The most controversial topic on social media, if the reactions to some of my tweets are any indication, may just be Mary, the Mother of God.
In A Year with Mary: Daily Meditations on the Mother of God, Paul Thigpen writes that as “an adult convert to the Catholic faith, I found the mother of Jesus to be more than a mystery; she was a perplexity.” He admits that he found “traditional Catholic devotion to her” puzzling even while feeling an attraction to her. He now describes Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as “the lullaby of a loving mother I had never known, yet longed to meet.”
What is it about Catholics and Mary? She leads us to her son, would be a tweetable reply. If you want to understand and grow in a knowledge of Mary, Paul Thigpen provides insight in his recently published A Year with Mary: Daily Meditations on the Mother of God. We talk a bit about her and his beautiful book of reflections and prayers. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How is it that “of Mary, there is never enough,” as St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it?
Paul Thigpen: The short answer is that “of Mary, there is never enough,” because of Jesus, there is never enough. She’s a guide who leads us to Him, a mirror who reflects His character, a solicitous mother whose eager assistance can help us be more closely conformed to His image. The more deeply we delve into the mystery of Mary’s unique role in salvation history, the more deeply we find ourselves knowing, loving, and serving her Son.
Lopez: Is this just further confirmation that Catholics worship Mary?
Thigpen: Catholic teaching since ancient times has distinguished between the adoration properly shown to God alone, called in Greek latria, and the honor (or veneration) properly shown to God’s good creatures, or dulia. The difference between these two actions and attitudes is as vastly different as their objects.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church observes that “to adore God [latria] is to acknowledge Him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love. ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve,’ says Jesus, citing Deuteronomy [Luke 4:8; cf. Deuteronomy 6:13].”
In short, adoration refers to acts of reverence directed to God alone that recognize His perfections and our own complete dependence on Him. Our contemporary way of speaking refers to these acts as “worship,” and clearly Catholics don’t think of Mary that way or treat her that way. (No sane Catholic would consider Mary our Creator God.) Instead, we offer her veneration (dulia), and since she has an exalted status as the Mother of the divine Son of God, we offer her the highest kind of dulia possible (known as hyperdulia).
One caveat: We should keep in mind that, as I noted, our contemporary way of speaking assigns this meaning of adoration to the term “worship.” It was not always so. The word “worship” comes from “worthship,” meaning “worthiness,” and was originally a broader term roughly equivalent to our term “veneration.”
That’s why, even in recent times, you might hear in Great Britain a reference to “His Worshipfulness the Lord Mayor of Birmingham.” Mayors are of course not worshiped; in the old sense, “worship” meant “honor,” and “worshipfulness” meant “honorableness.”
I make this point because you can sometimes read antique Catholic literature that refers positively to the “worship” of Mary. When it does, the meaning of the term is the archaic one, not the current one.
In any case, even those who aren’t Catholic recognize the biblical principle stated by St. Paul: Give “honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7). It’s a simple matter of justice to show honor to someone who is worthy of it. We honor not just our religious heroes, but also our national and cultural heroes with statues and other forms of art, and we name public structures for them. It’s a very reasonable, and very human, thing to do.
Lopez: How does Mary love God, and how can we imitate this?
Thigpen: Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (see Mark 12:30–31). His mother answered this call perfectly. Though we don’t know the details of her day-to-day life, we can understand just how totally she loved God and others through the handful of extremely significant moments in her life that we do know about from Scripture.
As an example, consider the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, even though she was a virgin. She responded with a love for God that leaves us marveling, expressed through faith and obedience — as love for God must always be expressed. It was a mystery beyond her understanding, yet she believed the divine word. It was a burden beyond the telling, and yet she cooperated with the divine will by joining to it her own: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
This is one reason why meditating on the events in Mary’s life, through praying the Rosary or in other settings, can help us to imitate her love for God. We take time to ponder the startling implications of what she said and did: in Bethlehem, in Nazareth, at Cana, at Calvary. We learn from her to believe and obey, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, whatever the circumstances, whatever the cost.
Lopez: How does she take us to Jesus? Why wouldn’t we just go straight to Him?
Thigpen: For every Christian, the life of faith is full of people who “take us to Jesus.” For most of us, that mediating role is played first in our childhood by our parents and other adults. They teach us to pray. They tell us the gospel and the words of God in Scripture. They show us how to worship, how to live according to God’s will, how to serve Him by serving others.
Even when we are adults, our family, friends, and spiritual mentors can play that role. Yes, we go “straight to Jesus.” But at the same time, the godly men and women we know — and even the children (see Luke 18:16) — take us to Him as well. If we have proper humility, we’ll admit that we need their assistance, and we will in fact welcome it with joy and gratitude.
In a sense, in this life we’re all still children spiritually. We aren’t yet fully mature, longing, as St. Paul did, for Christ to be fully formed in us (see Galatians 4:19). The Apostle told the Galatians that he was laboring (“in travail”) so that this could happen. He invited them to follow him as he followed Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11:1).
If this role has been played for us by St. Paul, by our parents, and by many others, how much more so by the mother of Jesus, who has given her to us to be our mother as well (see John 19:26–27). She’s an inspiring role model, yes, but much more. We can ask her to lead us to Him, and she thrills to do just that, through her intercession for us and her other activity on our behalf.
Why would God have it this way? St. Augustine once pointed out that He has made us interdependent within the Body of Christ for the sake of developing a mutual charity that binds us as one.
God doesn’t view Mary and the other saints as His rivals, but rather as His sons and daughters, and our elder brothers and sisters.
In this insight he was echoing St. Paul’s observations. Christ equips the Church with those who can build up the Body of Christ, the Apostle insists, “until we all attain . . . to mature manhood . . . so that we may no longer be children. . . . When each part is working properly, [the whole body] makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Ephesians 4:13, 14, 16).
Lopez: Why are you so sure prayer to Mary is good and right?
Thigpen: We should note that, much like the meaning of the word “worship,” the meaning of the term “prayer” has changed over the years. The original meaning of the word “pray” (and the definition still appearing first in Webster’s) is simply “to entreat, to implore,” without any specific reference to God. As evidence for that meaning, we need only consider the familiar Elizabethan phrases “I pray thee” (sometimes shortened to “prithee”) or “Pray tell” (“I entreat you to tell”). It simply indicates a request, usually made to another human being.
Under the influence of Protestant thought, however, the word “pray” has come to mean for many English speakers “to entreat God,” so that praying to anyone else seems idolatrous. But Catholics have retained the original sense of the word. Since we need all the help we can get, we have no hesitation in “praying” not only to God, but also to Mary, the other saints, the angels, and anyone else who can come to our assistance!
I recall one day long ago, when my children were young, how they were playing together as I sat reading nearby. My little son, still a preschooler, discovered that his shoe was untied. He couldn’t tie it by himself, so he asked his older sister to help him. She did so promptly, with pleasure.
Did I become angry that he had dared to ask her for help rather than coming directly to his father, even though I was right there and could have done so with ease? Of course not! On the contrary, it warmed my heart to see him ask for her assistance and to see the pleasure with which she provided it. We were a family, and that moment was a token of what it means to be a family.
In a similar way, God doesn’t view Mary and the other saints as His rivals, but rather as His sons and daughters, and our elder brothers and sisters. He’s delighted when we ask them for help, and He’s pleased when they provide it.
Lopez: How does Mary help us bear our crosses? What does this look like practically speaking?
Thigpen: Once again, St. Paul helps us understand here. He thanks God, “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:3–5).
As the mother of Christ, Mary had a greater share in His sufferings than anyone else on earth. Anyone who is a parent knows how deeply we share in the suffering of our own children, more deeply than others can possibly feel. Not only is their pain our pain; we feel in addition an anguish for them that goes beyond what we would feel even if we were suffering instead of them.
Mary bore unspeakable sorrow, especially at the foot of the Cross. The One who suffered there was not only her Son, but the most amiable, the most endearing Child who ever lived, the utterly innocent Son of God. No suffering that you or I could possibly endure would be greater than hers.
Nevertheless, by God’s grace, she stood beside her Son when most others had fled away. God rewarded her loving faith with a supernatural comfort that helped her to endure the horror and brought her to the triumphant morning when the stone was rolled away, and her joy knew no bounds.
According to ancient Catholic tradition, before Mary stood at the Cross, she stood in the crowd along the Way of Sorrow in Jerusalem as Jesus passed by, carrying the Cross. When their eyes met, our Lord Himself no doubt found inexpressible comfort in her loving presence. In this way, she helped Him bear the Cross. And she can do the same for us.
Because Mary has suffered beyond the telling, and yet received divine consolation, she’s able to share that consolation with us when we suffer. St. Paul’s insight is especially applicable to our relationship with her. We can pour out our hearts to her, finding in her heart a mother’s sympathy, comfort, and loving concern.
Lopez: What are her glories?
Thigpen: The word glory has several layers of meaning. I think the most pertinent meaning in this matter would be something like “the recognized splendor of excellence.” God has perfect glory, because He’s the perfection of every excellence, and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit recognize and rejoice in that radiant perfection in One Another.
Now God has “called us to His own glory and excellence” so that we may “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3, 4). Redeemed humanity, which has been conformed to the character of God’s divine Son, has a share in God’s excellence, and thus in His glory as well. St. Paul spoke of this reality when he wrote that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
If all the faithful followers of Christ have a share in His glory, how magnificent must be the share of His mother, the most faithful of all His followers. And if beholding Christ transforms us so that we become like Him, moving from one degree of glory to the next, how utterly glorious — how profoundly conformed to His glorious image — must be His mother!
Mary beheld Jesus as no other human being ever has. She contemplated her divine Son even while He was still in her womb. From the moment He was born, she lovingly gazed on His face and pondered the events that unfolded because of Him. As He grew, she studied the movements, not just of His body, but also of His soul, meditating on His words, noting carefully what brought Him joy and what broke His heart.
She was with Him in His passion and death. As an unequaled witness of her Son’s suffering, Mary was a partaker unlike any other in the glory of His resurrection and ascension into heaven (see 1 Peter 5:1), where she beholds Him again now, face to face.
No wonder ancient Christian traditions speaks of Mary as the mirror of her Son’s virtues. In that faithful image shines the stunning reflection of His glory as well.
Lopez: Why is her sorrow something to ponder?
Thigpen: In this way as in every other, Mary points us to Jesus. Her sorrows all arose from her Son’s sacrificial mission on our behalf. So the more we contemplate those sorrows, the more we plumb the depths of His costly love for us, and the deeper our gratitude to Him.
In addition, we recognize our debt to Mary herself. She bore those sorrows, not just because of her love for her Son, but because of her love for all her spiritual children. Just as Jesus was the “Man of Sorrows” for us all, she was the “Mother of Sorrows” for us all, playing her unique role in the story of our salvation. And it’s only right that we should thank her for that role.
Lopez: Why is there so much St. Alphonsus Liguori in the book?
Thigpen: My intention was to feature as many writers as possible. But any compilation of this sort, with 365 (one for each day of the year) substantial readings rather than brief quotes, must depend heavily on several teachers whose Marian writings are extensive and widely recognized as classic texts on the subject. Among these are St. Louis de Montfort, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of Damascus, Blessed John Henry Newman and, most especially, St. Alphonsus Liguori.
St. Alphonsus’s work The Glories of Mary is uniquely comprehensive, not just in the scope and detail of its Marian subject matter, but also in its citations of numerous saints, theologians, and other spiritual writers. So the preponderance of quotes selected from that particular text was perhaps inevitable.
On the one hand, the author offers a number of provocative original insights. On the other, when his insights are drawn from the common spiritual tradition, he makes them all the more convincing by showing how many of the Church’s spiritual giants concur on a matter. In quoting St. Alphonsus, then, we necessarily quote many other saints and spiritual writers.
Lopez: He imagined Mary’s last words to the Apostles? Why is such a thing worth repeating, never mind meditating on? What can we learn from this — his prayer?
Thigpen: Only a little is said about the events of Mary’s life in the Gospels. We have no biography of Jesus’ mother. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that much of what has been written about her involves either “theological deduction,” as we might call it, or a kind of “sanctified speculation.”
What I mean is this: A great deal of what we know about Our Lady (such as her status as “Mother of God”) has been logically deduced from the “data,” so to speak, of Divine Revelation. (Our understanding of the Blessed Trinity would be another such deduction.)
Meanwhile, the imaginative re-creation of scenes from her life, based in part on common human experience, has often yielded profound insights by speculating about what could, or should, or almost certainly must, have happened.
I’ve found that both approaches to Marian reflection have proven fertile ground for a deeper, richer understanding of Our Lady that leads me to love and serve her more eagerly.
In this particular case, St. Alphonsus imagines what Mary might have said to the Apostles just before she was assumed into heaven. His “sanctified speculation” provokes us, first, to consider the unique role she would have played in the first generation of the Church.
God could have called Mary home to heaven at the same time Jesus departed, but He had other plans. She remained for some years afterward as the most important witness to the events of her Son’s life, from His conception to His ascension into heaven. Both St. Luke’s Gospel and St. John’s were no doubt profoundly influenced by her knowledge and insights.
St. Alphonsus’s speculation also leads us to consider more deeply the challenges faced by the Apostles, and all the infant Church, at the time of Our Lady’s assumption. And it reminds us that she wasn’t abandoning them, any more than Jesus had abandoned them. Instead, in heaven her role as their spiritual mother would take on a new, marvelous, and essential dimension.
Lopez: There’s a danger there, too, though, isn’t there? That we could get creative and not be truly listening to God but ourselves?
Thigpen: There’s always the possibility that our meditations could tend that way. That’s why we need to remain anchored in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. In this particular case, we must keep in mind that St. Alphonsus doesn’t present his reflections about Mary as
She has long been called the ‘Mother of Mercy,’ because in her maternal compassion for her spiritual children, one of her special roles is to help us seek and obtain God’s mercy.
historical events or God’s word to us. Instead, they are pious provocations to ponder the implications of what we do know with certainty from Scripture and Tradition.
Lopez: How does her compassion surpass my sins? Why is that important to mercy?
Thigpen: Mary has a lavish share in the vast, all-conquering love that fills her Son’s heart. Just as there is no sin too great for Christ to forgive, there is no sinner so hopeless that he or she is beyond Mary’s compassion and concern.
She has long been called the “Mother of Mercy,” because in her maternal compassion for her spiritual children, one of her special roles is to help us seek and obtain God’s mercy. We have only a few of her words recorded in Scripture, but we shouldn’t be surprised that in her brief canticle of thanksgiving in the Gospel, she speaks of God’s mercy twice: “His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. . . . He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy” (Luke 1:50, 54).
Lopez: Who is the book best for?
Thigpen: It’s for both those who know almost nothing about Mary, and those who know a great deal but want to know more. Those who aren’t Catholic or Orthodox Christians will find much to wrestle with in these pages, but I trust the wrestling can prove fruitful.
Since it’s a devotional book, the assumption here is that readers aren’t just seeking information about Mary, but seeking a relationship with her as their mother in Christ. I hope readers will find that if they ponder each day’s reflection prayerfully, by the end of the year they will have had a profound and life-changing encounter with her.
Lopez: How can she be the queen of hell and demons? How does that help us? How can she be the queen of Heaven too?
Thigpen: All of Mary’s roles derive from those of her Son.
Jesus Christ is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16), “the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). He’s the King of heaven and earth, King of the universe, King even of hell, which is under His dominion. At His name, every knee must bow — in heaven, on earth, and in hell — and every tongue confess that He is Lord (see Philippians 2:10–11).
If Christ is King of heaven, what does that make Mary, His mother? We must keep in mind that in ancient Israel, the mother of the king was the queen (a notion still alive in the title “Queen Mother”). That’s why Bathsheba, King Solomon’s mother, was enthroned at his right hand. So when the angel Gabriel told Mary that God would give her Son “the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:32), he was actually announcing by implication that she would be the queen mother.
Wherever Jesus reigns as King, His mother reigns as queen. Scripture tells us that all the faithful will in heaven have a share in His authority, reigning with Him: “If we persevere, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12). “The Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). As the queen mother, her share in that reign, that authority, is unique and exalted.
How does that help us? As queen of heaven, she shares with her Son the command of the angels, and she can send them to assist us. As queen of hell — in the sense that she shares her Son’s dominion over those in hell — she can command the demons to leave us alone.
Lopez: Why do demons tremble at her name?
Thigpen: For the same reason they tremble at the name of her Son. He terrifies them because He came into the world to destroy their works, and they cannot resist His power (see 1 John 3:8). “Since therefore the children share in flesh in blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the Devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
How did the Son of God come to have a share in our flesh and blood so that He could rescue us from the demons? Through the human mother chosen for Him by God the Father. His flesh was taken from hers.
They tremble at the name of the humble woman whose consent to God allowed the Incarnation to take place, so that they were utterly vanquished and humiliated. She was the woman through whose holy Seed the head of the Serpent was crushed (see Genesis 3:15).
This isn’t just some kind of theological speculation. Exorcists will tell you from personal experience that demons speaking through their victims abhor the name of Mary as they do the name of Jesus, and the words of the Hail Mary prayer pound on them like a sledgehammer.
Lopez: What are you most grateful for about Mary?
Thigpen: I’m most grateful for her role in helping me enter the Catholic Church 23 years ago. I was once an ordained pastor in a non-denominational setting. Yet every encounter I had with her — reading about her in Scripture, hearing Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” seeing Michelangelo’s “Pieta” — awakened in me a sense of mystery and even longing. I began to suspect that she represented a whole world of spiritual depth in Christ that I had yet to explore.
I had much the same experience of the Blessed Virgin as G. K. Chesterton before his conversion, which he recalls in the essay “Mary and the Convert” (excerpted in my book): “I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the [Catholic] Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity. The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her.”
In the end, I couldn’t forget her, nor the Church where she stood at the front door waiting for me. My mother called me, and at last I came home.