Friday, August 15, 2008

Misconceptions about Mary

Happy Feast of the Assumption, everybody!

(And happy anniversary to a couple 'o crazy kids. You know who you are!)

Sometimes, as a Catholic, I'm tempted to think that the many Protestant misconceptions about what we believe in regards to Mary are overstated. Protestants don't really think we worship her, or think of her as a goddess, or believe that she's got all sorts of special cosmic-superhero powers, right?

But then I'll stumble across a website written by a fundamentalist Protestant where exactly those sorts of things are being said. I won't link to them, but they're out there--and by out there I really mean "out there," if you get my drift.

Many, and maybe most, Protestants don't share these more wild misconceptions; while they may disagree with us about Mary's special role in salvation history they do actually understand what we believe. They know that we don't worship Mary or "pray to" her in the sense of thinking that she can help us on her own; they know that our honor of her is linked to our worship of her Son and our desire to please Him by appreciating the gift of His Mother which He gave to the entire Church when He was on the Cross; they also know that we see Mary as the prefigurement of the glory to which we are all called, and that even this solemnity, wherein we celebrate our belief that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, points to the future to which all Christian souls are called, that glorious resurrection of the dead when we, too, will resume our physical (but glorified) bodies and remain in Heaven forever, united with God for all eternity as Mary already is.

But it's easy to see why some misconceptions about Mary may remain. Catholics, and indeed once all Christians, were united in honoring her, in spreading devotion to her, and in turning to her in confident love and trust to beg her, who is so closely united to her Son, to intercede for us, to pray for us, to ask Him to bless us with all good things, to ask Him to protect us and to be with us as He is with her. And sometimes, some of those devotions--simple and heartfelt as they were--might have blurred the distinctions between Mary and her Son just a bit, especially when practiced among simple people.

I once heard a funny story, for example, about a mission priest who was quite worried that the native population among whom he was working had some incorrect ideas about both Jesus and Mary; though they had embraced the Christian faith wholeheartedly, they sometimes seemed more superstitious than reverent in their devotions. So when, during a drought, they asked Father for a picture of Jesus, he wanted to know why. Their answer, that they wanted to process and pray through their dying fields and ask God to send rain, seemed correct, so Father let them have the picture from the church.

A few days later the region was inundated with drenching rains and flooding, and the crops were ruined. The priest was happy that the people seemed to accept this, too, as God's will--until they asked to borrow the picture of Mary from the church. "Why do you want it?" Father asked.

The leader of the people responded sternly, "So we can process around our fields and show the Lady what her Son did!"

Though that story always makes me smile, I think it's an example of the sort of thing that so often led to misconceptions in the past; Mary always points to her Son, but sometimes in some places and among some peoples, that has been overlooked just a bit.

But no one wants us to avoid misunderstanding her role more than Mary herself. Her words at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, "Do whatever He tells you," are spoken to each of us. Mary is our model and example of the Christian, the one who is blessed because she has heard the word of God and believed it, because she has heard God's will and answered, "Fiat," because in all ways and in all things she radiates the presence of God, reflecting the glory of her Son as the moon reflects the light of the sun. This feast day reminds us to persevere in Christian hope, that we, too, may one day take up our bodily presence in Heaven, and join with Mary in praising God for all eternity.

2 comments:

eutychus said...

As a Protestant Sunday School Teacher of Adults, some of which are former Catholics, I think that I would agree that many Protestants "don't share these more wild misconceptions..." but I don't think I'd say most, unfortunately. Through the help of Catholic friends and alot of reading I have tried to dispel some of the more noxious misconceptions as best I could. I must say you did a wonderful summation when you wrote,"...know that we don't worship Mary or "pray to" her in the sense of thinking that she can help us on her own; they know that our honor of her is linked to our worship of her Son and our desire to please Him by appreciating the gift of His Mother which He gave to the entire Church when He was on the Cross; they also know that we see Mary as the prefigurement of the glory to which we are all called, and that even this solemnity, wherein we celebrate our belief that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, points to the future to which all Christian souls are called, that glorious resurrection of the dead when we, too, will resume our physical (but glorified) bodies and remain in Heaven forever, united with God for all eternity as Mary already is." And I will share this with my class but misconceptions come from many directions and even those who are former Catholic have voiced them leaving me to defend the position from second-hand experience.
Now I recognize that this may be simply due to someone dozing off in catechism but it would seem that some of the blurring of distinctions is more widespread than one might like to think. But you do a good job of clarifying and making the distinctions. I consider myself, if you'll forgive the pharase, "a closet Catholic." If I ever make the break and return home to Rome, this post will be remembered as having something to do with that.

Red Cardigan said...

Eutychus, God bless you, and thank you for writing this!

I do think the distinctions sometimes get blurred in popular piety, but most Catholics really do understand that Mary isn't powerful on her own. When we seek her help, we do so the same way you might ask a very holy Christian mother or grandmother to pray for you and present your intentions to God in her devotions. Mary's place is unique in salvation history, but she *always* points to her Son.

I'll keep you in my prayers! :)