The Role of Mary in Mental Prayer

Popular devotion is very important for contemplative prayer. Holy images, beautiful churches, holy shrines, rosaries, and Eu­charistic Adoration are given to us to dispose us to a deeper encounter with God. Mary is of special importance.

Different cultures have developed different expressions of Marian piety. These sources of contemplative prayer need to be rediscovered and promoted now more than ever. Her witness to maternal love and obedience to God keeps before us all that is good, noble, and true.

In Mary, the mystery of woman lives at the heart of the Church. Because of the wonder of her faith, she is the icon of what the whole ecclesial reality means. Different forms of popular devotion can deepen this relationship so that, together with His Mother, we might more deeply love the Lord. This is dedicated to promoting a more lively devotion to Mary as an aid for growth in Christian contemplation and mystical wisdom.

Marian Consecration

Accepting the gift of Mary disposes us instead to a relational mysticism. It proposes a pathway by which we let go of our own projects and self-serving enterprises and choose to live for Christ in service to others.

The Lord’s gift of His Mother to us is vital to this kind of par­ticipation in His work of redemption. By embracing her special relation to Him as Mother in our life of prayer, our own relation to God and to one another is rendered more vulnerable to shar­ing in the life of grace that Christ came to give us. We accept and embrace the spiritual gift of the Lord’s Mother in our lives when we consecrate ourselves to Jesus through Mary.

The Scriptures explain to us that Mary stood at the foot of the Cross with the Beloved Disciple. In this spiritual place, the threshold of saving access with God, in which the truth of our humanity and the truth of God’s love coincide, a new kind of maternity was revealed to the world.

This maternity is supernatu­ral, a motherhood that is above the natural order. To reveal this, Jesus subordinates what is natural to the new supernatural reality that His saving work of redemption establishes. In the passage, Jesus seems to distance Himself from His Mother and to dispos­sess her when He says, “Woman, behold, your son!” (John 19:26).

Christ’s words and actions concerning His Mother bear unique relation to her obedience to the Father. On the Cross, Christ dis­possesses Himself of everything. He gives all that is most personal and dear to Him away out of love for the Father and for the sake of our salvation. His freedom, His dignity, His Mother, and His last breath are all offered for us as His sacrifice of praise.

From her fiat at the moment that He was conceived, to her radical following of Him to the Cross, she perseveres in ponder­ing the truth of God in her heart. Even as her Son seems to reject her, she follows all the more closely. In fact, the true nature of her maternal relationship with the Lord emerges in this seem­ing rejection.

At the wedding feast at Cana, the Lord seems to reject her when He addresses her as “woman,” but her reaction is like a queen mother whose request the king cannot reject (see John 2:3–5). Later, when someone exclaims that the womb that bore Him and the breasts that fed Him were blessed, the Word of the Father counters by declaring, rather, that those who hear His word and keep it are blessed (Luke 11:27–28).

Again, when someone informs Him that His Mother and brothers are outside, the Son of God declares that only those who do the will of the Father are mother and brothers to Him. Then, he goes out to the mysterious woman (see Luke 8:19–21).

When He declares the blessedness of those who hear and believe Him, he subordinates natural bonds of human affection to the new supernatural bonds that faith in Him establishes. The new bonds we have by faith are greater than this life. This is why Christian faith gives us the freedom to renounce even our natural instinct for self-preservation. This means that by prayer we can subordinate our love for life to our love of God.

This Marian subordination of what is most naturally dear to us to what is supernatural and not familiar to us is a threshold into a deep truth about how we are to live. Cleaving to this life does not have to be our ultimate pursuit. Prayer rooted in devotion to our Lady opens us to that truth that even when we die, death is not the final word about our existence.

Mary, who stood beneath the Cross, is a sign to us that we have in us a love that is greater than death. A fire burns in our hearts that the deep waters of death cannot quench. Even as we are dispossessed of everything and everyone in death, Mary helps us follow Christ to the end. Mary, the Mother of Life Himself, helps to guide us and prays for us even at the solemn moment when we draw our last breath.

Mary is declared blessed not because of maternal instincts and biology, but because she believed, obeyed, and kept the Word spoken to her. She in fact conceived Him in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb. The Lord’s mysterious way of relating with Mary reveals that the work of His new creation involves believing in His love and concern even when it is ex­pressed in unfamiliar ways. By His grace, Jesus shows His power to re-create woman, making Mary the New Eve.

Each apparent rejection is actually an affirmation: the woman Mary, the New Eve, is the one who hears and keeps His word, and she is His Mother precisely because of her radical obedience of the will of the Father. Such is the power of the grace of Christ that it can reconstitute our humanity to conform to the truth He reveals. The sign of God’s mysterious love that Mary provides throughout the ministry of Christ reaches its climax at the foot of the Cross. As at the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus, looking at His Mother, calls her “Woman.” And then, He gives her to the disciple whom He loved. This Beloved Disciple likewise takes her into his home.

Jesus’ entrusting His Mother to the disciple whom He loves speaks to a very special grace offered to those who strive to begin to pray. When Jesus offered His beloved disciple the gift of His Mother, the beloved disciple took her into his home. This means he made the Lord’s Mother part of his personal life, even his own life of prayer, his intimate devotion to Christ.

John Paul II was astounded at this gift. By dispossessing Him­self of everything in this life, including His Mother, Jesus offers each of us His Mother and the gift of new life. If we choose to take Mary into our hearts, choose to welcome her into our lives, she offers us the same maternal affection she offered Jesus. It is a spiritual motherhood that Christ gives us through her. This spiritual maternity is as connected with our spiritual life as natural motherhood is with our natural life. Mary nurtures and protects us spiritually so that we can mature in our love for the Lord and in our devotion in prayer. By accepting the gift of Mary, we make ourselves, in a spiritual sense, her sons and daughters.

It is to this end that a tradition arose in the Catholic patri­mony of prayer of consecrating oneself to Jesus through Mary. Sometimes called Marian Consecration, this spiritual act of wel­coming Mary into one’s life and entrusting her with everything allows her to entrust to that person everything in her maternal heart: the fruit of the most profound contemplation of her Son and the Work of redemption. Such an exchange of hearts be­tween the Mother of the Lord and a disciple who welcomes her expands the life of prayer, so that our efforts to pray are infused with the prayers of the Virgin Mother.

Mary & Elizabeth of the Trinity

Redeemed by the sacrifice of her Son on the Cross, Mary’s natural motherhood has been transformed by His blood into a spiritual motherhood. She prays for every Christian that the gift of faith might be nurtured and come to maturity. She is able to lead those who welcome this maternal mediation of the grace of Christ into their hearts into the same obedient faith by which she followed her Son to the Cross to participate in His work of redemption.

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity understood this in a beautiful way. She reflects on the unique knowledge that Mary had of her Son, not only because she was His Mother, but more so because she accompanied her Son with faith from His conception all the way to His Crucifixion, pondering all these things in her heart. Mary contemplated Jesus’ obedience on the Cross more profoundly than any other human being.

This obedience, according to Blessed Elizabeth, was a great song of praise. Because Mary carries this song of praise in her heart, she can teach it to those who entrust themselves to her intercession.

Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity describes this as His great canticle, a hymn of glory so beautiful and so hidden that no one knows it fully. Mary who was there, however, knows it deep enough to teach us this song of praise when we must pass through crucifying moments in our lives. Mary, who was with Christ and who was an intimate part of the Lord’s final dispossession of everything for our sake, is able to teach us how to make our death into a beautiful canticle of praise too.

Because of this, in those painful crucifying moments of our lives, if we ask Mary, she will help us offer the same song of praise that Jesus offered on the Cross. She who magnifies the Lord also helps us magnify His glory and extend the work of redemption to the world. Through prayer guided by the Lord’s gift of Mary’s spiritual maternity, death becomes the making up in our own bodies “what is lacking in the suffering of Christ” (see Col. 1:24). Because Christ has given her to us, we have hope that, even through our dying bodies, we will at last render true “spiritual worship” (see John 4:23).

Mary wants to teach the mystical wisdom that she learned at the foot of the Cross. Those who welcome Mary and allow her to teach them the heart of her Son come to know Mary as Elizabeth of the Trinity did. For Elizabeth and for all such disciples, Mary becomes for them Janua Coeli, the “Gate of Heaven.”

She who obediently followed the Lord, who allowed herself to be raised in the order of grace from a natural mother­hood to a supernatural motherhood, accompanies all those who allow themselves to be raised by her Son into the new existence of grace that Christian prayer makes possible.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.

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Anthony Lilles is co-founder and Academic Dean of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and also serves as the Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology at St. John’s Seminary. He is a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality.

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