“I told the Blessed Mother I will not write four. I will only write three,” my friend said, emphatically, and this struck me, when I thought about it, as gross insubordination. She was telling me about her conversations with the Mother of God. “Wait,” I thought, “you can’t do that.”
Little, of course, did I know.
The convert’s limits
I had then been a Catholic for six or eight years. As is true for almost every convert I’ve known, I was coming to Mary and to Marian piety more slowly than I had come to other things. The Mass had drawn me in, as had the reality of the Communion of saints and the mercy of Purgatory. The Hail Mary was great, but the Rosary not so much. And the Miraculous Medal and some of the devotional works, um, no.
Hearing some people (though not everyone) talk about Mary’s appearances gave me the same feeling I had when people talked about UFOs or the latest fad diet. I didn’t doubt that she’d appeared at Lourdes and Fatima and other places. It just felt a little weird when people talked about it. They seemed a little too eager.
Parts of high Anglicanism, the tradition from which I had come to the Church, would say the occasional Hail Mary and a few might even say the Angelus at noon. The relation was formal and regular. You said this prayer at this time. In Anglican circles saying such prayers was even a little daring. You could feel while saying the Hail Mary the way a Baptist would feel drinking Scotch in his basement with the door locked. It was your walk on the wild side.
As a new Catholic, I knew that Catholics had a special relation to Mary. When my family and I entered the Church I had signed on to all the teaching and all the dogmas. In theory, it was in for a penny, in for a pound. In theory, but not in practice and definitely not in feeling.
I knew that on becoming Catholic I was part of Mary’s family in a way I had not been before, But I felt (as I see it now) that I had to do so rather like someone filling out a form and submitting it by mail to a high official, who was indeed noted for her benevolence but was still very far away. This I think is the way many converts feel. The cultural distance from whatever they had been to the full Catholic devotion is great.
The private tells the general
As my friend told me what she’d told the Blessed Mother, I felt as if I were watching a private tell a 4-star general that he wasn’t going to march this month, thank you very much. I had no categories for such a relation. It felt, as I say, like insubordination.
Then I thought: She’s close to her mother. And she’s close to her Mother. That’s the way you might talk to your mother. “Mom, I’ll cut the grass every week, but you’re on your own for the dishes” or “I’ll cut the grass every week but if you want someone to vacuum the house, get my brother. I don’t vacuum.” Saying “No” shows intimacy, comfort, friendship, trust. It shows a love for someone who loves you enough not to ask you to do more than you want to do.
My friend’s unselfconscious conversation with the Blessed Mother showed me something about Marian devotion and piety I had not seen, and certainly didn’t feel. The relation she had wasn’t formal exactly, though it was still respectful and deferential. It was the relation you might have if your mother were a great hero. You wouldn’t forget that she is amazing, but she’s still your mother.
Thanks to my friend, I realized for the first time — or I realized existentially as well as intellectually — that you could be friends with Mary. She could be a mother in a more than metaphorical way. I liked using C.S. Lewis’s phrase “Son of Adam and daughter of Eve.” But being a son and daughter of the New Eve I’d never imagined — much less that “mother” could be more than a formal statement, and could describe someone who loved you so much she’d let you say no.
Parts of this article were given on Monday to the Theology on Tap group in New York City. For information about their future meetings see the group’s Facebook page, “Theology on Tap – NYC.” One of their upcoming speakers is Aleteia’s editor Elizabeth Scalia.