to pray along with us.

And I have been noticing that many things are coming together in my life since the prayers began.  These sorts of things are hard to describe - especially without sounding like some sort of religious nut case (or in other words sounding embarrassing) - but many things have come together for me spiritually in this 50 day novena, things that a good deal of suffering within the past year has paid for.

So I knew the prayer was working, and that God was somehow talking to me in these days of prayer even more than I was talking to Him.

But I was not prepared for what happened this weekend.


When we shun Jesus' mother, we are shunning the fullness of His incredible mission.  God as man?  That's fine theoretically - but God with a human mother who fed Him and burped Him and cleaned up after Him?  We'd rather have it less messy, thank you.  We'd rather have our God way up there and our dirty bodies way down here and that way we can indulge either one or the other without having it all get too Real.

God dying on a cross?  Disturbing, but beautiful in a sense, as an image, way up there, on the hill - far away.  But God dead and bloody in the arms of the woman who gave birth to him?!  Way too much!

A picture I took of a Pieta in a small church in rural Kansas, during one of our many trips there over the years.

And Mary, like her Son, also stands as a kind of sign of contradiction (see Luke 2:34)

Many Protestants, for example, can accept Mary in her role as Mother of God, but are offended at the notion of her purity, her virginity, her Immaculate Conception.  "Human beings are not capable of this!" we tell ourselves.  "Even with God's grace we certainly can't be pure, for goodness sakes!  Quit being so holy, Mary!  It's one thing to think that God-as-man can be perfect - but if you're also sinless and unspotted and immaculate ... well, that means that you are what all men and women were meant to be - and we can't stand to see that!  So just drop out of sight, would you?  You're embarrassing us, OK?  You're making us look bad - at least in comparison with you!"

You may make the Assumption that this is Mary

And that whole thing about the Assumption - Mary existing to this day body and soul in heaven, queen of all creation.  That's just part of that weird Catholic stuff that we can ignore, even if we're Catholic, right?

"While the Assumption of Mary is not recounted in the Bible," notes Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, "other Assumptions are.  Enoch was taken up body and soul into heaven.  [Heb. 11:5].  Elijah was taken body and soul into heaven on a chariot of fire.  [2 Kings 2:11]  And we are told that St. Michael and Satan wrestled for the body of Moses [Jude 1:9] - whose body, though dead, was taken into heaven when Michael won.  This is why Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus at the Transfiguration [Mat. 17].  They are in heaven body and spirit.  And so is Mary."

Dale went over this during one of his speeches this past weekend at the Militia of the Immaculata Midwest Conference in Kansas City. 

Logo of the Militia of the Immaculata

When the day began this past Friday, September 6, Maria Romine and I did not even know this conference existed.

By the end of the following day, we had

1. spent the night at the conference center and attended the conference events,

2. met and spoken with a Theater of the Word fan we had lost touch with who is very much part of what we do,

3. met a former actor who was anything but Catholic when he worked for me 15 years ago, but is now a big fan of our work on EWTN,

4. prayed the Rosary with 100 others, with our prayer leader using one of Maria's hand made Rosaries that Maria's been crafting since her reception into the Church,

5.  listened to two brilliant talks by Dale Ahlquist,

6. met and eaten lunch with Fr. Stephen McKinley of Marytown,

7. and had been swept off our feet - caught up in the Spirit - and placed exactly where we needed to be - but where we never expected to be.

... all during our long preparation for the Consecration.

Dale's experience was comparable with ours, but perhaps not as spiritual.

"When yesterday began," he told the audience at the start of his first speech, "I woke up in Dallas, Texas, where I had given a talk the night before.  I had no clue that by the end of the day I would be attending a murder mystery dinner theater performance starring Kevin O'Brien at a winery in Liberty, Missouri that is a haunted former orphanage built 100 years ago by the Odd Fellows.  But life is always a surprise!"  

The Haunted-former-orphanage-built-100-years-ago-by-the-Odd-Fellows Winery in Liberty, MO.

My friends, your lives may not be as unusual as mine.  You may not find yourselves suddenly transported to places you dreamed not of a few minutes prior.  You may not know the Catholic "Odd Fellows" that I know, like Dale Ahlquist and Maria Romine.  You may not notice novenas shaking you up the way they sometimes do me.

Mr. Ahlquist, an odd fellow.

But you all have access - direct access - to our Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and His spouse, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

If you find her embarrassing or distressing or a stumbling block - or even if she leaves you nonplussed; if you think she stands in the way of Jesus and will prevent you from getting closer to Him, remember that on the contrary her soul "magnifies the Lord" (Luke 1:46) and that her last recorded words in Scripture are "Do whatever He tells you." (John 2:5)

Accept your mother.  Honor her, and in doing so you will more greatly honor Him.

Our faith is real - every single last word of it.  And she will help you see that.


kathy said...

We just heard an excellent talk by Fr. Donald Calloway on the Blessed Virgin Mother. His book is basically the same talk--Under the Mantle.

Intellectually, my husband and I knew we should pray to Mary, but after this talk we really got it. I will never question Marian devotion again.

Del said...

"Only adolescents are embarrassed by their mothers."


One of the greatest gifts of being a cradle Catholic (at least, one that I hold most dear) was growing up knowing that I had a Mother. As I mature and that truth presses itself upon me, I appreciated the gift all the more!

Anonymous said...

What is offensive and embarrassing is your reference to the movie There's Something About Mary. Highly inappropriate. Not to mention the photo of the immodestly dressed Cameron Diaz.


Anonymous said...

The stained glass picture of Mary-- I love this and have seen it before, but I'm not sure if it was on this blog or not. I had written to ask permission to use this picture, and I was told that I could. I can't find that comment, however. Also, I was told that at some point in the future it would be possible to purchase it in some form. Does that ring a bell? At any rate, great article as well as great picture!