Thoughts on Mary from Ste. Therese

A double posting today, but this commentary on the Blessed Virgin Mary by Ste. Therese of Lisieux is way too good to not share.  Again it is coming from the good folks at Daily Gospel Online.

“How I would have loved to be a priest in order to preach about the Blessed Virgin! One sermon would be sufficient to say everything I think about this subject.

“I’d first make people understand how little is known by us about her life. We shouldn’t say unlikely things or things we don’t know anything about! For example, that when she was very little, at the age of three, the Blessed Virgin went up to the Temple to offer herself to God, burning with sentiments of love and extraordinary fervor. While perhaps she went there very simply out of obedience to her parents… For a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to please me and do me any good, I must see her real life, not her imagined life. I’m sure that her real life was very simple. They show her to us as unapproachable, but they should present her as imitable, bringing out her virtues, saying that she lived by faith just like ourselves, giving proofs of this from the Gospel, where we read: “And they did not understand the words which He spoke to them” (Lk 2,50). And that other no less mysterious statement: “His father and mother marveled at what was said about him” (Lk 2,33). This admiration presupposes a certain surprise, don’t you think so?

“We know very well that the Blessed Virgin is Queen of heaven and earth, but she is more Mother than Queen; and we should not say, on account of her prerogatives, that she surpasses all the saints in glory just as the sun at its rising makes the stars disappear from sight. My God! How strange that would be! A mother who makes her children’s glory vanish! I myself think just the contrary. I believe she’ll increase the splendor of the elect very much. It’s good to speak about her prerogatives, but we should not stop at this… Who knows whether some soul would not reach the point of feeling a certain estrangement from a creature so superior and would not say: “If things are such, it’s better to go and shine as well as one is able in some little corner.”

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  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    I’ll agree with the sentiments in the second paragraph, but I’ll respectfully disagree with the first paragraph.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Would you care to expand? I am interested in how and why especially since this quote really resonated with me.

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        Basically, I prefer to see Mary as “divorced from my own reality.” I know the movement right now in Catholicism is to have an everyman quality towards holiness and sainthood (“Were all called to be saints! We’re all called to be holy!”) and to see sainthood or holiness as self-actualization, (“Being a saint means becoming the person that God meant you to be!”), but oddly enough, I find that simply confusing, disingenuous, and oddly enough, alienating.

        It’s trying to take the edge off the fact that saints are genuinely terrifying people. I mean that literally. Padre Pio is as scary to me as Michael Myers from Halloween. (Padre Pio always reminds me of the quote from Brideshead Revisited. “Is it nonsense?” “Nonsense? I wish it were!”)
        I think it’s hard for cradle Catholics to appreciate that. They’ve spent their whole lives with people who have bleeding hands, live on top of poles, starve themselves to death, levitate, and walk around with eyeballs on a dish. It’s seems normal to them. It may be normal, but it’s not ordinary. And you know what? I like it that way. (For the record, I am well aware that St. Lucy did not walk around with eyes on a dish, but she is portrayed that way in most churches.)
        If us mere mortals can imitate the saints, then only two things can happen. We can either bring down the saints to our level, whitewashing or ignoring the fasting, the whippings, the visions, and other oddities. We talk about how St. Teresa of Avila danced with the castanets, but we ignore the visions and levitations. We talk about St. Thomas More and his two marriages and children, but we ignore the hair shirt and the flagellation. As I stated above, this is simply inaccurate, untruthful, and disingenuous.
        There is another thing that can happen, which is even worse. We raise ourselves up to the saints. We tell each other, and ourselves, that everyday acts (acts that previous generations did out of a sense of responsibility) are now heroic. Going to work is heroic! Mowing the lawn is heroic! Scrubbing the floor is heroic! It reminds me of Chris Rock’s famous routine on racism, which I can’t repeat here. (Go to Youtube and look up Chris Rock racism.) Catholics demand credit for things they’re supposed to do. “I changed my baby’s diaper!” “What do you want, a cookie?”
        I’m not saying that a Catholic can’t try to imitate saints. We can. A middle aged man who plays basketball for a community league can also study Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s skyhook shot and imitate that shot in his game. But he should not delude himself into thinking that he is no different than Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and he should not pretend that he can one day play the game the same way as Kareem.
        As for me, I prefer to think of the saints as the Heavenly Helpers, not as people like me. I prefer to think of Mary as a Mother, rather than a friend. (Children have no interest in their mother’s inner turmoil and struggles.) Sure, I look up to Mary and some of the saints, but I look up to them in the same way I look up to Superman or Spiderman. (And I like it that way!) If I need to feel kinship with fellow travelers, I don’t look to the saints. I think about Louis XIV, showing up to daily Mass with wife and mistress in toe.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to relate to the saints or the Blessed Mother. But that doesn’t work for me.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Thanks! I need to chew on this.

        • Dante Aligheri

          I can understand where you’re coming from, and that was the historic attitude towards saints – that is, as conduits of otherworldly power like the scene in Paradiso. They’re more approachable than God Himself – and even the Lord waiting in Judgment – because they have multiple personalities, foibles, and quirks not unlike, if I may say so, a pantheon of Greek gods as opposed to the monotheistic God Who Just Is (“how boring!” that must have seemed to new converts). Yet they need that bizarre, otherworldly quality to give them numinous power. Yes, it sounds like superstition. Of course, when people turn “St. Joseph” (as if that were really St. Joseph and not simply an icon; I’m hesitant to call it idolatry because I know very religious people who do utterly believe in it, but that’s what it seems like to me – a magical manipulation of sacred power) upside-down in the lawn. Of course, the medievals used to leave certain things better left unsaid laying in front of a statue for hopes of increasing their virility. At best, saints in this conception are there to gaze at admiringly like a John Henry or Johnny Appleseed although I like your basketball analogy better.

          I guess the question is whether this creates a kind of spiritual elitism where religion is best left to “those who pray” as opposed to “those who work” and “those who fight.” Or, might it create an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism, scrupulosity, and unworthiness?

          Honestly, I think your diagnosis is right on. I think people have largely shelved the cult of saints as embarrassing because they seem anymore like a cultural aspect which is now empty of function given a shift in how God Himself is seen – especially Marian piety. So we’ve tried to reinvent Mary (and the saints) as the every-woman in recent years – which doesn’t really jive with the received tradition – i.e., all the horrific martyrdoms and such will really make us squeamish, and so we minimize it. By doing this, however, we lose a vast majority of our patrimony and become rootless. Thus many of the once popular pieties such as pilgrimages, rosaries, debates over the Immaculate Conception, etc. have lost their import.

          I think most would agree, except the most hardline Protestants, that asking saints to pray for you is okay. It’s just that there doesn’t seem to be any point. So ought we reinvent the meaning or return to a more unapproachable and mediated God?

          • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

            I guess the question is whether this creates a kind of spiritual elitism where religion is best left to “those who pray” as opposed to “those who work” and “those who fight.”

            At this point in my life, I would actually prefer a bit of spiritual elitism, ie “leave it to the professionals.” That probably says more about me than anything else, but I prefer to think of it that way. I like to imagine, as Jim Gaffigant once put it, that most of the parishoners at Mass are thinking, “Hurry up father, I’ve got some sinning to do!”

            “Or, might it create an unhealthy obsession with perfectionism, scrupulosity, and unworthiness?”

            I actually think that the other idea, “the saints were just like us,” can cause more perfectionism than thinking of them as remote and distant. I heard a priest remark that he told a bunch of young men, “You have two choices in life: become a saint, or go to Hell.” What happens when most of the young men realize, “Well, I can’t become a saint. I have no desire to die a martyr and I’m definitely not going in for celibacy! Well, I guess I’m going to Hell.”

            Oh, if someone says, “Being a saint is simply becoming the person God intended you to be,” then our modern conception of holiness is nothing more than self-actualization as in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

          • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

            “So ought we reinvent the meaning or return to a more unapproachable and mediated God?”

            I think that, at different points of people’s lives, God does seem unapproachable, and it’s good to have mediators. I have always had a very difficult relationship with my dad, so it was a great comfort to me to seek Mary’s intercession. I don’t care that she’s perfect and far beyond me and probably not the most practical role model for my life. She’s mom!

        • Melody

          I get what Emmasrandomthoughts is saying about not patting ourselves on the back for doing our jobs; after all, the Gospel says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” However St. Therese’s “Little Way” is a way to sanctify our daily tasks, doing small things with love. That is the spirit of the Morning Offering; to offer up one’s “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of the day”. Much of life is putting one foot in front of the other. That can be sanctifying if we let it.
          I don’t want to lose sight of the saints as real persons who lived real lives. I feel that it diminishes them, and by extension, us, when we seem to view them simply as tutelary spirits or demigods. Some of the things that we find so bizarre and outré about many of the saints need to be taken in the context of the time and environment in which they lived. The pieties and asceticisms which seem rather off-putting to us may have been common practices in times and places of the past. That doesn’t mean we should bring back hair shirts and flagellation, just maybe try to understand the context a bit.
          Dante Aligheri said, “I think most would agree, except the most hardline Protestants, that asking saints to pray for you is okay. It’s just that there doesn’t seem to be any point. So ought we reinvent the meaning or return to a more unapproachable and mediated God?” I think we should view it the same as we would asking a living person to pray for us. We pray for our loved ones, for any who ask our prayers. Are the saints doing less than this? We pray prayers of intercession all the time; privately and in the context of liturgy. God is approachable. The saints are approachable. We don’t understand how prayer works, but we can understand that it is the work of the People of God, on earth and in heaven. “Pray without ceasing.”

        • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

          Some of the things that we find so bizarre and outré about many of the saints need to be taken in the context of the time and environment in which they lived. The pieties and asceticisms which seem rather off-putting to us may have been common practices in times and places of the past. That doesn’t mean we should bring back hair shirts and flagellation, just maybe try to understand the context a bit.”

          I agree with this, though I think this provokes a problem for some Catholics. In order to do this, Catholics would have to acknowledge that holiness is not a rigid, hard, and fast concept. Rather, it is a concept largely constructed by each age and culture, with each group adding, subtracting, and evolving different ideas about what it means to be holy. (That is why the US Church, no doubt, clings to the idea of the universal call to holiness, because it is another way of saying “all men are created equal.”) I have no trouble with that, but I know that some Catholics may find this troubling.

  • Melody

    Can’t quite figure out what she means here:
    “We shouldn’t say unlikely things or things we don’t know anything about! For example, that when she was very little, at the age of three, the Blessed Virgin went up to the Temple to offer herself to God, burning with sentiments of love and extraordinary fervor. While perhaps she went there very simply out of obedience to her parents…”
    Is she saying that we don’t know enough to say for sure that she went up to the temple at age 3, or that we shouldn’t guess at the sentiments in her heart, or both? I’m going for “both” because neither are recorded in the Scriptures, nor are they part of Tradition that we are obliged to believe. I think this story appears in the Protoevangelium of James. Which I would classify as pious legend. The thought of sending a three year old away to live in the temple (with who to be responsible for her care???) would be abhorrent to most of us as parents.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I think it could be either, since it is not clear how much credence she gave to the Protoevangelium. But I think the central point she was trying to make is this: keep it simple and keep it real. Both “simple” and “real” will be culturally and contextually conditioned, but don’t try to overgloss the story and do not paint a picture of the Virgin that seems divorced from our own experience.

  • Ronald King

    David, What you have posted are thoughts of a woman about a woman who is stating that we need to perceive Mary from our human reality first in order to develop a better understanding of a human relationship with her based on what it means to be peers struggling together in a violent world in which women are defined by males.
    I also liked the opening sentence by Ste. Therese, “How I would have loved to be a priest in order to preach about the Blessed Virgin! One sermon would be sufficient to say everything I think about this subject.” Why wasn’t it open to her to be a priest? My answer is different from the Church’s/male authorities’ answer based on a tradition of their interpretation/projection of what it means to be female and male.
    I always appreciate your openness to the exploration of mystery.