Welcome to A Waking Heart.  I blog about the spiritual life, Christianity and Sufism, contemplative living, and the work of keeping the heart awake.  Feel free to hang out and explore!

Encountering Mary

Encountering Mary

This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in November 2014.

Over the last couple of years I’ve felt a significant shift in my Christianity—in the tenor, the flavor, the energetic qualities of my faith.  It is becoming gentler, quieter, sweeter and more beautiful.  And I’m beginning to understand why—to put a name to what (or who) is happening to me: Mary.  For the first time in my Christian faith, the Virgin Mary has become a regular and significant presence in my devotional life—and she is making a difference.

Two years ago I began living with the sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit (where I met my wife).  Almost every night during Compline—the traditional “bedtime” prayers of monastic communities—we sang the Salve Regina, the “Hail Holy Queen,” a traditional prayer to Mary, in its original Latin.  In English translation, it begins: “Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, / Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope,” and eventually concludes: “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.”  At the close of every day, we offered up our work and our prayer through the sweet intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In that sweetness, held in silence, we retired for the night.

My wife Yanick and I now live alongside Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY, and although we do not join the brothers for all of their offices (set times of worship), we do hear the regular ringing of the Angelus bell, another traditional Marian devotion, before Lauds (in the morning), Diurnum (at noon), and Vespers (in the evening), and we stop wherever we are and join them in this prayer.  The movements of the Angelus carry the soul through Mary’s consent and surrender (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to your word”) that allows God to take form through her life (“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us”).

As each of us patterns into our own hearts this Marian willingness to flow with life’s current, we too become capable of letting the Word be made flesh in our lives.  It’s important to note, however, that this inner Marian surrender should never be confused with consent to outer conditions that are unjust or oppressive—in fact, it may be the very thing that empowers us to stand up against such conditions (just take a look at the revolutionary spirit of Mary’s Magnificat if you’re used to picturing her as submissive rather than subversive).

In addition to these practices, Yanick, who is Roman Catholic, has a strong Marian devotion and prays the Marian rosary each morning.  We light candles to Mary, keep icons of Mary in our prayer room, and are creating a small shrine for her (complete with climbing roses and a statue of Mary as Queen of Heaven) outside of our house, which, as it turns out is actually named (before we moved here!), you guessed it—St. Mary’s.  And so, Mary has been making her presence felt in major ways.

This distinctly feminine devotional presence and set of practices has been a new force in my life, although theoretically I have embraced God as Mother for many years.  And I’m finding that the difference is just that—theory versus practice.  It is one thing to admire the Hindu goddess Kali, or personified Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures (always a woman), and another to encounter clement, loving, sweet Virgin Mary, Holy Queen and Mother of Mercy, in your daily devotions.

Those of us who grew up in Protestant Christianity have had little experience of Our Lady in our devotional lives.  Mary may get a nod in the annual Christmas pageant, but she is not remembered much beyond that, receding far into the background of the Christian story and showing up not at all in regular prayer.  And yet, for the first 1,500 years of Christianity’s life (and still for many in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and some strains of Anglican expressions of the faith), devotion to the Mother of Jesus was part of the life-blood of the Church.  Now that it is back in my life, I think I’m beginning to understand why.

Historically, Mary held down a current of devotional energy that is both powerful and feminine (“Queen of Heaven”) and sweet and gentle (“Mother of Mercy”).  It is a strong balance to devotions offered solely to God the Father Almighty and to Jesus, a male-bodied Savior.  At the same time, there is a fear among many Protestant Christians in seeing Mary as the Mother of God, and certainly in seeing her as a face of God the Mother (and the latter fear carries over to the more Mary-friendly branches of Christianity as well).  But Christian theology has always maintained that every human face can be met as a face of God, and that it is through the saints that we encounter most fully the qualities of God.

There is no reason, even in the most orthodox of Christian theologies, to not see the Motherhood of God manifest through the face of Saint Mary, the very one through whom the ever-growing Body of Christ took initial flesh and form.  And while Jesus may be the head of that Body, Mary is the original blueprint and matrix from which is grows—spiritually no less than physically.  Restoring Mary to Christian devotional life restores a largely missing current of powerful, compassionate, and feminine spiritual energy to our religious landscape.

Devotion is no light matter, and the shaping of a devotional heart is the shaping of a life.  Too often for those on a contemplative path of awakening, devotional practice has been seen as “dualistic,” naïve, or second-rate when compared with the real gold of meditation practice.  But I have discovered for myself, after a leave-taking from overt devotional forms, that my own heart, when gentled and steadied through devotion, is much more ready to enter into its own silence and stillness.  And so devotion and contemplation can be profoundly complementary practices.  Each cultivates a different line of spiritual development that is necessary for the journey, and one is by no means “superior” to the other. 

We often confuse devotion with emotion, and think that it means having warm feelings for Jesus.  But the devotional heart is most certainly not the emotional heart.  It is not about feeling good or high or warm and fuzzy.  The devotional heart is that deep center through which we cultivate the spiritual qualities that prepare our hearts to hold the whole of the world: love, surrender, humility, tenderness.  As we stabilize these currents within ourselves, our capacity for awakening increases.  Devotion is one of the primary means of growing and grounding this effort.

Devotional practices, unlike meditation practices, have an object.  In meditation or contemplative prayer (as I am using the terms here), we enter into an objectless awareness—there is, for example, no focus on a person or an image.  In devotional practice, however, we have an object of devotion: it could be a saint such as Mary, or it could be God personalized as Mother, Child, or Beloved.  This “other” is used as a focus for cultivating qualities in our own heart.  As we reverence the sweetness of Mary, slowly, slowly we take on that sweetness.  And so the objects of devotion we choose matter; they are what we will become.

In a world driven by power, success, and self-centeredness, we need Mary to soften our hearts.  Traditional Marian devotion is directly embedded with the inner attitudes and gestures necessary for this softening.  It cultivates the sweetness, surrender, mercy, and gentleness needed to birth Christ in our own lives and in our world.  I encourage Christians (and interspiritual seekers searching for feminine faces of God as well) to consider seriously the balance that Marian devotion, and devotional practices in general, might bring to your path.  Take Mary as your face of God the Mother, and learn from her revolutionary spirit the ways of sweetness and surrender.

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Tending the Coals

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Bread Come Down from Heaven