This past summer, I did a personal retreat in preparation to consecrate myself to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. If you’re not Catholic, that will probably have sounded like gibberish. The Virgin Mary has a lot of titles in the Catholic Church. One of those is “Our Lady of Mount Carmel.” The first Carmelites put themselves under Her protection, along with, it goes without saying, the protection of the Lord. The Carmelite Order originated in the Middle Ages in the context of a European feudal system. The way a feudal system worked was that a person would put himself under the patronage of a lord or lady. The man would serve his lord or lady and the patron or patroness would protect his or her servant.
During the crusades, when warriors went east from Europe, doctors and spiritual leaders went with them as support. a group of men decided to stay in the Holy Land and settle on Mount Carmel, living largely as hermits. Eventually, due to invasion by Arabic groups, they were forced to leave the Holy Land and return to Europe where they continued their way of life under the Rule of Saint Albert, who was the Bishop of Jerusalem at the time the Order got started in the mid 13th Century. While looking at the date, one might wonder when devotion to Mary got started. Mention of Mary in Christian worship started as early as the 3rd Century, just about 100 years after the Gospels were written
It should be noted that in ancient times, in various cultures, including ancient Israel, the queen was not the wife of the king: she was his mother. Often, the queen-mother would be sort of an advocate for the people to the king. In the Catholic Church, Mary is seen as this Queen Mother, and our Advocate. If Jesus is the King of the Universe, it makes sense, given His culture, that His Mother would be our Queen. A lot of people outside the Catholic Church ask why we pray to Mary and the Saints. We believe that our life on this Earth is a journey and a sort of challenge to authentically grow a loving relationship with God. We don’t come into the world perfect. We’re tainted by original sin, so we have to, with His help, strive for perfection. To be clear, it’s the Lord who gets us to Heaven, but our striving matters because it makes us truly His.
Our striving may end when we get to Heaven, but our life doesn’t. We’re still ourselves, and we still have relationships with people who are still on the journey. When we pray to Mary or Saint Peter or Paul, or someone else, we’re just talking. Often, when we pray to someone in Heaven, it’s to ask them to pray for us. It’s no different than asking a living friend or family member, except that we know the Saints in Heaven to be very holy people; we know that they are close to God. Being His Mother, we know that Mary is very close to God.
Still, many wonder if Catholic devotion to Mary is a little “over the top.” I get it; I thought this way for a long time. There is, however, Scriptural support for devotion to Mary. First, consider the wedding at Cana. The party ran out of wine. Mary noticed, and mentioned it to Jesus. Given that Jesus Himself was devoted to His mother, He changed the water into wine. If you need more evidence that Jesus was devoted to His mother, however, just consider the incident when He got lost in the Temple in Jerusalem. After He was found, He went home with His parents and, as Scripture says, “was obedient to them.” Even as He is dying on the cross, He makes sure that His mother would be cared for by John. He also makes a point to say that she is meant to be John’s Mother. John does not use his name in the way he writes his Gospel. He uses the name “the beloved disciple.” in the Catholic Church, this is interpreted to mean anyone who follows the Lord. Therefore, it is understood that, at the cross, Jesus had me in mind as His beloved disciple, and gave his mother, not only to John, but also to me, and the whole Church. This makes sense because the Church is the Body of Christ.
There are also references to Mary in the Old Testament, and elsewhere in the New Testament. By way of a few examples, Mary is prefigured by several Old Testament women. First, Mary is considered the new Eve, as Jesus is considered the new Adam. Eve is considered the mother of all the living, and she was unfaithful to God. Mary is considered our spiritual mother in God’s New Covenant, which He established through Jesus’ sacrifice, and she is faithful and trusting. Next, God promises descendants, and ultimately, a dynasty to Abraham. While He makes this promise to Abraham, it can only come to fruition through Sarah. Similarly, Jesus cannot come to live and die for us as a Man, except through a human mother, so while God’s promise of salvation isn’t achieved by Mary, she does participate in it. Finally, Bathsheba, the mother of the wise king Solomon is an advocate for him, and also rules alongside him as queen-mother, mirroring Mary’s role as she rules alongside her Son. There are many more examples, some more obvious than others, including the woman described in the book of Revelation.
All of this really is to say that Mary matters. St. Louis De Montfort makes the bold claim that devotion to Mary is the “surest, easiest, shortest, and most perfect” way of becoming a saint; in other words, of getting to Heaven and being close to the Lord. This is because if we let her do what a mother does–take care of Her children–she can teach us and help us to be like Jesus. She doesn’t do anything on her own. She is just as human as I am. Anything miraculous she does, she does by the power of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t completely unexpected since Jesus’ disciples performed miracles in the Gospels. When she asked the angel Gabriel how she was to conceive Jesus since she was a virgin, he explained to her that the Holy Spirit would “overshadow” her. This was a marital act, and Mary is considered to be the spouse of the Holy Spirit, so by her faith, and by His grace, she’s able to do a lot.
This leads me back to my first point. Back in July I consecrated myself to Mary. This hearkens back to the idea of putting myself under her protection as the first Carmelites did in the context of a feudal system. I dedicated myself to her because she can walk with me and guide me as I walk with Jesus, and chase Him to Heaven. I wrote out my consecration as follows:
I, Katie Curtis, a repentant sinner and servant of my Lord, Jesus Christ, entrust myself to you, Mary, my Lady of Mount Carmel. I ratify in your hands my baptismal vows, and resolve, with your help, to follow Jesus more closely and perfectly than ever before. I give you my heart. Keep me in your heart, and help me be attentive to Jesus’ thirst for love and for souls. Help me to love Him with your purity, and the crazy love that He deserves.
I give you my everything; my body, my soul, my goods, both interior and exterior, the value of my good actions; whatever you ask of me, that I may be brought closer to my Love, and my Lord. Help me to always trust Him, and always know and do His will. I entrust myself to you, as Jesus did, and I give you permission to do your work in, through, and around me, to make me a saint.
The simple version of that is, “Mom, I’m gonna trust you to teach me how to be like my Divine Brother.” I can trust her with that because she raised Him, and when He got older, she observed everything He said and did, and “pondered it in her heart.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, I took up the Rosary again. I had picked it up a few years ago for a few reasons, but then my devotion petered out. I picked it up again simply because I felt prompted to by the Holy Spirit. The Rosary might seem like a mindless recitation of repetitive prayers, and done wrong, it can be. Done right, though, the repetition of the “Hail Mary” isn’t the point. The point is to focus on the mysteries. I was prompted to focus on the “Sorrowful” mysteries that day, which walk you through the Lord’s Passion: The Agony in the Garden, the Whipping at the Pillar, The Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Lord’s Death on the Cross. The Rosary’s repetitive prayers themselves are mostly there as a time keeper, but the Rosary itself helps one view the Mysteries of the Lord’s life through a Mother, or at least a beloved family member’s eyes.
In fact, the “Hail Mary” prayer is Scriptural. The angel Gabriel, on his appearance to Mary says, “Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you!” and when Mary appears to Elizabeth, Elizabeth says, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The complete Hail Mary prayer is this: “Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” What we’re saying by praying this is, “Mary, you’re a holy woman; you’re the mother of Jesus. Please pray for me.” By praying the full Rosary, I’m saying, “Jesus really matters to me. You were there; you witnessed His life. Help me to understand His life and how to love Him best.”
Some might argue that focusing on Mary takes the focus away from Jesus. In some sense, yeah, that’s kind of true. In the same way, however, you could say that admiring, talking to, hanging out with, and seeking advice or prayers from your friend, pastor, or whoever, who you think is a very holy person takes your focus away from Jesus. Ultimately, however, if you’re trying to be a holy person, in modeling yourself after someone you admire (a friend, a church leader, a canonized saint, or Mary), you’re still focusing on Jesus because you’re still trying to be like Him and get closer to Him, as they are.