|THE MORAL AND SOCIAL INFLUENCE OF DEVOTION TO MARY|
|Dr. Orestes A. Brownson
said by the late lamented Father Baker, in one of his sermons, that "the
blessed virgin Mary was greater in that she heard and kept the word of God than
in being the mother of God" This seems to be justified by what our Lord
himself says to the woman in the crowd, who exclaimed: "Blessed is the womb
that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck." "Yea rather,"
he answers, "blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it;"
and also in reply to the one who told him his mother and his brethren stood
without seeking him: "Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?" And
stretching forth his hand toward his disciples, he said: "Behold my mother
and my brethren. For whosoever doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he
is my brother, and sister, and mother." He thus implies that doing the will
of God is more than the closest ties of kindred.
The distinction of being the mother of God was great, and for that all nations were to call Mary blessed; but she was more blessed in always doing the will of God, or in the possession of those virtues which led to her selection to be the mother of God. Her personal merit in always hearing and keeping the word of God was greater than in giving her consent to be his mother; and even the great merit of that consent was in its being given in perfect submission to the will of God: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word." As much as to say:" I am the servant of the Lord; his will is mine."
None but Mary alone can ever bear the honor of being the mother of God. That is hers alone, and forever distinguishes her among all women; but her virtues, those for which God chose her among all women to be his mother, are such as all, whether men or women, may in some degree possess in common with her. None can equal them, for she was <gratia plena>, full of grace; but with the aid of grace they can approach her virtues, like her hear the word of God and keep it; and she herself did not and could not do it Without that aid. She was conceived without original stain, but yet was born of Adam's race and Christ was her Redeemer as well as ours, and she could no more enter the kingdom of heaven without regeneration than the meanest of Adam's posterity. The redeeming and elevating grace was as necessary in her case as in ours; but in her case was applied in the first instant of her conception, which, as I understand it, is the Catholic faith, and the way in which the fathers, doctors, and theologians generally understand the Immaculate Conception. Those virtues for which Mary was most blest, which are the brightest jewels in her crown, and the most brilliant ornaments of her garment of varieties, are then, as to their kind, within the reach of all, and all women may in a measure be blest as she was, by always loving and doing as she did the will of her divine Son.
I have insisted on this view, because the fact that Mary's virtues are the virtues of our own race is a reason why the devotion to her which we Catholics practice has exerted, exerts, and is fitted to exert a most salutary influence on individuals and nations, and on the manners and morals of society at large. Mary's own influence is included in that of her Son, inseparable from it, and nothing would grieve her more than an attempt to separate or even to distinguish it from his, as if she could or would be anything without him. Her great merit is in willing only what he wills, and in doing only what he inspires and enables her to do. What she does in relation to our salvation or our progress or perseverance in grace is only what he does by her. It is really he who does it, and in crowning her, he crowns his own work. He makes her the channel or medium of his grace and favors to men because he loves and delights to honor her by granting them at her request, but it is he who grants them. She is all powerful with him, and he will deny her nothing she asks for, because she asks only for that which accords with his will, and which he is more ready and willing to grant than even she is to ask. With all the love and tenderness of her woman's nature, and of her mother's heart, she cannot love us so much or so tenderly as he does. A woman may forget her sucking child, but he cannot forget us. He delights to grant her requests for her clients, because she makes no requests which he does not inspire, and because to grant these favors at her request honors her, and gives her a share in his glory. How much the world is indebted to her intercession with him, we know not, cannot know, and need not to know. Be it more or be it less, it is to him the world owes it, for it is he who filled her with grace and made her the most blessed of creatures, and it is he who inspires and listens to her intercessions, and her work is as indistinguishable from his as is the work of the church herself.
But the fact that the influence of the mother is not distinguishable from that of the Son, does not prevent us from distinguishing the influence on individuals and society of the special devotion we Catholics pay to our Lady, as a part of Christian worship in general. This influence cannot indeed be separated from the general influence of Christian faith and worship, but it may to a certain extent be distinguished, and considered by itself. It leaves everywhere distinct marks of itself, and modern civilization owes to it many of its characteristic features, and much of its immense superiority to that of Greek and Roman antiquity.
The worshipper of God loves, adores, praises, thanks, believes, trusts him, offers himself as a holocaust to him, implores mercy and pardon, gracious protection and help; the worshipper of the saints honors their worth, their holiness, and seeks, as the highest honor he can do them, and as the greatest favor they can do to him, to possess virtues akin to their own, and by constant meditation on them, their life and character, loving, admiring, venerating, and striving to imitate them, he can hardly fail to acquire kindred virtues, because their virtues are those of creatures like himself, and therefore by the grace of God-never withheld from those that seek it-within his reach. In this respect as being wholly human the saints are nearer to us than is our Lord himself, and we can more easily approach them. True, our Lord is "perfect man," but he is also "perfect God," the divine and human, though forever distinct, inseparably united in one divine person, and from what he could do, we cannot infer what we can do. If he is like unto us he is also above and beyond us, and his ability is no measure of ours. But the saints, even holy Mary, the chiefest of them all, are wholly of our race, are wholly human, and their virtues, the grace of God assisting, are not above our imitation. If we cannot equal we can approach their sanctity and worth.
On the principle here asserted, the worship,-to use the proper English word,-the worship of Mary, or the devotion which the faithful render her, must have a direct and powerful tendency to promote in her clients the virtues which they love, honor, and venerate in her. The devotion to Mary is not that Teutonic worship of woman as a goddess to which this age, where the Catholic faith and worship do not predominate, is strongly addicted, to the great detriment of manliness, and of manners and morale; nor is it precisely devotion to her rank, or dignity as queen-mother, especially with us sturdy republicans, who honor kings and queens only as symbols of just and legitimate authority; but it is the worship of the highest and purest virtues embodied in a real person, living an] acting. The virtues of our Lady are not only each perfect in its kind, but they include every Christian virtue, grace, and perfection. Mary and the church are often taken as types, so to speak, of each other. Each presents in her living character, all the virtues, all the graces and perfections honored and rewarded by our Lord. But we cannot speak of them all, for it would require a volume to speak worthily of any one of them. We shall confine ourselves to the three principal virtues or perfections which were most wanting in heathen society, and which are most characteristic of Christendom, namely: humility, maternity, and virginity or chastity. Of these Mary is the perfect type.
1. Humility. The masters of spiritual life tell us that humility is not only a virtue, but the root of all the virtues, without which there is and can be no real virtue. Humility is not servility, meanness of spirit, but is real greatness of soul, and the basis of all generosity and disinterestedness. Pride, the vice opposed to humility, has no magnanimity, no generosity,-is always cold, narrow, selfish, cruel. Yet pride was the most prominent characteristic of the ancient Graeco-Roman civilization. The whole philosophical and moral system of the Stoics, the least discreditable of the ancient sects, vas founded on pride. The Stoic taught as distinctly self-denial, detachment from the world, contempt of riches and honors, and superiority to all the accidents of fortune, as does the Christian, but from pride, because a man should have too high an opinion of himself to suffer such trifles to afflict him. He scorns to feel, to suffer, because he holds himself too superior to the world and its accidents, and will not admit that any thing has power to affect or move him against his own will. Very different is the Christian. The Christian rises above the world by his humility, not his pride, and proves his superiority to the world, to fortune, and overcomes it by proving that his capacity to suffer pain, disgrace, degradation even, is stronger than its power to inflict them. He overcomes all the evils and mishaps of life, not by regarding them as trifles to be despised, but by regarding them as the loving chastisements of his heavenly Father, and by making them a means of spiritual progress. The Christian observes the moral law, not as the Stoic professes to do, from a contempt for the weakness that would violate it, but from love of the law itself, and a profound sense of its sacredness, and the justice and love of its Author. The Stoic contemns death, and flies to it as a relief from defeat and disgrace; the Christian meets death, when it comes, with composure, not only knowing that to him it is the entrance into a blissful eternity, but he has the true courage that can bear disgrace, and defeat, and survive the loss of all the world holds dear. The Stoic seeks always to assert his own superiority to fortune, but finds his strength fail, and himself compelled not unfrequently to seek death by his own hand; the Christian feels and confesses his weakness, and seeks strength in one greater than himself, who is ready to help and mighty to succor those who cast their burdens on him. The Stoic fails in his strength, the Christian triumphs in his weakness, or by relying on a strength greater than his own. The Stoic isolates himself from humanity, and has nothing to work with or for him; the Christian unites himself by love with humanity and humanity's Maker and Redeemer, and has with him and for him all that is great, mighty, and good in heaven and earth, and is invincible in his love, all powerful in his humility, and triumphant in all he undertakes.
Now the history of the human race presents us no example of humility so striking, so perfect, so lovely as that of the Blessed Virgin. Lowliest of Jewish maidens, though exalted to the dignity of bride of Heaven and mother of God, not a thought or a movement of pride or vain glory ever as sails her. She magnifies not herself, but in the joy of her humility exclaims: "My soul doth magnify the ford, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour, because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid, for behold from henceforth all nations shall call me blessed; for he that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is his name." Not a word in glory of herself; her whole soul is filled with the greatness and goodness of God, whom she gives all the glory of the great things done to her. Who can say how much the study and meditation of her example, of her perfect humility, to which the honors paid her by the faithful constantly lead, have done to destroy that pagan pride, and to change the pagan idolatry of self into the worship of the living God and to promote that meekness and sweetness of temper, that respect for the poor and lowly, and that tenderness and compassion, so different from any thing we
find in the heathen world, and so characteristic of Christian nations? How greatly has her example helped to realize the truth of what she continues to chant!" He that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is from generation to generations, to them that fear him. He hath showed might in his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away."
The whole order of Christian civilization is founded on humility, and on respect for the humble and compassion for the poor and friendless, the needy and the helpless. The Greek and Roman civilization was founded on pride, on respect for the successful, and favored only the favorites of fortune. We find in those proud republics before the coming of our Lord no respect for the poor, no provision made for the needy, no sympathy for the slave. They whom fortune favored not were regarded as cursed by the gods, whom it would be impious to relieve or to compassionate. The Greeks despised the poor and treated their slaves with gross inhumanity. The Romans were no better. The God they worshipped was force. What they honored was success, and no maxim did they more scrupulously observe than the <Voe Victis>. Nothing could exceed, not even in their fabled gods, the atrocious cruelty of the refined and highly cultivated Romans in the republic and in the empire down to the final triumph of Christianity in the empire. The cruelties still practiced in the so-called barbarous ages were continued from the empire, and not introduced, as is sometimes pretended, by the conquering barbarians. Goth, Frank, Vandal, Hun could teach the gas-Empire nothing on the score of cruelty and inhumanity. There was nothing to learn from barbarians, in the way of cruelty, ferocity, pride, contempt for the lowly, the poor, the unfortunate, by a people who found a capital amusement in gladiatorial shows, and in their theatres dedicated to the gods, required the players to exhibit the vices and crimes represented in the play, in all their naked, disgusting, and horrible reality. It is not till we go back to the heathen nations and make ourselves acquainted with their manners, customs, usages, laws, and religion in their real deformity prior to their conversion, that we can in any degree appreciate the immense change, especially in regard to humility, respect for the lowly, sympathy for the unfortunate, and commiseration for the slave, wrought by that conversion, or the salutary influence of the worship of the virtues of Mary.
2. In honoring Mary as the mother of God we honor maternity elevated to its highest possible dignity. "Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and blessed are the peps that gave thee suck." "Yea, rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it." Maternity is not all in bearing and nursing a child, nor is that after all the highest and most blessed function of the mother. It is not by a figure of speech only that we speak of spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers. Spiritual paternity or maternity is as real in the order of regeneration as is natural paternity or maternity in the order of generation. The Jews honored maternity, because they held that he who was to come was to be born of woman, as we believe that he who was to come has come and has been born of woman,-of her whom we honor as the Blessed Virgin. The Jews honored as Christians honor maternity in view of the Messiah, for they held the same faith that we do. But among the heathen maternity can hardly be said to have been honored at all, and the mother was prized only in proportion to the number of children, especially of male children, she bore to her lord. Nowhere in ancient or modern heathendom do we find maternity regarded as a holy function, or any conception of its deep spiritual significance Motherhood had hardly any rights of its own, even with free mothers, and none at all with slave moth
It is mainly to the low estimate in which maternity is held among the heathen that we must attribute in both ancient and modern times the prevalence of child-murder, or the exposure of children, as in China, India, and perhaps in all nations on which the light of the Gospel sheds no ray. In ancient Sparta the law ordered all malformed children to be put to death as soon as born, and in Rome the mother had no rights over her new-born child, and the nurse must wait the word of the father to know whether the babe just born is to live or to be strangled. If the father refuses to own it and to say let it live, it cannot be reared. The father can slay the child with his own hand or with the hand of his slave before the mother's eyes without her having any right to complain, or the law any right to intervene. If the mother herself had any proper respect for the sacredness and dignity of motherhood she could never destroy her own offspring, and infanticide by the hands of the mother or with her knowledge and consent would be an unheard-of crime. If again, the father or society had any due appreciation of the greatness and sacredness of motherhood, the practice of child-murder could never be tolerated, or even connived at. Not only did the low estimate in which maternity was held, an estimate that placed it little above a mere animal function lead to the toleration or authorization of child-murder, but it tended to degrade womanhood, and to make woman herself a mere accomplice with man in pleasure or ambition.
Under Christianity this estimate is corrected, and motherhood, as a necessary consequence of elevating marriage to a sacrament, is elevated in some sense to the spiritual order, and made a holy function. Woman herself is elevated, ceases to be a mere drudge, or an article of luxury. She is a person, not a chattel, has her own personal existence, rights, and duties. If a wife, she is indeed under obedience to her husband, but the obedience of a person morally free, not the obedience of a slave. If the rights of the father are paramount, they are not exclusive, and the rights of the mother are recognized, and in some cases even supersede those of the father. Under this Christian view of woman and motherhood infanticide and the exposure of children ceased in the nations that became, and just in proportion as they became and remained Christian.
In general terms this change in regard to the estimate in which maternity is held is of course due to Christianity, but it is more particularly due to that element in Christian worship which we call devotion to Mary, the virgin mother of God. In her motherhood was invested with a significance, a sacredness, a dignity, an awe even, never before conceived of as belonging to it. When God himself condescends to be born of woman, and woman becomes the mother of him who is the Creator of heaven and earth, and the Redeemer and Saviour of mankind, motherhood becomes almost a divine function, and something to be treated with reverence and awe, for not only did Mary bring forth him who is Christ the Lord, but every human mother brings forth a child destined, if true to the law of his Maker, to be one with Christ, one with God, and a real partaker of the divine nature. Satan lied in the sense he intended to be understood, when, in tempting Eve, he said, "Ye shall be as gods; "yet his promise was lees than the truth, below the real destiny to which every human soul may aspire, for God became man that man might become God, and the glorified saints partake not only of the human nature assumed, but of the divine nature itself,-are made, as Saint Peter says, <divinae consortes naturae>.
Certainly I do not pretend that man ever becomes the Divinity or a divine person. The glorified soul is still a creature, and creature always will be; but it has all of the divine that is communicable, and is joined to God by unity of nature as well as by union of will and affection. The mystery of human destiny through the Incarnation is too great for our comprehension; we cannot conceive what will be the greatness and dignity of man when glorified. "Beloved," says the Apostle John, "now are we the sons of God, and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be; we know that when he shall appear we shall be like to him, for we shall see him as he is." (I John, iii, 2.)
Now in estimating the greatness and dignity of the mother we have regard to the Son. All nations call Mary blessed, because he whom she brought forth was the only begotten Son of God, and for a like reason to that for which we honor maternity in her, should we honor it, though of course in an inferior degree, in every human mother. Every human mother may chant with Mary: "My soul cloth magnify the Lord. * * * For he that is mighty hath done great things to me, and holy is his name." It IB a great and sacred thing to be the mother of a child, if we look to the destiny to which every child may aspire. The mother who feels it, feels the sacredness of her relation as mother, the high duty it imposes, and studies diligently to train up her child in the fear of the Lord, in sole reference to his lofty destiny. This estimate of her own dignity and sacred function, reacts on the father, and compels him to think seriously on his relation and solemn duties and responsibilities as father, for more is exacted of him than even of the mother.
Now, devotion to Mary, the honor we pay in her to motherhood, brings all these great and solemn truths home to our winds, and our hearts. We are led to reflect on the great mysteries of the Incarnation, regeneration and glorification, and thence on the awful dignity of motherhood, the sacredness and worth of every child born of woman, and the obligation to reverence the mother, to provide for the child's present and future welfare, and to conform society itself, so far as may be, to the virtues honored in the maternity of Mary. From this it is easy to see that devotion to Mary has and must have a most salutary influence on all domestic relations, and on the manners and morals, and therefore on the progress of society itself.
3. We honor in Mary the virgin-mother; that is, purity or chastity of mind and body, and in nothing in all history have the good effects of the worship of Mary been more evident than in promoting this great virtue. The elevation of motherhood, to which it leads, carries necessarily along with it the elevation of womanhood, for maternity is the special function of woman,-maternity, either in the natural order or the spiritual order, as we learn from the history of her creation. Just in proportion as maternity is honored is womanhood honored, and just in proportion as womanhood is honored are manners and morals elevated. Licentiousness cannot obtain a foothold where the real dignity and sphere of woman is understood and respected. It can prevail only where a low estimate of woman obtains in society, and indeed only where woman entertains a low estimate of herself in relation to the designs or plans of divine Providence. Men, in general, estimate women very much as they estimate themselves, or rather, estimate womanhood as women estimate it, and if women regard womanhood as invested with sacred and awful functions, they will be as averse to wronging her as to the commission of the crime of sacrilege The maternity of Mary has given sublime moral and spiritual significance to womanhood, as the assumption of human nature by the Word has to manhood itself. Under one aspect the virgin-mother, <mater semper virgo>, vindicates those who take the vow of perpetual celibacy, and devote themselves, for the lore of God and the good of souls, to the spiritual functions of fatherhood or motherhood; and under another equally vindicates the possible purity and sanctity of marriage, against all those sects that forbid people to marry, on the ground that matter, and the body as material, is essentially impure. All impurity is in the soul. The married, if they observe the laws of marriage, may have less merit than those who forego it for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, but they may, with the grace of the sacrament, be equally pure. Virginity may be holy, and so may motherhood. Our Lord, in assuming a body, has redeemed it, consecrated it, made it the temple of the Holy Ghost. Therefore we are to respect it, preserve it pure and undefiled, and to beware of profaning it, or of putting it to any base or vile uses; tent this may be done by the married as well as by the unmarried. They who, for the sake of God, forego marriage and maintain, for the sake of God, perpetual virginity, are in a higher state than the married; they are wholly in the order of regeneration, which is above the order of generation.
The Jews honored, as we have seen, maternity, in view of the Messiah who was to be born of woman, but they do not appear to have honored virginity, and, as the Jewish dispensation was in the order of generation, though symbolizing a higher order; they could not; for virginity, in its spiritual sense, is in the order of the regeneration, based on the principle of election by grace. Marriage, with the Jews, was holy, for it is <semper res sacra>, always a sacred thing, but it was not a sacrament as under the New Law.
But in passing from the Jewish to the gentile world chastity or purity, in the a Christian sense of the word, and of which we find the type in Mary, seems to have been wholly unknown or utterly disregarded. It seems, at least, not to have been insisted on as a virtue either in man or woman, and if conjugal fidelity was enjoined, which was not always and everywhere, it seems to have been enjoined less as a virtue than as an offering to the pride and authority of the husband. It would be obviously out of place here to attempt by the citation of facts to prove any assertions of this sort. The facts are such as it would be a shame even to name. My pen would blush to describe, and hardly dare allude to, the improprieties of the cities of the plain, or to those which the manners, customs, laws, and even religion tolerated, sometimes enjoined, in Babylon, and in the luxurious cities of Syria and Phenicia, and I must pass over in silence the Bacchic and Isiac orgies, and the mysteries of the Bona Deal Voluptuousness was worshipped as a goddess, through nearly all polished heathendom, and nothing could exceed, if what grave historians have re corded is to be believed, the licentiousness and corruption of manners and morals in the very highest ranks of Roman society; and Rome herself, the proud capital of the gentile world at the time when the church was founded, was foul with the accumulated vices of all ages and nations. The remains of her literature and art, the pictures and sculptures of disinterred Eerculaneum and Pompeii, bear but too ample evidence of the corruption of the Roman Empire. No one can read the <De Civitate Dei> of Saint Augustine, who veils rather than uncovers the impurities of what he calls the City of the World, and with which he contrasts the City of God, without ceasing to wonder that God, who is long-suffering itself, could bear no longer with the degenerate Romans, and that in his wrath to them, but in mercy to mankind, he let loose the barbarians against them.
Yet Christianity, wherever it was received, wrought changes in the manners and morals of Roman society, so great, so pure, and so holy, that they would alone suffice, if all other arguments were wanting, to prove its divine origin, its divine truth, and its supernatural energy. The Roman Empire was too rotten to be saved as a state. Long the haughty mistress of the world, foul with the vices, gorged with the spoils, and drunk with the blood of all nations, she needed "the Scourge of God;" she needed to be humbled, and Christianity itself could not avert, could hard]y retard her downfall; yet it did much for private morals and manners, breathed into the laws a spirit of justice and humanity hitherto unknown, and in those very classes which, with a Julia and a Messalina, had thrown off all shame, it trained up devout worshippers of the virtues of Mary. That very Roman matronhood, once so proud, then so abandoned, furnished, under the teachings and inspirations of Christianity, some of the purest and noblest heroines of the arose, who gave up all for Jesus, and won bravely and joyously the glorious crown of martyrdom. Never has the church of God had more disinterested, capable, and devoted servants than she gained from the ranks of the Roman nobility in the city and scattered through the provinces, and their names and relics are held in high veneration throughout Christendom, and will forever be honored wherever purity, sanctity, self-sacrifice, devotion, and moral heroism are honored. Christianity freed and elevated the brave, made him a man, a child of God, and heir of heaven, but none served the church better, none did more to exemplify the truths of the Gospel, and to aid in converting the empire, than the Roman nobility, once so foul and corrupt. Christianity when once she had converted the city to her own pure and living faith, cleared it of its filth, and changed it from the capital of the empire of Satan to the capital of Christ's kingdom on earth, which it still is, and will be to the end of time. The conversion of Rome from paganism to Christianity, the substitution of the fisherman's ring for the seal, and the freedman's cap for the diadem of the Caesars, is the grandest event in the history of the church, and is a sure pledge of her final victory over contemporary heresy, and both civilized and uncivilized infidelity.
Devotion to Mary has had its part in effecting and sustaining this marvelous change in manners and morals. Some Anglicans, indeed, tell us that the worship of Mary was unknown at so early an age, and that it is, in fact, a comparatively recent Roman innovation, rather, a Roman corruption; but Anglicans themselves are of too recent origin to be an authority on Christian antiquity. There are obvious reasons why less should appear in the monuments of the earliest ages, when the church was engaged in her life and death struggle with the Greek and Roman idolatry, of that worship of Mary, than in later times, when the victory was won, and the danger from idolatry was less; but it does not follow that it was less known or less generally observed. Many of the mysteries and the more solemn parts of the divine service were placed, as is well known under the discipline of the secret, lest they should be profaned by the heathen, and there is no part of Christian worship that the heathen would sooner or more grossly have profaned than devotion to Mary. Their gross minds would have been as little able to distinguish it from their own idolatrous worship, as are the minds of our modern sectarians. But I have seen no reason to doubt that devotion to Mary, the virgin-mother of God, was as well known to the faithful, or that they were as fervent in its practice in the earlier as in the later ages of the church. We see and hear more of it as time goes on, perhaps because our information is fuller; but there is no reason to conclude that there has been, in fact, any increase of it, or any great development of it in later times. It would be very difficult in any subsequent age to find or make, even among modern Italians, supposed to be the warmest and most enthusiastic worshippers of Mary, such demonstrations of enthusiasm and joy as were exhibited all through the East, from Ephesus to Alexandria, as the news spread that the Council of Ephesus had declared Mary to be the mother of God, and condemned Nestorius, who denied it. Nothing equal or similar occurred, not even in Italy, when a few years since, the Holy Father defined the Immaculate Conception to be of Catholic faith. The fair inference is that the position of Mary was better understood, and devotion to her was more lively in the earlier, than in the later period. The fathers knew the faith and all that pertains to it, at least as well as we do.
According to my reading of history, the epochs in which faith is the strongest, piety the most robust, and the church wins her grandest victories, whether in individuals or in nations, are precisely those in which devotion to our Lady, or the worship of her virtue, is the most diffused, the most vigorous and flourishing; and the epochs in which faith seems to be obscured, and to grow weak and sickly, and the church is the most harassed and suffers her greatest losses, are precisely the epochs in which this devotion is the most languid and feeble. All the great saints have been no less remarkable for their tender and assiduous devotion to Mary than for their manly virtues and heroic sanctity, and I suspect that most of us could bear witness, if we would, that the least unsatisfactory portions of our own lives have been precisely those in which we were the most diligent and fervent in our devotion to the mother of God. I claim, then, for devotion to our Lady a full share of influence in rendering Christian society so much superior in all the virtues to the polished but corrupt society of pagan Greece and Rome. As with the pagans the worship of the impure gods of their mythologies could not fail to corrupt the worshippers, so with Christians the worship of the purity and sanctity of the mother of God has not failed to purify and render holy those who in sincerity, earnestness, and simplicity of heart were careful to practice it.
I might tale up other virtues of Mary, for she is a Casket of Jewels, and show in like manner how through devotion to Mary they have entered into Christian society and formed its manners and morals; but this every reader can easily do for himself. I have laid down and illustrated the principle, and though I have said not all, rather the least that could be said, I have said enough to show that the influence of this devotion hag been and must have been great and salutary on individual and domestic manners and morals, and in elevating and advancing general society.
But I should be wanting to my own faith, and do far less honor to our Lady than I would, if I stopped here, and limited the effects of devotion, to the natural influence of her example. This influence is great, and we cannot hold intimate, loving, and reverent intercourse with the wise, the great, and the good, without assimilating something to our own minds, hearts, and life. Meditation on the humility, the maternity, the virginity, the immaculate purity of the Virgin of virgins, Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Mother undefiled, cannot fail to give us something of those virtues so characteristic of her, and of our holy religion; but I do not believe that meditation on her virtues could alone suffice to produce and sustain the effects I have adduced, any more than the simple example of our Lord himself could have sufficed to redeem the world, and elevate souls to union with God. All the peculiarly Christian virtues are in the order of regeneration, as is Christianity itself, though presupposing, as does regeneration, the order of generation, and therefore are impossible without grace or supernatural assistance. Pelagianism, even Semi-Pelagianism, is a heresy, and little would devotion to Mary in reality effect, if we were to leave out all consideration of the supernatural assistance which she obtains for her clients, by her all-powerful intercession with her divine Son. Even faith alone in the mysteries and teachings of the Gospel could not suffice; for the devils believe and tremble, and yet are none the less devils. Most of us know and believe much better than we do. We see, and approve the better, and follow the worse:
Video meliora proboque Deteriora sequor.
What we most need is not amply instruction or precept, but strength. We are weak, and our appetites, passions, propensities, are too strong for us, and enslave us. We feel ourselves sinking; the waves are closing over us, and in fear and agony we cry out: "Lord, save us, we perish!" "Holy Mother of God pray for us, or we are lost!" The soul oppressed with a deep sense of its weakness, of its inability to conquer by its own strength in the battle of life, calls out for supernatural aid, and it is precisely this aid, so much needed, and which enables us to resist and overcome our enemies, that I dare believe, and avow that I believe, the blessed Mary can and does obtain for those who fly to her protection. There is no superstition in so believing. We do not ask Mary to grant nor do we believe that she can grant us supernatural aid. She is a creature and has no supernatural aid to give. She grants us her prayers, her intercessions, and these she can grant, for so much we can do for one another. The supernatural assistance is granted by God himself, and is the immediate act of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, the Sanctifier, the Consummator, done at her intercession, which is all-powerful, as we have seen, because it is always in strict accord with the will and pleasure of her divine Son.
No doubt God could grant us the supernatural assistance we need, without the intercession of holy Mary, but as he is a God who heareth and answereth prayer, it is his will that they who need should ask, should pray; and prayer itself is a favor, and is a necessary preparation for the reception of other favors. God uses the ministry of saints and angels in the works of providence and grace because he would honor them and give them a part in his glory, and there can be none that he more delights to honor than his mother, for there are none whose virtues do or can surpass hers. She is his mother; she is more, for she hears the word of God, and keeps it; she doeth always the will of God. Whom, then, shall he honor, and make the channel of his graces, if not her?
Much is heard of the enthusiasm and extravagance of Italians in their devotion to Mary. and we are gravely told by men who command our reverence by their learning, ability, and virtues, that they will not suit the taste of sober and undemonstrative Englishmen and their descendants, the Americans. I know not whether it be so or not; but faith is faith, and the experience of ages, of generation after generation of Catholics, proves that never have men in simplicity and love sought her protection in vain, and the belief in her ability and willingness to protect and assist us in our dangers and necessities by her all-availing prayers and intercession, is an integral and essential part of that very devotion which we render her, and which is her due.
Including the supernatural assistance Mary obtains for us by her prayers and intercession for us, it would be difficult to exaggerate the individual, domestic, and social influence of Catholic devotion to the blessed Mary, the holy mother of God. I believe not, nor am I required to believe, every legend that floats about among the faithful, nor would I rashly deny them; forms of devotion and expression may sometimes be adopted which I do not find edifying to me, but if they exceed not the limits of faith I quarrel not with them, for they may be edifying to others, and may be acceptable, for the simplicity and good-will with which they are adopted, to our Lady herself. Pious affection is not required to speak always with the precision and exactness of a theological doctor, and where there is no exuberance there is little life, or an unfertile soil. Love never measures its words, for all words seem too weak for it, and seldom does it, if deep and genuine, fail to express itself in demonstrations that seem wild and extravagant, half-crazy, to those who love not. It is not easy to love our Lady too much; and I have found it always easy to distinguish those who really love her, and are really devoted to her, by their purity of thought and expression, their gentleness and sweetness of temper, and their amiable and obliging disposition, from all others. Devotion to Mary marks itself on the features and even in the complexion. We take note, as soon as we see or hear them, that they have been with Mary. I speak of those who are really her children, not of those light, frivolous, volatile creatures, who practice, by fits and starts, certain little coquettish devotions to Mary, but never reflect seriously, for a single moment, on her virtues, on the solidity of her character, or the dignity of the position she holds in the divine economy of grace. Mary heard the words of the angel; she heard the words, and saw the deeds of her divine Son, and she pondered them in heart. She never fails to assist those who follow her example.
I have spoken of the influence of devotion to Mary in elevating maternity and with it, womanhood. The nations are in need of this influence still. Christendom is lapsing anew into heathenism, and the abominations I have referred to as existing in heathen nations, are reviving in nations that profess to be Christian, and even to a lamentable extent in the bosom of nations that call themselves Catholic. Faith has become weak, charity has given way to a watery philanthropy, and the worship of Mary is branded as idolatry or as besottish superstition. Every thing is Profaned, the church, the state, God, man, and woman; and society, while boasting of its progress, seems to be rapidly lapsing into barbarism. Never did the nations more need the church, or the pastoral authority of the vicar of Christ; never was there a greater need of the prayers and intercession of her whom we invoke as Health of the Weak, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted, and Help of Christians. No small part of the world, once Christian, and adoring the Cross, needs converting anew. The crescent profanes the sacred dome of Saint Sophia, and more than two-thirds of the population of the globe are infidels or pagans; while heresy, schism, incredulity, indifferentism, dishonor Christ and our Lady in fair lands that still retain the Christian name. The work of converting and purifying the world is not finished, and is apparently, to a great extent, to be done over again.
If there is any truth in the view I have presented of the moral and social influence of devotion to the virgin-mother of God, it is to that devotion, as a powerful means of reconverting and repurifying Christian nations, and of converting and purifying heathen nations, that we must have recourse. The enemy of man to be overcome, is the same old enemy of God. Man would be God, not in God's way, but in his own; he would stand on himself, and suffice for himself. In the pride of his strength, and the light of his own intellect, he refuses to bend to the Highest, and to learn of the Wisest, and his strength turns to weakness, his light to darkness, and his manhood disappears. He loses heart, and likens himself to a worm, and crouches, and grovels. What can restore him? Not to-day need we fear an excess of faith, an excess of devotion. The enemy is a cold, freezing rationalism, which, pretending to be reason, becomes lifeless materialism. Nothing can overcome him but devotion to her who, as the mother of God, was to crush the serpent's head. We must call on Mary to call on God with us, and for us, to help us as he did the first Christians.
In conclusion, I will say that efforts to increase devotion to the Blessed Virgin are, to me, among the most encouraging signs that God has not forgotten us; that there are still faith and love on the earth, and that there is still a recuperative principle in Christian society. I thank God, for society itself, that there are still those who delight to call themselves children of Mary, and to keep alive in our cold, heartless world, the memory of her virtues. While she is loved and reverenced there is hope for society, and most grateful am I to God that the hard reasonings of this reasonless age, and the chilling sneers of the proud, the conceited, the worldly, the corrupt, have not frightened all out of their deep, ardent, and simple devotion to her who is blessed among women. If I have not been able to speak fit words in honor of our Lady, as I fear I have not, let me at least avow that I honor and cherish, in my heart of hearts, an who honor her, and show their devotion to her, by imitating her virtues. They are the real philanthropists they are tile real moral, the true social reformers, and are doing more for society, for the progress of virtue, intelligence, wisdom, than all our statesmen and philosophers put together. They love and honor God, in loving and honoring his mother, and I love and honor them, and, all unworthy as I am, I pray them to have the charity to implore her to bestow on me a mother's blessing, and to obtain for me the grace, when my life's pilgrimage is ended, to behold the face of her divine Son, my Lord, and my God.
(FROM <The Works of Orestes A. Brownson>, VOL. VIII)
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