Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

This is a very revealing line of the gospel, and it tells us something of Mary’s inner prayer life. She treasured all these things, all that the Shepherds said regarding the message told to them by the angel who appeared, and she pondered them in her heart. And Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. Where is Mary’s treasure? It’s in the gospel message of her son, and her heart was, from the very beginning and to the very end of her life, perfectly focused on her son, Jesus.

Mary is Theotokos, which means “God-bearer”. She carried Christ in her womb for nine months. That’s the longest holy communion in the history of the Church, said Mother Theresa. Mary alone could do that because, as the angel Gabriel revealed when he greeted her, she was “full of grace”. That was the title he used to address Mary. The angel did not address her by name; he said: “Hail, full of grace”. That is the only place in the entire Scriptures where an angel addresses anyone by a title. Mary was not merely in a state of grace—and we must keep in mind that grace is the infused supernatural presence of God within the soul, and it is not something we’re born with, everyone is born in need of divine grace, in need of a saviour—, Mary alone was conceived without the stain of Original Sin. She was full of grace right from the beginning, because if a container is full vertically, it is also full horizontally. If Mary was full of grace as a young teenager, worthy to be addressed by a title, then she was full of grace extensively as well, right from the womb of her Mother, St. Anne. And of course this has been the faith of the Church since the beginning.

If Mary was full of grace, then she was completely empty of all inordinate love of self. There was no place in her soul for even the slightest sin. And thus her prayer life was perfect, completely focused on her son, the eternal Son of God, the saviour of the world.

That is our purpose in this life: to become a Theotokos, a God-bearer, and John the Baptist expresses in words just what that means: “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3, 30). Mary does not use that expression, because she is perfectly decreased. She said it herself in her Magnificat: “The Lord has looked with favour upon the nothingness of his handmaiden.” She saw her creaturely nothingness, she accepted it totally, giving evidence that from the beginning there was complete room for the fullness of divine grace to be poured within her soul.

The rest of us, on the other hand, have to struggle to actually see and embrace our nothingness, to decrease, so that he, Christ, may increase within us. But that is something that we will never finally achieve in this life. We will never arrive, and the instant we believe that we have arrived—and believe me, there are people who really believe deep down, that they have arrived—, we simply stop growing, our intellect becomes darker, we lack self-awareness, and it is the beginning of the end of our vocation, whether we’re a bishop, priest, deacon, nun, or spouse. And there have been countless people from each of these who have lost their vocations, because they thought they’d arrived, stopped pondering “these things” in their hearts, their lives became too busy, and their prayer lives became distracted and fragmented.

I’ve been reading from the writings of the early Greek Desert Fathers, from the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, and I have to be honest, I’ve never encountered such profound instruction on the inner life, on prayer and the need for constant watchfulness. As I was reading this one day, very recently, the thought occurred to me. I said to myself: “I don’t think I pray very well.” I’ve been at this for 33 years now, totally focused on theology and spirituality, and I turned 50 this year, and I can say at this point that “I don’t think I pray well.”

And then I remembered something. My good friend, Monsignor Tom Wells of the Archdiocese of Washington D. C, about 14 years ago told me the very same thing. He said: “I’m beginning to realize that I don’t pray well”. He was in his mid-50s at the time, and I didn’t understand what he was talking about back then. It didn’t make sense to me; he was a very dedicated priest, did a holy hour every day, was loved by countless people, he’s a martyr of the Church, there is a large golf tournament in his name every year in Washington, there is the Monsignor Wells Society established after his death, there are about 20 priests Archdiocese of Washington whose vocations were inspired by this great priest, and he’s telling me that he is beginning to realize that he doesn’t pray very well.

We really don’t ever arrive. And then I recall another very holy and influential priest, in his 70s, asking me to pray for him, because, “the Lord is revealing to me things about myself that I’m finding very difficult to face, my superficiality, my pride, etc.…so pray for me, please, as I leave the country to see my spiritual director”. I was astounded at this; 70 years old, and this man is so far ahead of me on the spiritual life. We never arrive.

But we must keep moving, because although we might think we’re far advanced along the way, if we have the courage to ask God to let us know just how far along we are or what is it we need to become aware of in ourselves, He will slowly, gradually, piecemeal, reveal it. It has to be piecemeal, because we couldn’t take the full truth about ourselves, we’d probably despair. But it seems to me, from listening to these two great priests and the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, we’re always very far from our goal, so far that we just might despair if it were fully revealed to us.

The good news is that there is work to do, and our life can only become more joyful, because the more we decrease, the more He increases, and as He increases, our lives become more joyful and our souls become more beautiful.

I was in the sacristy of a Church in the U.S a few years ago, and I heard this small choir of a few young university students singing for a Mass. These were not professional singers, just amateurs. But the thought came to me as I heard them: “God must be really good to be sung to like that”. Their voices immediately directed my attention to God’s goodness. Again, they were not professional singers, just students on summer break and who were part of the regular choir during the year. And it wasn’t the type of music they were singing either; they were singing standard contemporary Church choir music.

Now one day last week I was home sick, so I turned on the television and came upon a Christmas concert, featuring Andre Bocelli, singing traditional Catholic hymns. And of course his voice is powerful, and he’s handsome, but I found that he was not all that inspiring. The reason is that I was so focused on the power and distinct quality of his voice. But after the commercial break, a bunch of monks were on stage (not real monks, I’m sure), but they were dressed in what looked like traditional Benedictine monastic habits, with the hoods up. And it sounded really good, and in fact I was inspired. I immediately turned up the volume and thought, great, I can feel this moving me upwards. And then the monks started moving around in a circle, and this one monk comes to the center. And I thought: “Oh, no, please, don’t let it be”. Yes, he pulls off the hood, and it’s Andre Bocelli, and he starts belting it out.

Well, I have to be honest, the inspiration just collapsed for me. Now the focus was entirely upon him, and yet these hymns were written to praise and glorify God, and the hoods of the monastic habits were for the purpose of eclipsing the self, of decreasing, so that He may increase. Even the voice of the monk is not to be distinctive and outstanding. But he pulls off his hood. Why? Well, because it’s really about him, not God. And I think that’s a real example of how beauty works; it emerges with the decrease of the self, but is eclipsed as the self increases.

Even in iconography, you are not supposed to sign the icon, as western artists sign their paintings. But iconographers in the west have begun to sign their icons at the back, and it’s something like “written through the humble hands of so and so”. Well, that’s not supposed to be. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, and icons are not supposed to be entirely original either. You learn the trade from a master, and stay within the tradition, but some people have a very hard time observing that self-cancellation, and so they sign their icons.

We must decrease, He must increase. The more we decrease, the more beautiful we become, because the more room we make in ourselves for Christ, and he is supremely beautiful. It’s really about becoming Theotokos, treasuring the right things in the heart, the Person of the Son, and keeping watch over our own tendency to distraction during prayer, not allowing any thought that gives rise to disordered passions, of which we are full, such as the passion of self-love, self-esteem, envy, anger, lust for power, lust for pleasure and ease, etc., which cause us to lose our focus in prayer. It’s about bringing stillness to the heart and focusing on the real treasure that is there waiting for us. The Lord delights when we pay so much attention to him, but our attention is often very short, thanks to a wandering thought that makes its way in. The secret to that splendour, the secret to real joy—and there is very little joy among us, a lot of pleasure and excitement, but very little joy—the secret to that joy is to become more and more like our Blessed Mother, Theotokos, God-bearer, still in the silent night of this life, pondering the miracle of Christ. Amen.