Today is traditionally the Feast of the Purity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (see liturgical prayers here and a reflection by Father Lovasik here). In my book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, I talk about how I used to be afraid of Mary’s purity. The story begins with my entering into the fullness of faith in the Catholic Church after a journey that had taken me from the Judaism of my birth, through agnosticism and Protestant Christianity:
I was drawn into the Catholic Church after discovering the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe–the Franciscan friar who gave his life for a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz–and experiencing a powerful answer to prayer through his intercession.
Fascinated by St. Maximilian, I began to read as much about him as I could. That led me, inevitably, to Mary, because Maximilian never ceased to praise the woman he lovingly called “the Immaculata” (and sometimes simply “Mom”). For a time, I retained my Protestant-influenced reluctance to give honor to Our Lady, fearing that veneration of her might take my attention away from God. Yet I could not deny that Maximilian, whose entire spiritual life was founded upon devotion to her, was now in heaven. Certainly, then, Marian devotion would not prevent my getting into heaven … and perhaps it might even help?
My hesitation to venerate Mary seems funny now, but there were deeper psychological reasons why I resisted getting close to her: she frightened me. I was afraid of her purity.
My fear was really a fear of being judged, because Mary’s purity made me conscious of my own impurity. In one sense, I had felt myself to be impure from childhood, because of being abused and being in an environment where my innocence was not respected. That feeling, I now realize, was completely erroneous. While it is sadly typical for childhood sexual-abuse victims to blame themselves for what was done to them, such blame is completely misplaced. Being abused does not make you impure. In another sense, however, I really was impure–not because of what had been done to me when I was helpless, but because of decisions I had made of my own free will as an adult. How, I wondered, could Mary possibly want to have anything to do with me?
G.K. Chesterton observed that, while society tries to paint chastity as a dull, antiseptic shade of white, it is really “something flaming like Joan of Arc.” That was the fire I saw in Mary, and I feared getting burned by it. But, under the guidance of St. Maximilian’s writings, I got closer to the flame- -beginning with acquiring a Miraculous Medal and praying the medal’s prayer: “O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
The Miraculous Medal features Our Lady of Grace as she looked in one of her apparitions in 1830 to St. Catherine Labouré, a young French nun. In that apparition, Our Lady stood with her arms outstretched, revealing many rings on each of her hands. The rings were bedecked with gemstones from which brilliant rays streamed forth. Our Lady said, “These rays symbolize the graces I shed upon those who ask for them. The gems from which rays do not fall are the graces for which souls forgot to ask.”
When I first read those words, they haunted me. How many times, in my fear of getting close to Mary, had I failed to ask for graces? The medal reminds me to ask for them whenever I need them–which is to say, all the time.
Through Maximilian’s writings, I learned that the Church calls Mary the Mediatrix of Grace because it believes that the Holy Spirit, having come upon her after she gave her “yes” at the Annunciation (Lk 1:38), never left her. Mary remains forever united with the Holy Spirit, and, as our heavenly Mother, longs to bestow that same Spirit upon us (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 721-725).
Yes, Mary is aflame; the Catechism tells us she is the burning bush (Ex 3:2), radiating fire without being consumed (CCC 724). But hers is a purifying fire—purifying us so that she might draw us ever closer to herself, under the loving protection of her mantle. She does this always out of love, not out of a desire to judge us or humiliate us. You can see this love in Our Lady of Grace’s hands. She does not hold them up like a traffic cop, to push us away. Her palms are always open, inviting us near. Through drawing us with maternal care into her own love, she enables us to grow in that same Holy Spirit love—the love that will draw us closer to one another and to God.
Society’s great lie is to tell us that the Church’s promotion of Mary’s purity is founded on judgmentalism. There is indeed judgment, but it is our own sins that judge us. It is never Mary’s purity. Her purity is what saves us from the judgment of sin, when we, in love and repentance, enter into her purifying embrace.
Adapted from My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, by Dawn Eden, from Ave Maria Press. All rights reserved.
Image: Attributed to Juan Martinez Montañés, Immaculate Conception (la Purisma) [Photo source]