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 Schubert 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 me and everyone else to be her children 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 deprecation.
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 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 84 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.”