Thursday, May 11, 2017

Is Devotion to the Mother of God “Ante-Deluvian”?

                               Is Devotion to the Mother of God “Ante-Deluvian”?

Dr. Paul Chaim Scheneck, a Jewish intellectual who converted to Catholicism, once noted, in discussing his conversion, that, sometimes, the heart does not understand or accept what the mind can know. All the logic, the data, the experience are irrelevant when the heart is closed. No matter what is presented, the response is negative. Nothing can persuade because “from the beginning”, the heart has said that it is not possible. “I will not agree.” Dr. Scheneck had all the logic and the proof needed but it was not enough. It simply couldn’t be. It recalls for me the famous remark in a religious debate which stunned us all. “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”  Such a position annihilates any exploration as to a possible other side.

But isn’t the opposite likewise compelling?  If one’s heart embraces and is supported by a dimension unavailable to immediate intellectual verification, it is very difficult to move through  “pre-judgment” to a supple and rich emotional or spiritual life. The juvenile demand for empirical proof can be utterly deadly to growth and warmth.  The skeptic will demand proof of love and honor and patriotism and appreciation, draining life of its possibilities of profound  joy. “I feel it but I don’t believe it” is compared with the other mode---  “I see it with my mind’s eye but I can’t accept it.” That can be the end of any significant exploration.

Let me explore a concrete instance. The practice of an unquestioning and loving devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Who, I believe to be the Divine Itself, in human nature) seems to be completely incomprehensible to many moderns. For example, a brilliant and devout Jewish woman who likes and respects me, cannot do other than characterize my Marian practice as “ante-deluvian”  i.e. prior to the flood which made Noah so famous. Perhaps, the “given” (for Catholics) of Christ’s Divinity is so great a block for devout Judaism that any further probing is exceedingly difficult or impossible. Perhaps, for “childlike” Catholics like me (hopefully not childish) the warmth, comfort and “rightness” of such spiritual dynamics stem not from heavy intellectual exegesis and theological rigor but from “something” else. Something terribly human (which yet smacks of the divine), which meets and fulfills my need to flesh out my own developing spiritual life. And that Something, I sense, emanates from God which empowers me with some kind of ability to “see” and  humility to accept. Perhaps I probe for the “affective” as compared with the “cognitive.” Or is this the mysterious entity called “grace”?

 When I was a child I knew nothing of the glorious Cathedrals dedicated to “Our Blessed Mother.” I never heard of Chartres or Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite de Paris. I never knew of the towering music of Mozart and  Shubert  and  Gregorian chant which “incarnated”  the love of the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) into sensible,  exalted forms. I never heard of the Alma Redemptoris Mater or the Salve Regina or the Tota Pulchra est, Maria. I never heard of Wordsworth’s famous line “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast” which he, the Protestant, applied to Mary, this Mother of the Lord.  I never saw the magnificent statuary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art concretizing the Catholic love of Mary. I never heard of the Pieta of Michelangelo depicting the beauty of the Mother of God.

Whatever I learned about devotion to Mary, I received from my Irish Grandmother whose formal education ended with the Third grade.  She taught me, for example, that when I die, should they not allow me to enter by the Front gates of heaven I should go around to the back and Our Lady, the Blessed Mother will let me in. This is because she has GREAT love for me and will help me always. Grandmother told me that Jesus set this up when he was dying a terribly painful death on a Great Cross. Just before He died, He made everyone to be her children, including me, and she would ALWAYS be there for me. She would always love me - - no matter what!  And I should LOVE her back! And incidentally I note that Mel Gibson in his powerful “Passion of the Christ” presents Peter, agonized and distraught after his cowardly denial of the Lord, kneeling before Mother Mary, with great heart broken tears rolling down his cheeks. She does not scold nor reject. She silently places her healing hand upon his head.  “It is all right” she seems to be saying. “It is all right, my child.” No matter what is our sin, Mary our Mother still loves us. This, it seems to me, is REALLY affective.

Such childlike devotion has been of enormous help to me in my life ---particularly in times of smashing life difficulties. I did not develop this view from the many formal impediments I have met - - such as ponderous professors who took themselves very seriously and who insisted that I plow through boring and sterile tomes written by academics who lived in metaphorical and real ivory towers.

I was amazed how quickly I was able to jettison the cumbersome balderdash backpack of Academe.  How quickly and gratefully I reverted back to the joy of my youth as I continuously recited and applied the first prayer I ever learned:  “pray for us NOW and at the hour of our death.”  For example, I recall  being on a slow moving, coal burning night train, trudging across the Great Karoo of South Africa. The windows wouldn’t close. The lights wouldn’t work The soot poured in through the open windows. I felt lonely and dirty and afraid. So, I “did” my beads, i.e. my Rosary and prayed as I envisioned the “mysteries” of Christ’s life, which were the main events of His Death and Redemptive Sacrifice. I saw “her” there, His and my mother sharing His pain and His meaning. As the beads passed through my fingers I felt release, both emotional and physical and found, even with tears streaming down my cheeks, a calm and peace entering my being. This is not the Security Blanket of the Peanuts comic strip. This is the Presence of my Heavenly Mother who has always been there for me at critical times.

How many millions of Catholics over the years have had the same experience. Yet, there have been all kinds of clever (or “cute”) attempts to “make nice” with devotion to the BVM. In order to counter any latent uncomfortable  feelings that devotion to her is somehow detracting from devotion to HIM, Who is all  and above all, some skittish Catholics have come up with  fanciful stories and devices to counteract the harmful antics of Big Mouths like me. However some do have some credence and possible utility. I recall the little thing about the school boy rebutting the scoffing college Professor who claimed that there is “ no difference between His (Jesus) mother and MY mother…” The kid jauntily replies: “ Yeah, but there is a big difference between the sons…”  Touché!  And O.K. but it doesn’t really move me.

Or the little kid, with his prayer for a bicycle unanswered, yelling at the statue of Jesus  “I’m gonna’ tell your mother.”
The implication is clearly that the Mother of the Lord has great  influence with the Divine One and will properly castigate the  unresponsive Jesus. The kid extrapolates from his experience with his own mother and applies it directly to the Blessed Mother. Again, O.K.  while coming close to affectivity  this doesn’t really move me either, even though I can understand  because of  my  relationship with my own earthly mother.

Or astronomical metaphors like He, being the Sun, and she, being the moon, who shines ONLY by reflection from Him—very true and very intellectual but not sufficiently affective for me. Since each of us, like David, fighting Goliath, with a mere sling shot and some stones rather than with the fancy armor of Saul, must choose our own weapons in this struggle called life,  I choose the notion of  a Celestial Mother loving me  with a profound and pervasive love. And I find that love in my prayer: “..NOW and at the hour of my death….”
The “now” of this prayer is enormously important to me.  I personally focus my spiritual life on the Great Now. Spirituality to me must be pragmatic and helpful.  For me, the academic tends more to irritate than to inspire. All my life I have been able to intuit or pre-articulately depend on the Blessed Mother for her immediate and ever present assistance. Since, similarly, I am deep into the existential Indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the Presence of the Lord, this approach - - - devotion to the loving Blessed Mother---  is exceedingly meaningful to me. Yesterday or tomorrow, certainly,  has some effect on my life but the dominant dimension is Now - -  which I find each time I say to her---“pray for us (me) NOW……” 

In particular, I find her gentle urgings in my heart when I suffer difficulty being obedient to the Lord’s Will--- when I want my own way in everything I do. I hear her exhortation from the Wedding feast at Cana:  “ Whatever  He tells  you, DO IT.”  Since I am  positive  about her love for me  and  her wish for my happiness,  when she tells me that His will is for my well being, even if I don’t understand or  if I am tempted to struggle in defiance, I am drawn to do His Holy will. She will never mislead me BECAUSE SHE LOVES ME!
When I boggle in my occasional   “dark night” and trust in my God tends to waver, there she comes again. I see her as she responds to Gabriel with his apparently ridiculous message: “Behold – (she says)- -  the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to HIS word.”  My lesson:  I don’t know how I will do it (whatever IT is), but I will and can, if I trust in His Word and His Power as did  my Blessed Mother.

When I have difficulty with my emotional balance, I listen to her Magnificat when she proclaims the astounding insight about humility:  “All nations will declare me blessed……………”  She acknowledges and lives the Truth of her life. There is no phony modesty here. There is the calm and clear  statement of who she is. I learn from her that I do not deny my gifts and talents nor do I deny my limitations. All is from God to be used for His glory and Will. I cannot cavil and waste energy with spurious self depreciation.

When I feel the turbulent  scream of libido, I call upon her to help  me maintain my sexual integration and respect for the great God-gift of sexuality.  The Queen of Chastity is powerful!

As for the future ---- particularly my own death, I sense her presence also there for me—as she was for Joseph, her husband, as he left this life for Heaven. She was there helping him, as she will –me! She died herself showing me the way. Though I am naturally fearful of death, terror has no priority. She will be there for me leading me to her Divine Son and eternal JOY….again because of her love for me, personally!

Devotion to Mary “ante-deluvian’?  Certainly for me it is not. After all I am one of those dinosaurs who believe in Personal survival after death!   So, on the contrary it is most appropriate for this 95 year old kid. I believe in Eternal life. My summation is in an old poem I recall only partially:

                                        If Christ should come on earth some summer’s day
                                        And walk unknown upon our busy street
                                        I wonder how ‘twould be
                                        If we should meet----
                                        And being God if He would act that way—
                                        Perhaps the kindest thing that He could do
                                        Would be just to forget that I failed to pray  
                                        And clasp my hand forgivingly and say

                                        “My Child, I’ve heard my Mother speak of you.”

Sunday, November 20, 2016


                                  SOMETIMES, REPRESSION IS NECESSARY FOR PEACE OF MIND - 

Across the oaken table from me in the Refectory was a priest in his mid-eighties who has had a distinguished and memorable career in leadership, scholarship and fidelity.  But he profoundly disturbed me when he “opined” that we were witnessing the death throes of the Religious Community to which we both belong. He pointed out that we will have no ordinations this year nor the next nor the next. We have ONE novice and four students spread over a four year theology course.  With such a poor backup in the manpower pool, and with a graying, arthritic priest population, the prospects of staffing the Community in the future look bleak.

Yet, the relatively young and recently elected President of this particular Community writes that hopefully we are on the brink of one of the most glorious eras in our history.  This strikes a somewhat dissonant chord in my own aging brain. Are we dying or are we about to blast off the launching pad into unforeseen glory?  The old timer bases his dreary prediction on numbers and observable facts while the comparative youngster enthuses and hopes from a speculation perspective.

 What is one to make of this?  Is it just an old man spewing sour grapes and a young man just bouncing off his fantasies and wishful thinking? Is it again the old man dreaming revisionist dreams and the young man seeing visions of what he hopes will be so?  I don’t know but suppose that the old man is right and the young man knows, unconsciously, the truth: demise is near and inevitable.            What does the young man do? How does he as leader inspire enthusiasm in his troops? How does he fire up morale? Indeed, how does he live with himself if he senses that he is presiding over an increasingly moribund situation? And this  in spite of the raucous cheerleading on the sidelines?   

Does he take semi-refuge in the theological speculation that God might raise up groups for a specific time and role in a specific era to meet a specific task and let them lapse into extinction when their need is no longer present or pressing?  Or does he hustle around trying to find some palatable, Couesque, self hypnotizing mantra that we are getting better every day in every way (as the ship sinks)?  How would he or any other human being survive in the face of the painful and traumatic?

On Feb. 23, 2003, the New York Times ran a lengthy article on Repression airing the new and provocative hypothesis that, contrary to the Sacred Cows of the Psychotherapeutic Community, it is sometimes far better to avoid, deny or repress painful, traumatic or threatening material. Those of us who were trained within the last 40 years had it drummed into us that it was essential for the emotional and mental health of our patients that they face, embrace, and dissect   traumas, fears and perplexities with full scale enthusiasm. They were to throw their emotional guts right out front, pick them up and regurgitate again and again. Only then would they be free people   --- so went all the hoop-la- and badda bing, badda boom, badda bing.

Yet with all the academic and clinical pressures from colleagues and mentors, something just didn’t wash. We all saw some of our patients come back unchanged again and again in spite of all the embracing of pain and sorrow and anger. In fact, consonant with the Times article, it seemed almost as if the focusing - - even riveting - - -  fueled the problems. It kept the problem front and center which demanded more time, more concentration, more energy funneled away from enjoyment of one’s life. 

A 43 year old student of mine who was supposed to be centering on learning the art and science of counseling was intently hooked on the recollection of her being sexually molested, thirty years prior. She insisted on “ talking this out” in personal therapy, lectures and supervision hours.  She was personally unattractive, unmarried and uninteresting.  Her ONE claim to possess the spotlight was the telling and re-telling of her unhappy childhood experience. Her life centered on having others listen to her sad story as she eked out of anyone she met any possible shred of sympathy for  “ poor me.” Meanwhile, life was speeding by her. She angrily resisted any suggestion that she might MOVE on in her life. But she seemed almost to enjoy her misery. Is this healthy?

In the movie, ANALYZE THIS, which was about a Mafia boss in therapy, the psychiatrist is presented as having two verbalizations with a self pitying client. One, the public one, was the  standard Sacred Cow  response of empathy and understanding.  Two, interiorly and truthfully, he said:  “ Why the_____________, don’t you get yourself a life?”

We are seeing in many patients, a PROLONGATION of pain and trauma, when we allow the endless and narcissistic wallowing in the traditional  “ pity pot.” We are called to be healers yet it does look, in some instances, that we are enablers. It would be far healthier--- at least in some patients---- to put the lid on the pain, do a spot of repression, denial and avoidance, and GET ON WITH IT!   There are so many wonderful, awesome and fulfilling things in life which are available but which need attention and energy. To substitute the almost maternal offerings of our offices for the really satisfying possibilities of the real world is tantamount to alchemy! God forgive the therapist who stokes the patient’s fire of self pity and fear for financial rewards! Although hopefully infrequent, it has been known to happen. 

Allowing a patient to give disproportionate attention to a past trauma - - - with full awareness of the research on PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) -- - - can actually harm a person’s healthy development since it places TOO much of a patient’s personal failures on someone or something else.  A therapist can never forget the lesson of Shakespeare:  ‘ THE FAULT, MY DEAR BRUTUS, IS NOT IN THE STARS, BUT IN OURSELVES.” It can get too comfortable in the chair or the couch when one can blame one’s failure in life or unhappiness on something other than self.  

Incidentally, on 9/11, we had one therapist for every three persons. It has been noted that there was NO appreciable help from these offerings. Support came from the GROUP feeling and the camaraderie of all of us involved in Ground Zero. I have pushed some of my own patients to get on with their lives and DO something rather than sit in my office and have me hold their hand even figuratively!  Even Sig Freud noted that catharsis alone was probably useless at best and harmful at worst.

Still, the hypothesis remains. FOR SOME PEOPLE, repression and denial may be essential for their peace of mind.
For example, some uninformed and insensitive hospital chaplains have insisted on brutally telling ALL terminal patients that they are dying. This is poor practice and fails to note that SOME terminal patients NEED to deny their own deaths. This negative procedure is more for the chaplain’s need to feel that he is doing his job. The role of the helping person is to help - - - not to hurt !! Surprisingly, denial and repression are sometimes a real way to help the hurting one. Let the chaplain find some other mode of resolving his own hang-ups. It might be helpful to  recall  that (at least theoretically) the chaplain, the therapist, the priest  are there for the good of the “ other”. The patient is not supposed to minister to us but we to them.

So, if the young President of a dying religious Community finds it too painful to face the brutal truth, who can blame him for his avoidance? By the use of repression he can continue with enthusiasm and energy, to find some kind of meaning in what is truly still available. We all can do it, with God’s help, and some of us can bite our tongues as we thank the New York Times for at least occasionally publishing something of value.

p.s. this was written over ten years ago (2016).  Some of the observations are  in sync with certain levels of  the fixed and immutable in human nature and derive from the essence of natural law, but some  observations reflect  the unpredictable possibilities for change so inherenrt in human nature and  behavior.  Plus ca change, plus le meme chose! 
                                     An  aha moment 

For  two long,  frustrating and demanding years, I had been instructing a  brilliant young Jewish woman in the  mysteries of the  Catholic Faith. She was  too bright for me. At every turn she would clean my clock intellectually in spite of  all my fancy syllogisms, theology and history.  I could get nowhere with her.

However, somewhere in her soul or psyche was a kind of gnawing  wish for some sort of Faith. She was an agnostic, leaning slightly towards atheism but too intelligent to accept it.  She, somewhat irked with me,  asked was there anything further I could offer her. In desperation , I volunteered what she called a stupid prayer. The prayer of the atheist.

                           Oh, God, if there  is a God, help me !

Some time later, she wrote me that she had been to a movie which she had to leave. She was experiencing the most urgent  need to find a Catholic church immediately.  On entering the Church, she genuflected and when her knee touched the floor she was flooded with a belief in God  which she has deeply retained to this day  when she is now 80 years old.

Basically, this was a moment (to me) in my life I could call  “a ah—-  out of the blue— cloudbursts of joy—-elation—-cataclysmic  surprise——-floating on air— bring me giants to slay—.   A moment  never to be repeated  but never to be forgotten. A moment when the Lord used me to help a good person move towards Him——but in His, not my, way..

Certainly,  for her it was THE  ah ha exprience.  To meet the Lord  not through human strivings or skills, but through something simple,rustic and even stupid like  The Atheist’s prayer.”  There is a lesson to be learned