Dr. James Kottoor
“Our Tainted Nature’s Solitary Boast!” That is how Wordsworth immortalised Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mother of God Incarnate, Mother most dear to Christians and Mother to any one who has come under her spell.
Her apparitions in Lourdes, Fatima and in many hot spots around the world has endeared her to one and all alike as the Mother most gracious of all humanity. Proof? See the mammoth crowd that thronged the streets as the statue of Our Lady of Fatima came a second time to Kerala and was taken from city to city and to over 100 reception centres. If some dioceses refused to be part of this mega show, it was possibly because of the fear of the wrong signals it could be sending to the growing trend of ecumenical collaboration and inter-religious harmony in the country.
Undying is the attachment everyone has to one’s own mother. Even greater is a mother’s attachment to her own child. The umbilical cord is easily severed, but not so easily severed is the spiritual bond between a mother and the fruit of her womb. Hence the unending cry: Amma, Ma, Mammy and its diverse forms of expressions ever on the lips of any helpless child and even on the lips of any dying old man or woman.
To Jesus through Mary
Diverse indeed are the ways people get inebriated with their devotion to Mary, Mother of Jesus. To Jesus through Mary, just as it pleased Jesus to come to us through Mary, is the normal norm, we are constantly told by masters in spiritual life. In other words Mary has a vital role to play in guiding one’s steps to Christ and in forming Christ in the minds and hearts of every child especially in Catholic homes where this devotion is fostered at its best.
Here is a typical example. In a rustic country side there lived a family that insisted that children should pray (or rather recite a bunch of 33 prayers) before they are given supper. Dutifully the children used to recite the prayers without ever giving a dam thought to what they recited as could be expected from immature children. The two things they paid attention to were: sound and speed. They recited them loudly to make the parents, especially their Mammy in the kitchen, hear that they were praying. It was their Mammy who always insisted that they will be served supper only after they recited their prayers. So they raced through the prayers at break neck speed to make sure that they finished the 33 prayers in the list in record time to have their supper as early as possible.
One day Jim the younger one told Joe his elder brother. “What am I to do to get over my problem of scoring poor marks in Maths?” “So easy”, pat came the instant reply. “Just pray fervently to Mary, our heavenly Mother. Among the 33 prayers you say daily, don’t you remember the prayer of St. Bernard: ‘Remember Oh Mother. It was never heard that anyone who implored your help was ever left unheard”, asked his elder brother. For the first time in life, one of the 33 prayers Jim recited daily made sense and became a tower of light, hope and strength for his life. A childlike faith in the power of prayer and in the sincerity of his elder brother made Jim start off his prayer life with that one and only prayer which mattered and which suddenly became very meaningful to him. He started saying that one prayer fervently every day and as often as any need arose. Not only he made progress in studies, but he even seemed to receive many miraculous favours from Our Lady in season and out of season through the recitation of that one prayer said fervently and with living faith. As a result his devotion to Mary grew by leaps and bounds. He started putting up and decorating a small altar of Our Lady in the prayer room. He delighted in observing the month of May dedicated to Our Lady with various spiritual exercises. Collecting various beautiful pictures of Our Lady, especially of Fatima, became his hobby. Finding himself at the cross roads of life after SSLC the life of a Missionary away from home and dear ones captured his imagination and he joined a Seminary run by the Salesians who are famous for their devotion to Our Lady Help of Christians. He could not have found a more fertile soil to cultivate his devotion of Our lady.
But his devotion to Mary did not go unchallenged for long. Who is to be the shining light in the firmament: the Sun or the Moon which looks gracious with borrowed light from the Sun? By making Our Lady the centre of one’s life of devotion, is not one doing injustice to Jesus, the source of all light, nay the one true light of the world?
This was the criticism raised by one of the professors in the Seminary against a Marian cult that appeared to push Christ to the background. But for Jim that kind of criticism made no sense because his devotion to Our Lady was literally childish and blind and not too rational or theological. He was just head on heels in love with Our Lady. Can reason or theology make any sense to those who have fallen in love with someone? The same thing happened to Jim and what is worse he felt pity for the professor with a swollen head and a heartless soul incapable of experiencing the ecstasies of falling in love with the mother of Jesus. It is foolish to be wise where ignorance is bliss, the professor must have said, had he known Jim’s feelings for him. Even today we have any number of similar conflicts and controversies surrounding devotion to Our Lady, for that matter devotion to any number of saints, especially when the impression is created in the public mind that this devotion is to be the be-all and end-all of all devotions and is promoted even at the cost of eclipsing the centrality of Jesus in the firmament of any true Christian spiritual life.
Sign of Contradiction!
Finally wisdom dawned on Jim on the day of his ordination. That evening just before going to the seminary chapel for night prayers the Rector asked Jim to give the Good Night. Good Night is a Salesian practice of giving a short three to five minute talk after night prayers to help youngsters go to bed with a good thought. During the night prayers Jim was preoccupied with what to say for Good Night.. Only that morning he was ordained a priest. So he wanted to say something related to priesthood. He could think of nothing better than what Simeon said of the child Jesus brought to the temple on the occasion of the purification. So he told his audience of seminary staff and community, that to be a Priest was to be like Jesus, a sign of contradiction, raised up for the rise and fall of many in Israel. Like Jesus every priest is sent out into the world to bear witness to truth. One who speaks up the truth without fear or favour is bound to become a sign of contradiction, bring down upon himself an avalanche of bouquets and brickbats and set in motion a series of glittering and gloomy reactions like: Hosanna, Hosanna on the one hand and crucify, crucify on the other.
Little did he realise then that he was making a prophetical pronouncement about what was in store for him as an editor guiding a weekly committed to the daunting task of communicating the whole truth in all charity. Here Our Lady could not help him much. His only role model had to be Christ who said of himself: For this have I come into the world: to bear witness to truth. After a tempestuous three-year period, he wrote about Christ’s so-called professed followers including himself holding various public offices: “If Christ the only honest man in the world could not survive more than three years of public life, those of us who have survived more than three years, should examine and see how honest and truthful we have been to God, to ourselves and to others in discharging our public office of bearing witness to truth.” It was the clear sign of severing the umbilical cord of his Mary-centred childish devotion and spirituality and attaching himself to a Christ-centred spirituality. Christ necessarily had to become his role model and not Mary, in performing his prophetical mission of announcing the truth. Also the accepted dictum: To Jesus through Mary, had come true. It only proves that a life of devotion to Mary honestly pursued, even when it is childish, blind, misguided and off the right track due to no fault of one’s own is helped by the Lord’s grace to rectify itself because as the scripture says: to those who love God everything turns out for their own good. In other words, any true devotion to our Lady catapults the devotee into a staunch believer and follower of Jesus in God’s own good time.
Just as parental responsibility finds its fulfilment in dispensing with its need by making the children stand on their own feet as early as possible, any true Marian devotion finds its fulfilment in making the devotee depend totally on Christ without having to hang on to Mary’s apron strings like immature children. Jim fell in love with Our Lady inadvertently through the prayer of St.Bernard explained in a popular way by his brother. A priest told Jim later that listening to him narrating the story at an ordination reception, actually prompted him to take his first decisive step to become a priest. That priest is still alive doing fine. The immature Jim in the story happens to be the author of this piece.
Take a look also at salvation history. Where, when and how was Christ initiated into his public mission? The place was the wedding feast of Cana . The crucial moment came when Mary discovered they had no wine. She then nudged Jesus into rolling up his sleeves and falling in position to start off his race to Calvary. She literally blew the whistle by uttering those miracle-triggering words to the waiters: Just do what he tells you. Literally Mary seems to have taken Jesus by the hand to begin his short-lived, miracle filled public ministry of three years. We see her again at the crowning scene of Salvation history at the foot of the cross on Calvary. This time it is not Mary but her son dying to depart who is speaking. Pointing to the beloved apostle John Jesus tells Mary: “Woman this is your son” and to John: “This is your mother.” Thus he made Mary mother of all mankind represented by John. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Even so into the motherly hands that initiated the Salvation history at Cana, Jesus entrusted all mankind in the person of John to be cared for with motherly tenderness and concern. It is this mission of motherly care and concern that Our Lady manifests to the world through her repeated apparitions around the world and her constant call to repentance and prayer
Solitary Boast = Full of grace
The greatness of Mary is not to be traced to the fact that she gave birth to Jesus the Word incarnate. Her Motherhood of the heavenly is the result of the mystery of Grace predestining Mary, calling her, justifying her and glorifying her at the dawn of creation when Eve fell from grace and another woman was promised to rectify that fall. In the fullness of time God brought forth that woman in the person of Mary, conceived without sin. This is what is loudly proclaimed by the dogma of Immaculate conception (a thorn of contention for some) or what Wordsworth beautifully describes as: Tainted nature’s solitary boat, meaning that when the whole of humanity was tainted with the stain of original sin Mary alone was precluded from it as she was to be the spotless abode for the Son of God. All humans who pride themselves as born free are denied two fundamental options. It is not given to anyone to choose one’s own mother. The womb in which one is to be conceived and the tomb in which one is to be interred are beyond the reach of any human being.. Christ alone stands out as the sole exception. He alone could and did choose and preordain the womb to be born in and also the tomb to be buried in. For that purpose He made Mary spotless and free from all sin, it is argued. Angel Gabriel was referring precisely to this fact when he addressed her as: Full of Grace, at the annunciation.