May is, by long tradition, always called the month of Our Lady, Mary, the Mother of God, so defined at the Council of Ephesus, the 3rd Ecumenical Council of the Church in 431 A.D. She is absolutely central to the whole plan of salvation – as is simply obvious – for, without Mary, we would be without the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus, our Saviour. However, Mary – or our devotion to Mary – is often misunderstood, especially by our evangelical brothers and sisters, and these Christians, among others, can be very suspicious of our (Catholic) ‘worship’ of Mary. They know – and it is perfectly proper – that God alone is to be worshipped, adored, and thanked for the redemption. It is right that Mary should be given the very highest honour – and so she is – but she is not, and never can be, the same as God. She is, however, completely central to the process of our redemption, and in her role, she “had a share in it”. The author of the ‘Colossians’ gives insight into the central role of Mary: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24).  For sure, Mary, at the foot of the Cross, was sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, her son.

   Theotokos of Vladimir              The Annunciation by Fra Angelico                   Theotokos of Kasar

There was a time when I found it not so easy to have a devotion to Mary. Reflecting on this today, after many years knowing how highly I now place her in my life, I am aware of the fact that she has protected me always, and I wonder at the reasons why I found it hard to relate to her. In contemplating this, one should bear in mind that interest in these things – my reactions, this way, and that – cover the last 49 years, that period of my life spent in the service of God as a monk, either as trainee or full member of the Ampleforth community. It was as a younger monk that it was not easy for me to relate to Our Lady. In those days, and right up today, Jesus was always the central figure – rather than Our Lady – and although each evening, after night prayers, we monks would sing an antiphon such as the “Salve Regina” (Hail Holy Queen) and go to visit her beautiful, yet simple, statue in the Lady Chapel of the big dark Abbey Church, for me, Mary did not ‘figure’ too much. Nowadays, Mary is central to me, together with Jesus, who is the only Saviour, because, with her help, we have our way to Jesus; she is our guarantor of the way to Jesus.

It may be true – as some would have it – that the devotions to Mary, within the Catholic Church, can be rather ‘sugary’ and ‘flowery’, rather too full of sentimentality. I was a young monk, surrounded by Englishmen who hid their emotions very well, and, there was I in their midst, conscious of being an emotional person and of putting aside reason, in a swell of emotion. Processions carrying statues of Our Lady,  the singing of repetitive hymns with simple words, were not favourites of mine; nor was the beautiful art work of Our Lady – statues with gorgeous apparel, with crowns on her head, the paintings of the baroque period – none of these appealed to me. Even Lourdes – with all its fame – did not attract me.

However, in 1971, the gift of priesthood came my way: I was at a ‘loose end’ during the holidays that year, and I decided to go to Lourdes as a kind of act of piety. What happened there is now a ‘blur’, but unless my memory deceives, the attraction of the young laymen and women, who joined the Ampleforth Pilgrimage, loomed larger than the religiosity that we engaged in. Also, there was a fair amount of ‘merry-making’ in the bars around Lourdes, and that was enjoyable. Furthermore, Lourdes, with its fast flowing River Gave, its pleasantly warm, balmy, nights is a place of romance, and this affected me too, even though I was a monk. So, it was most enjoyable for non-religious reasons, as well as some spiritual ones.

On that occasion, I met two lovely people from the ‘Leonard Cheshire Home’ at Godalming, Surrey. They were Paul and Hazel Hanson – real ‘southerners’, unable to walk, intelligent, but slow of speech; we ‘hit it off’ – ‘connected’ if you like – and I loved their ‘authentic’ attitude to life. Later, they helped me on my way, because, the following year, 1972, I went again to Lourdes. Paul and Hazel were there, and, in their company – more by way of conversation than by conviction – I uttered the rhetorical question: “Could you think of a better place to be than in Lourdes?” Hazel was the ‘quiet one’ of the pair, but Paul looked up at me from the wheel-chair and ‘took me on’ as he slowly replied: “Yes, actually, I prefer the Mariapolis”. From her silence, I could see Hazel nodding in agreement. Paul was the Catholic, Hazel the Anglican, and I think she found Lourdes and its ‘devotions’ and ‘piety’ shops, not at all ‘Anglican’ – a bit ‘much’ – a bit ‘over the top’. Paul’s reply, however, ‘went home’ – found its ‘mark’. I was already booked for the Mariapolis in 1972, but I reflected and pondered on what Paul had said.

Later that same month, July 1972, there I was, involved in that summer’s Mariapolis in Manchester, an event where Jesus is central to the experience of all, but Mary has her rightful place. It is called Mariapolis, (Town of Mary), because, if Jesus is present among two or three (or 500) gathered in his name, then Mary must also be there. Just as she gave birth to Jesus, literally, so she is involved, spiritually, in the birth of Jesus among people.   Rather strangely, we did not talk about Mary, the Mother of God, at all, in all the fun and games, and sharing and conversations; later I was to learn why, and, in a moment I will try to explain.  Before doing so, I must come back to Paul and Hazel, as it was perhaps not in that year, 1972, but certainly in other years in the 1970’s, I met Paul and Hazel at the annual Mariapolis, and once visited them in their ‘Cheshire Home’ at Godalming; our friendship continued. The couple later married and this was such a joy for them both, and Hazel also entered into full Communion with the Catholic Church. By now they have both gone to their heavenly reward, hopefully, to enjoy the never-ending and living joy of heaven, without their wheel-chairs.

Above I made the point that, at the Mariapolis in 1972, we did not talk much about Mary because she was always in the background, pointing to Jesus. I remember, in the next year, when Mary was linked to the ‘Word of God’ as a theme for the Mariapolis, underwritten by the quotation: “Be it done unto me according to thy Word”, a lady was to share, with all the people, her ‘experience’ about Mary. She went on to describe a beautiful view from a chalet, high up in the Alps, with beautiful meadows, cows ‘tinkling’ their ‘bells’, a valley, pine trees and a breath-taking view of further higher mountains topped with snow; she then pointed out that the big glass window was THE necessary ingredient. That window – she explained – is an image of Mary, making herself transparent, so that we could see Jesus, the beauty and grandeur of God. I learned, afterwards, that the lady was an Anglican – and an evangelical Anglican, at that!

Now, things began to make sense for me. Mary is the perfect disciple, the one who is so identified with Jesus that she is, simply, always living what we are taught in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done”. Mary is the spouse of Christ, as well as the mother; she, and her son, Jesus, are so close that they are in perfect harmony. We, as Church, are the spouse of Christ, and individually, we are too. Our task is not, simply, to be ‘souls’ who pray to Mary, who ask her to take our prayers to God, who run to her for help. Yes! We can do all those things – and they are good: but, our task, in a deeper sense, is to live the way she lived. Especially, and together with others, we must let her live in us, so that Jesus is born among us; thus, Jesus can be seen and shared with others. This exemplifies the saying of John of the Cross and puts it into practice: “Where there is no love, put love and then you will find love”. It means standing back, putting the other into the ‘limelight’, and letting them ‘shine’, just like the pane of glass and the beautiful view.

My whole ‘train’ of thought in this ‘Blog’ was prompted by something I read from Pope Benedict XVI, written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, about the Church. It is to be found in my little book with short quotations for priests in this Year for the Priest (9th May) under the title “The Church is Woman”

The Church is not an apparatus; nor is it simply an institution…

She is “woman”.  She is mother.  She is living.

The Marian understanding of the Church is in the strongest and decisive contrast to any concept of Church as purely an organisation or a bureaucracy. We are unable to “build” the Church, we must be Church … It is only in being Marian that we become Church.

In its origin, the Church is born when the “fiat” (let it be done unto me) emerged from the soul of Mary. This is the most profound desire of the Vatican Council: that the Church is awakened in our souls.  Mary shows us the way.”

For the 10th of May, there is another short meditation, from the same book, entitled “The Marian Profile” – this time by Chiara Lubich.

“With Mary, the first lay woman in the Church, and with her spirituality of communion, the typical contribution that the Marian profile gives to the Church will grow; the Church will shine in the eyes of all as more beautiful, more holy more dynamic and more a family.

It will be a loving Church, welcoming, better equipped to face new frontiers: ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, and dialogue with those who do not believe.

The Church will be ever renewed, with new vocations in it; she will be a charismatic Church, a Marian Church, stronger in its missionary work, stronger in its evangelising of all.

This will all be to God’s glory and to the glory of His Mother.”