Posted May 27, 2015:
Mary Holds the Key

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

We need Mary, the Mother of God, and that need is especially acute at times of great suffering. Catherine Doherty, foundress of Madonna House, wrote powerfully and poignantly of her own experience.

Her idyllic childhood in Pre-revolutionary Russia had been very much lived in the presence of Mary, our Mother, who, Catherine was taught by her mother, watched over her and her family always.

But it was in her experience of World War I and the Russian Revolution, that "Maria came into her own in my life" (from "The Gate" in The Marianist, Sept. 1955).


Having known Mary as always present in the joys and little trials of her girlhood, she automatically turned to her in the later calamitous sorrows of starvation, terror and bloodshed.

"It was only natural that I turned to her when into my life came the Sorrowful Mysteries of our Faith … . Half delirious with hunger, weakness, and mental pain, I still remember repeating, like a refrain, one word: Maria… Maria… Maria…

In it was the only light that lit my stygian darkness. In it was the only strength that kept me from going over the thin, icy cold edge of despair. In it were benediction and oil for my wounds … . She brought joy into my desert of pain and death" (Ibid.).

Catherine’s experience is significant for us. Though most people will not undergo personal trials of the magnitude which Catherine went through in her life, isn’t it inevitably the case that sooner or later the cross manifests itself in every human life to a greater or lesser degree? In time, everybody hurts; everybody’s heart is broken.

And it is this encounter with pain and loss, ultimately with death itself, which confronts us most starkly with the deepest questions of life.

What is the meaning and value of suffering, and is the God who allows this truly good?

Though at other less dramatic times, we can put off or ignore such matters, in times of arduous trial, they arise in us with inescapable force. Suffering forces us to make fundamental choices about how we are to live.

Catherine’s encounter with Mary in her moment of deepest hurt and proximity to death thus grounded her knowledge of Mary in the central existential core of human life.

Mary, far from being an extraneous devotion or optional pious practice, holds the key to the searing mysteries of life and death, to the stark reality of the human person plunged into a world of evil, alienation, injustice, and anguish.

Mary’s maternal intervention meets us there and communicates to us something that is uniquely hers: the victory of God fully residing in a human creature, a victory which finally transforms all our human suffering into a mystery of love and glory.

Catherine writes that in her time of greatest suffering, Mary: "took my spirit, and just as my own mother used to lift me up for her nightly blessing when I was but a child, lifted me up for the blessing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or so it seemed to my exhausted mind and body, into which flowed a new and strong life of faith and hope and love." (Ibid.)

Mary, who herself remained fully open and lifted up to the Father at every moment of her great trial and suffering, can teach us and directly assist us also to remain open to God in the heart of our own suffering, whatever form this takes for us.

Catherine goes so far as to say, then, that "Mary is my life. I hope I never have any other, for my life is passed under the finely wrought posts of her Gate." (Ibid.)

One could well ask, in response to that, what then becomes of Jesus? Is he not our life? How is Mary our life, too?

Jesus Christ was Catherine’s life, as her writings make clear. But she knew Christ and was penetrated and transformed by his love and grace in an utterly Marian mode and manner and was accompanied and taught by Mary in it all.

This subtle interplay of Jesus and Mary, of knowing one’s life in Christ as lived, "in" Mary—this is the spiritual environment of the Marian fiat (yes), the modality of Marian receptivity and obedience. This is the air we breathe as disciples of Christ and Mary.

And this was taught to Catherine not by academic research or by seclusion in contemplative silence. Rather it was sealed into her very flesh first by the prayer and piety of her family home.

Then it was sealed again by the upheavals of her early adulthood, most profoundly through her experience of Calvary, of suffering with Christ in the horrific events that befell her, her family, and her homeland.

It is this knowledge, seared into her by great pain and darkness, that drove Catherine to insist that Mary can never be just a devotion, just a practice for some Christians.

Mary is a reality, a reality to be embraced, to be lived. Mary is the reality of surrender to Christ. This surrender leads to being filled with Christ, which leads to bearing Christ into the world by a radiant witness to his love and salvation.

And all this leads us in the end to a life lived in the heart of the Trinity, the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit living in the heart of those who love him.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from The Franciscans of the Immaculate, from The Air We Breathe, (2011), pp. 30-34, available from MH Publications


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