“Truly fitting is it to sing your praises, O Theotokos, the ever-blessed and completely sinless one, and the Mother of our God! You are more honorable than the Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim. In virginity you bore the Word of God: O Mother of God, we extol you!”
That is one of the “signature” hymns to Our Lady in the Byzantine tradition. In it are contained references to several of the Church’s teachings concerning what God has revealed about her, along with the most appropriate response to the great things the Almighty has done in her: “Truly fitting is it to sing your praises!”
A friend of mine recently emailed me the icon depicted here, as well as the detail of the beautiful face of the heavenly Queen from the same icon. I like this very much, because it has the relatively rare quality of combining the traditional iconographic style with actual feminine beauty. It is true that the goal of the iconographer is not to produce a naturalistic image, but rather a transcendent one that captures something of the light of the world beyond. Everyone whom God has glorified in his Kingdom radiates an ineffable beauty, which is an expression of the divine glory itself, and one hopes that the best of human art can manage perhaps a pale reflection of it this side of Paradise. It seems to me, though, that the result should not be something less beautiful than a naturalistic image but more, though this feat is rarely achieved. All too often the icons look stiff, stern, and sometimes even grotesque or alien. But I’ve finally discovered something both traditional and humanly (as well as spiritually) beautiful.
This page on Our Lady, however, is not about iconography. These images are just a kind of invitation to you to explore the mystical truth and beauty of the Mother of God. I’ll be reproducing various types of images of Our Lady throughout the page. The reason I’m posting this page as a permanent feature of the blog is that my life has been powerfully transformed by my relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and by all the divine grace that has come to me through her. So I want to let you know that this relationship, this transformation, this personal engagement with the motherly love and warmth of the humble Maiden of Nazareth who was made the Queen of Heaven, can be yours for the opening of your heart.
I wrote a book about all this, entitled A Place Prepared by God (available here and here). In it I offer reflections on the mystery of Our Lady as found in Scripture and Tradition, a few of her extraordinary visits to this world after her glorification, as well as my own personal experiences. I really put my heart and soul into it, and if it turns out to be the last one I ever write, I will not feel that I have left anything undone. There’s always more to say, of course, for such mysteries are not exhausted in a single book, but I’ve done my best—at this point in my spiritual progress—to express both who the Church says she is and who I say she is. There is no disagreement between the two, but a personal relationship cannot be adequately expressed in theological language, just as it is not sufficient to write theology in terms of subjective experience. Both are complementary elements in the whole mind/heart experience of the knowledge and love of our Blessed Mother. This is why the Church has always had both a strong intellectual tradition and a strong mystical tradition. Our spiritual lives would be imbalanced if one of these were lacking.
I won’t tell the story here, but on April 14, 2010, I experienced a profound encounter with the Mother of God, the grace of which has not left me. That day will always be for me a “day of salvation,” in which I did not “receive the grace of God in vain” (see 2Cor. 6:1-2). Hardly anything has been the same since, at least in my interior life. The image depicted here is the one through which Our Lady communicated a message to me, one that drew me to her precisely so that it would be she who would bring me to God—for at that time my own faith, hope, and love were quite weak, due to a number of circumstances, both interior and exterior, that left me heavily burdened and drained of the zest for life. (I happened to be in a Roman Catholic church at the time; to Mary it matters not through what sacred image we approach her, if any, and she is free to come to us through any means she wishes.) The whole of the time since then I have been exploring the endlessly profound and rich mystery of what it really means to come to her, and what it really means that it is she who then brings me to the Lord. It is the adventure of a lifetime, and I’m content to continue to go deeper, until it is time for the full revelation of all divine mysteries in the breathtaking glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The fruit of this experience, this encounter, this imparting of grace and love and mercy, has been manifold and all of it good. There is very much that could be said about what God has done in and for me through the Heart of the Mother, but the internet is not an appropriate place to reveal it. Some of it I wrote about in my book, but much will have to remain in the depths of my soul, kept between me and the Lord and his Mother, or shared in part, perhaps, with a spiritual confidant. But I assure you that it is like nothing else that has ever happened in my life, and the joy and gratitude that frequently well up within my spirit are unprecedented. It’s not just that something marvelous has happened to me, and has been sustained within me longer than any other spiritual experience I’ve had previously. I was at a point where I just didn’t think anything like this could happen, and suddenly, beyond all expectation, I was taken up to a spiritual communion that I didn’t even dare hope for anymore, in this life. I could finally say, concerning things I had believed but of which I had little experience: “It is all true!” It is Our Lady, by the grace and the will of God, who has done this for me.
One of the most precious fruits of this renewed relationship with the Mother of God is the fact that she soon directed my attention to her apparitions and messages at Fatima, and this has been a source of continuous blessings and deepening of my spiritual life. In a sense, the entire essence of the Catholic Faith has been expressed there, through three manifestations of the Uncreated Light (described by the child-visionaries as “the Light that was God”) which flowed forth from the Heart and hands of Our Lady. (There is also a fourth revelation, which I’ll mention further on.)
This threefold essence of divine revelation and hence of our life in Christ consists of the worship of the All-holy Trinity, of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and the devotion and love for the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I explain in my book how all these apply to my life as a monk, a priest, and a Christian. Since this is Our Lady’s page, though, I’ll focus here mostly on the mystery of her Immaculate Heart. At a certain moment in one of the Fatima apparitions, the Mother of God opened her hands, and the Light from Heaven enveloped and penetrated the children, the same Light which had previously taken them into the Heart of God and drew them into worship of the Holy Trinity and of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. This time they were granted a vision of the Heart of Mary, and their knowledge of and love for this mystery increased dramatically. But this tender and motherly Heart was surrounded and painfully pierced by thorns, which represented what Our Lady suffers over the sins of the world and hence the threat to the salvation of many of her beloved children. Most images of the thorn-encircled Immaculate Heart are quite tame and do not give any impression of suffering. But I found one (reproduced here) in a recent documentary on Fatima, which perhaps will not appeal to everyone’s sentiment or aesthetic sense, but which at least is closer to the reality of the sharp pain caused our loving Mother by the sins and blasphemies of her children.
In a revelation granted to Sr. Lucia some years after the Fatima apparitions, the Lord appeared with his Mother, saying: “Have compassion on the Heart of your most holy Mother, covered with thorns… and there is no one to make an act of reparation to remove them.” Then Our Lady said: “Look at my Heart, surrounded with thorns, with which ungrateful men pierce me at every moment by their blasphemies and ingratitude. You, at least, try to console me…”
We might ask at this point how anyone can suffer in the bliss of Heaven. This is a mystery, but it seems to be true, in a way that we cannot easily comprehend. Pascal famously wrote: “Christ is in agony until the end of the world,” because He is one with the members of his Body who suffer on earth. Because He still relates to us in time, He experiences grief and pain over our sins, even though He once nailed them to the Cross. Raissa Maritain wrote that there is “an unnamed perfection” in God that is analogous to human suffering. Since Our Lady suffered so intensely and lovingly in union with Jesus on Golgotha, we can be sure that He has united her to Himself in Heaven in a similar way. She is, of course, supremely happy in Heaven in relation to God and all the angels and saints, but in relation to her sinful and suffering children, there is a mysterious kind of suffering she will endure until the last judgment and general resurrection. So even if thorns piercing her Heart are symbolic representations, the reality to which they refer to is not at all symbolic, but one that draws tears from the Mother, which are sometimes even manifested in her sacred images in this world.
This brings us to the fourth revelation, which I do not count with the first three, because they refer to the Divine Persons and to the Mother of God. This revelation was a vision of Hell, but it is important, because it was a motivation for the children to pray and sacrifice so that sinners would repent and not have to go there. Our Lady asked for prayer and sacrifice for them, but mentioned something else, which really shows how much God loves Mary and has involved her in his work of saving souls. After the vision of Hell, Our Lady told the children that in order to save souls from Hell, “God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.” So the revelation concerning the Heart of Mary (which is a beautiful expression of the very person of Mary, especially in the aspect of her motherly love and compassion), is not meant merely to inspire warm meditations on Our Lady and all that God has done in her. It is meant to help save souls from Hell!
I have written at some length in my book about how this has affected my spiritual life and sense of mission in this world, and how I have been drawn very deeply into this mystery, not only by Our Lady herself, but also by (and this was another special and unexpected grace) Blessed Jacinta, one of the Fatima visionaries who now intercedes for us from Heaven.
So, in drawing me to herself on that blessed April day, Our Lady has opened up a whole world of spiritual blessing and richness, of insight and revelation, of more profound faith, hope, and love. She has personally brought me to a deeper love and adoration of Christ, especially in the Holy Eucharist, but in all the elements of his life and Person as expressed in the twenty mysteries of the Holy Rosary. She has overcome many of my fears and has made me secure in God’s love and in her own, and she has said to me, in effect, what she said to the visionary Lucia: “My Immaculate will be your refuge and your way to God.” I’ve have experienced this almost continuously for the past nine months, and I expect to go ever deeper into this most blessed mystery of love and grace. Through my consecration to her Immaculate Heart I have become her own “property,” and as such I can expect that she will protect and enrich my life and make it fruitful, preparing me well to be received into the joy of Heaven.
The foregoing are just a few words and images that give you a little hint about what God has been doing in and for me through the Heart of the Mother. It has been an incalculably wonderful gift—which has “saved me from the fires of Hell,” as we say in one of the prayers Our Lady gave at Fatima—and I plan to adore and thank God for all eternity for it, because that’s how long it will take! One of my favorite psalm verses is from Psalm 85(86): “I will praise You, Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify your name forever. For your love to me has been great; You have saved me from the depths of hell.”
Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima, pray for us!
January 14, 2011
Update, April 14, 2011: Today is the first anniversary of my blessed “encounter” with the Mother of God, and the graces are flowing as freely as ever, to my great wonderment and delight. This morning I asked that she speak a word to me through the Holy Scriptures, and what I received was quite amazing, as if she were actually speaking these words to me. Blessed be the Lord, who in his ineffable generosity showers such grace upon those who venerate and love his precious Mother! Here’s what she said to me, using the words of St Paul to St Timothy:
“To…my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord… I remember you constantly in my prayer… I remember your tears… I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give [you] a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control. Do not be ashamed, then, of testifying to our Lord, nor of me… but take your share of suffering for the Gospel in the power of God…
“Follow the pattern of the sound words you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit…
“You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus and what you have heard from me… Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything… endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation… Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved… The Lord knows those who are his… call upon the Lord from a pure heart…” (2Timothy 1-2).